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Lloyd Pierce looking to establish defensive identity with Hawks

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The new head coach has set out what he wants his Atlanta Hawks side to look like on the court.

Chicago Cubs v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Identity...

The word has many different meanings/definitions but this one from the Cambridge Dictionary I think does the word solid justice:

‘Who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others...’

Qualities of a group that make them different from others...

All NBA teams — at least, all teams that strive to be good — (should) look to have an identity of some sort, i.e. what are they about? Do you know what they are and what they try to accomplish when they’re on the floor?

When Mike Budenholzer was named head coach of the Atlanta Hawks in 2013, he brought an identity with him from the San Antonio Spurs: a ball-movement offense, turning down a good shot for a great shot, making the extra pass...these are all phrases that Hawks fans will know all too well over the last five years — just unselfish basketball.

Anytime the Budenholzer-led Hawks stepped onto the floor, you knew what they looked to accomplish and knew what they represented.

Budenholzer’s recent split from Atlanta has obviously caused some divide among the fans — some are happy that now-former coach is gone and, on the flip side, some are understandably upset that the Hawks allowed someone who brought a legitimate identity (and saw success) to Atlanta out the door.

But the fact of the matter is that Budenholzer and his coaching ideals/philosophies are gone, and the Hawks needed to find a new head coach.

After interviewing a number of candidates, the Hawks eventually narrowed their search and appointed Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Lloyd Pierce as their new head coach.

Not everyone knew who Lloyd Pierce was, and those who had at least heard of him weren’t entirely sure what Pierce was about when it comes to coaching/leading a team. In the run-up to his introductory press conference, the general questions about Pierce as a head coach included: ‘What is he about? What is he looking to do at/bring to Atlanta? Is he the most handsome head coach in the NBA?’

(Alright, maybe not that last one...)

But as the big day finally arrived — and Pierce was publicly unveiled at the Hawks’ newest coach — Pierce established his main ideals and philosophies. And the top priority — at least in terms of an on-court identity — is going to be defense and establishing a defensive culture.

“Right from the start — we’re doing this press conference right now — I should probably have these guys doing some defensive drills,” said Pierce jokingly. “That’s who I am, that’s how I grew up in the NBA...”

Pierce spent two years with the Memphis Grizzlies from 2011 to 2013 as an assistant coach and would’ve worked with former head coach Lionel Hollins.

Hollins’ Grizzly teams possessed one of the NBA’s more memorable identity’s in the form of the ‘Grit n Grind’ Grizzlies — they were a hard-nosed defensive team who sucked the life out of their opponents with their suffocating defense and scored just about enough points to get by. Everyone knew what the Grizzles represented on the court and most teams hated playing against them.

Pierce called Hollins one of the “toughest” coaches he’s played under but learned a lot from Hollins and talks about him as one of his coaching influences, the one who instilled toughness and defense into his coaching.

“I spent two years in Memphis with Lionel Hollins, a guy that’s been around the NBA for a long time both as a player and a coach. One of the toughest coaches I’ve been around,” said Pierce of Hollins. “They were a top-2 defensive team in the two years I was there. And it’s his DNA, it’s his mentality, it’s his approach and it’s definitely what we’ll have here in Atlanta. Because my DNA is the same…”

In an exclusive interview with the Michael Cunningham of the AJC after that press conference, Pierce revealed that he oversaw everything defensively when it came to the Sixers. applying what he learned from Hollins in Memphis with the Sixers.

“Everything. And I say that with humility. [Sixers coach Brett Brown] empowered me to run our defense. I’m not taking credit from a selfish standpoint. He presented the opportunity to me, I think three years ago, and said I want to make you the single voice. I am going to rely on you to make the decisions, the executive decisions of what we do in-game and how we prepare. It was more of his empowerment than me leading. But he gave me full autonomy on what we were going to do on the defensive end whether it’s the drills, the game plan — I game-planned for all 82 games — the concepts and kind of creating that defensive culture. It’s been a huge responsibility. I don’t know how many assistant coaches in the league have had that responsibility to cover the entire defense and all 82 game preps. That was the role.”

