With a 19-44 record in early March, it would be fair to suggest that the 2019-20 season hasn’t been a home run for the Atlanta Hawks. Along the way, encouraging steps have been taken — ranging from Trae Young’s full-fledged star breakout to growth from other youthful pieces — but the Hawks will enter their 64th game with the NBA’s fourth-worst record. In the results-driven world of professional basketball, the standings paint a certain picture and, even with context sorely needed to analyze a young team that is future-facing in nature, the Hawks haven’t set the world on fire as a team this season.
To that end, it may seem like a mild surprise to hear the team’s head coach, Lloyd Pierce, openly discussing expectations for a playoff push in 2020-21 but, on Wednesday afternoon, the 43-year-old didn’t shy away from that baseline. In some sense, it would make sense that the next step of the team’s overall rebuild would be a real challenge for the postseason in year three of the era centered on Young as the organization’s centerpiece, but it is another thing entirely to state it for the record, all while staring at a bleak number in the standings of the current campaign.
“This team is a playoff team and I told our guys today,” Lloyd Pierce said at Atlanta’s practice on Wednesday. “We’re a playoff team. The guys in that room that will be back here understand that. Now it’s about understanding what that means.”
“I’m not an excuse guy,” Pierce continued. “I’m not making any excuses for our season. We’re 9 games out with 19 to go. Slim chances. That doesn’t mean we can’t start really processing what does it take for us to become a playoff team. We have to be grittier. We have to be more about team. We have to be more about the commitment to making each other better. We have a ton of talent in that room. You read that book [referring to ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth], it’s talent times effort that gets you achievement. So we’ve got to combine all of our talent with a relentless effort and a relentless pursuit of making each other better and holding each other accountable.”
“He said exactly that,” John Collins said when prompted of Pierce’s viewpoint on Atlanta’s playoff focus for 2020-21. “He made a couple of points that I agree with about this team and what we need to do to prepare for that time, and I think he’s absolutely right.”
Atlanta’s highs have been quite high in 2019-20, with victories over playoff-caliber teams like the Nuggets, 76ers, Heat, Pacers and Mavericks. However, the team has also faced consistency issues, headlined by a 39-point home drubbing at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday evening. Though Collins was sure to point out that he believed Pierce would have addressed the team in similar fashion even without that result, the message of consistency feels particularly spot-on in this moment of the journey.
“Coach had a lot of good points in the meeting but one of them was consistency for sure,” Collins said. “How important that is for a team to win consistently in that they have consistent habits. They tend to do things over and over again, kind of like as a ritual. He kind of just compared us to some of the other teams who he thought did a great job with that and wanted us to learn from them, and maybe add that to our repertoire.”
Prior to the 2019-20 campaign, some predicted that the Hawks could challenge for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Even with acknowledgement that it was at least slightly aggressive to foresee that, the jump made by Young — in addition to other factors — makes it easy to dream on what might have been if not for setbacks along the way. With that in mind, the East’s path is generally clearer than that of the West and it seems as if Atlanta is well aware of that when plotting the course for next season.
“There are a bunch of indicators for this team. I’d say the first one is to look at the East and the standings,” Collins said. “If you look at the teams, I feel like we’re not that far away.... so I feel like even if we were to make a run at the end of the year, a huge run to be in contention, we would still be right there. In the West, it would take much more for us. I feel like, if you look past that and you look at the injuries we’ve had, the roster change and turnover we’ve had, the extra guys that we brought in, the suspension that I had myself. Add all those things into this team and you look at what we can do when we have a healthy team next season, and hopefully more chemistry and experience, it’s a real positive thing to think about.”
The Hawks do have 19 games remaining and, even if the team announced some slightly discouraging news about the return timeline of Clint Capela and Skal Labissiere on Wednesday, Atlanta does have the opportunity to build in a positive direction. The team’s rest-of-season schedule is famously favorable and, above and beyond that, the Hawks have a young, talented group that can coalesce to provide further optimism.
“Of course,” Collins said when asked if the new mindset and focus begins now. “You like to try to have a conversation like that and start to apply everything that you just talked about as soon as you get back on the court. It doesn’t always work like that, but I think a small thing is to just start the habits and the little things, the details, that we talked about in that film room. Hopefully that sort of bleeds out onto the court and it can sort of get us into those moments.”
While effort has waned and waned at times (including and especially on Monday), the Hawks have been a confident group, with Young at the forefront and Pierce repeatedly pushing back on any prompt concerning the wavering of confidence for players like Cam Reddish. That self-belief can be quite useful, and it seems as if the team can draw from it in the next few months.
“It shows that we have a lot of confidence,” Collins said on what it says that the group believes they can turn it around toward a playoff push next season. “I feel like we’re definitely an extremely talented team. Another thing that I think it shows is that we truly like each other. We have chemistry and I feel like that goes a long way, especially when you have a young core and you want to build for that team in the future. Having guys who truly want to be around each other helps tenfold.”
If nothing else, Wednesday’s public-facing sentiment was certainly different and, in Pierce’s words, he believes it was received differently inside the locker room, simply because it wasn’t something that was spoken in such plain terms previously.
“It was great,” Pierce said. “I said it and Trae’s head shook. De’Andre Hunter looked up, got out of his seat and looked forward. They haven’t heard me say that before. They’ve heard me talk about preparing to win. There are a lot of phases we have to go through to prepare to win games that De’Andre and Cam didn’t know about at the beginning of the season. So I think I caught them off guard a little bit just by saying that. They haven’t heard me talk about wins and playoffs. But that’s where we are. We’re at a point where that’s more important for our growth. We’ve gotta get out of development and transitioning to what it takes to win games. It’s more than just the individual. It’s our team, as a whole, really coming together, pushing each other holding each other accountable.”
“We know what we have returning,” said Pierce. “We’ll look and see what else is added, but the guys we have returning have been together enough, enjoy being with each other, believe they’re a playoff team and want it. We got to change the mindset to that and really start approaching it that way. It’s still not expectations, it’s just a belief. The guys believe. They believed it this year. But I want them to hold each other accountable.”
For the Hawks, the future is still more important than the present and, while that isn’t an excuse for the team’s performance this season, it does serve as an explanation. In the grand scheme, that doesn’t change for the 2020-21 specifically but, for the first time in a public form, Pierce made it clear that, even if expectation isn’t the word he’d use, the playoffs are the focus for next season.
“Everything that we do is about our team progressing and going forward,” Pierce said. “Next year, the progression is playoffs. That’s just a natural step. I’m not afraid to say it. Holding each other accountable, me holding them accountable, and them holding me accountable is very important for a team to be successful.”