For an assistant coach to be given such a huge role and responsibility as to oversee an entire team’s defensive scheme as Pierce was empowered with is unusual, and Pierce initially found it uncomfortable.

“...He empowered me to make those executive decisions,” said Pierce of Brett Brown. “During timeouts you will see me drawing up adjustments we may need and then he will come in and speak holistically about what he wants. But we split a lot of the time. I spent a lot of time doing everything. I would come out to the coaches’ huddle and he would say, ‘Go tell them what you need, go tell them our coverages, our concepts.’ The responsibility he gave to me was a little bit uncomfortable at first because I didn’t know how much he was really going to allow me to take. By the end, by the time I left, our communication still existed but he wanted that single (defensive) voice and he was the one that created that position for me.”

The Sixers ranked 3rd in defensive rating this season (trailing only the Boston Celtics and the Utah Jazz in that department), ranked 3rd in fewest opponent points in the paint per game, forced opponents to shoot a league-low 43% from the field and forced opponents to shoot the 2nd worst three-point percentage.

Personnel obviously dictates what you can do both offensively and defensively (part of the reason why the Hawks were as poor as they ever were defensively this season in the Budenholzer-era) and the Sixers possessed unique, game-changing talent to help them achieve what they did defensively this season.

“...The obvious (key) is Joel (Embiid) and his ability individually to protect the rim just with his size, his instincts, his defensive mindset,” Pierce told the AJC. “When you know that is your anchor and you have a backbone that’s out there, in a lot of ways we had the ability to get up and pressure the basketball more and funnel it to Joel and his rim percentage defense. I think we finished the season as the No. 1 field-goal percentage defense. Knowing we have an anchor it allows you to get up and pressure. Pressure takes you off the 3-point line, it funnels you down to the rim or it funnels you into a position where you have to settle for some of those mid-range shots. We use his and Amir Johnson’s ability at the rim to be great presenters. They were always great position guys. It’s not about just blocking shots. It’s more about the positioning. That allowed us to play a little more confidently on the perimeter.

One of the other things the Sixers do defensively well is being physical with their opponents and Pierce emphasized length and disruption.

“...You are not afraid of sending a 6-1 guard to the rim against Joel Embiid. A term we use a lot was, “Make them finish over length.” They may be rim attempts but they were rim attempts where we feel like we had the advantage. What you are afraid of is uncontested or late contested 3-point shot. Your DNA, your mental approach, your mentality, we wanted teams to feel us and denials disrupted their offense and that was the focus rather than what are the consequences (of getting beat). We will deal with the consequences when they come and we will have an ability to adjust and readjust. But we wanted teams to feel us defensively, we wanted them to finish over our length whether it’s individual coverage — Ben Simmons at point guard, we don’t need anyone to help. Let’s make a 6-2 point guard finish over a 6-10 defender. Some of those backdoors were almost to our advantage. You don’t want to give up layups but we have our coverages built in if they get there they are going to be finishing over 6-10 in Ben, some 6-9 in Dario (Saric), some 6-9 in (Robert) Covington, some 7-2 in Joel Embiid. We’ll take our chances.”

Michael Cunningham asked some great questions to Lloyd Pierce and got some great answers. I apologize for using a lot of these heavy quotes from the two Q & A articles from Michael Cunningham but when we’re dealing with a new coach and finding out what he’s about, his coaching philosophies — and just to hear him speak — these are really good to have as reference (and, again, props to Cunningham).

From Part 2 of Cunningham’s exclusive interview with Pierce:

Q. Your Sixers team this season was called for a lot of fouls (second-highest opponent free-throw attempt rate). You mentioned in the news conference that you want your team to be physical, so does that mean you live with the fouls?

A. I love it. I love it. There are some things that you are going to have to give up to be a No. 1, No. 2 team in field-goal-percentage defense. There is a sense of urgency on your closeouts where you are just taking people off the 3-point line. There’s a sense of urgency of coming over to protect the rim. We were big in our “N.F.L.” And it was a no-layup mentality. You can figure out what the “F” meant. That mentality, that approach defensively, if at all costs it means they aren’t going to be shooting a layup and they’ll be shooting free throws? We’ll live with it. What we didn’t want are easy opportunities at the rim, or because we were late on closeouts and we didn’t feel like we can corral and take away space. So the mentality of how we wanted to play, the physicality of how we want to play, we live with (the fouls). Here’s the flip side. We go into the playoffs this year and we did talk about talking about defending without fouling. (But) we went into a series wanting to foul even more. We want to be even more physical because we understand this is the playoffs and the referees understand this is the playoffs. They are going to let you get away with a little bit more. They don’t want to disrupt the game. So we didn’t mind being more physical, grabbing and holding a little bit more. We wanted to get underneath the guys, we wanted to be physical, we wanted to be in their bodies. We were encouraging the guys not to foul, but to play more physical, and if that were the consequences, so be it.

Let me try bring this around... The Sixers are long, athletic and multi-dimensional in some cases. This allows Pierce to dictate and establish a lot of different defensive styles and characteristics with the Sixers — the detail of which Pierce has done a very good job laying out on the table with his answers.

Basically, the things that Philly liked to do defensively were switch, play tight defense on the perimeter — funnelling the offense toward the paint/Joel Embiid — attempt to prevent perimeter passes, play very physical but disciplined defense, prevent layups/points in the paint, direct the opposition to their length if they could and try and force the opposition into long two-pointers.

Having someone like Joel Embiid on your team allows you to play a certain way defensively. Pierce and the Sixers didn’t mind if they were hit by backdoor cuts (a by-product of their tight defense) because Embiid is there to snuff out any potential danger — he’s an obvious game-changer on the defensive end.

The Hawks, shall we say, don’t have a Joel Embiid-type of defender (and not many teams in the league do either) and they don’t have a 6 foot 10 inch point guard in Ben Simmons. When Pierce was asked about the Hawks’ personnel and if they have any players that would allow the Hawks to play a similar defensive style to the Sixers, he deflected somewhat, refusing to go into specifics.

“They are NBA players,” said Pierce. “They are competitors. They are athletes. It’s a mind game. It’s preparation, the education of the NBA. How do you take away strengths and impose your will to force weaknesses when you are playing your opponent? All of these guys have the ability. And that’s why I speak so much on the defensive end. All of these guys have the ability to do that. I can’t guarantee that we are going to make 20 3’s every night. I can’t guarantee that everybody is going to be a 60 percent 3-point shooter. I can guarantee you that we can put forth the effort on the defensive end and bring the mentality to compete on the defensive end.”

Personnel dictates. The things that Pierce did in Philadelphia he might not be able to bring the exact same defensive schemes/strategies with the Hawks because of the differing personnel the Hawks have and their defensive capabilities.

However, while personnel is out of Pierce’s control, Pierce asks (and answers) the question off ‘What can we control?’

“...I think that’s an important aspect anytime you’re trying to develop a culture is just ‘what can you control?’ And it’s your effort: we want to attack the day every single day from start to finish. We want to start building habits that we can create, and a lot of that is going to be on me and my staff and as we’re figuring that out the messaging to the players is going to be there: it’s going to be our defensive DNA, it’s going to be our impressions of how to be a competitive team while we’re developing, while we’re growing. How do we create these habits? It’s through competition, it’s through repetition. It’s something that we’ll preach and teach everyday.”

While Pierce won’t have such a reliable defensive anchor in Joel Embiid, the things that more than likely won’t change when it comes to Pierce’s defensive schemes/ideas in Atlanta is that the Hawks are going to taught to be physical and disciplined. They’re going to compete, practice and play hard — Pierce referenced ‘sweat equity’ on a numbers of occasions during his introductory press conference.

It’s going to be (and this is not an attempted pun) a process that is going to take time (and it does take time to establish an identity wherever you are) but Pierce and his eventual coaching staff are going to be there for every step along the way.

Lloyd Pierce will coach the Hawks at Utah Summer League — where a considerable number of his possible final roster might be in action too — and it’s there where everyone will learn a bit more about the defensive schemes that Pierce will look to implement in Atlanta.

Ball movement was the name of the game under Mike Budenholzer. Defense is the new name of the game under Lloyd Pierce.