More than three weeks have passed since the NBA announced the suspension of the 2019-20 season. The Atlanta Hawks were in the middle of a home game against the New York Knicks when the announcement arrived but, since then, the team has been out of action and, in accordance with social distancing practices implemented from coast to coast, Lloyd Pierce and his team are operating in an altered state along with the rest of the country and much of the world.
On Friday morning, Pierce caught up with a small media contingent, providing a window into what life is currently like for the head coach and some insight into how the organization is functioning during these challenging times. Though there were myriad topics discussed in the conversation — one that extended for more than an hour — one of the top-line thoughts reflected what many die-hard basketball fans are pondering at the moment.
Namely, Pierce was asked whether believes the NBA will be able to resume the season.
“I think my answer, at best, is hypothetical,” Pierce said. “You go back and forth every day in terms of what you think, and I honestly feel that. I spoke to a number of coaches last night on a group chat session just like this — David Fizdale, J.B. Bickerstaff, Phil Handy, Jamal Mosley — there was a crew of us on this, and we’re all different. It’s really a hypothetical answer, it’s a hypothetical question.
“My gut feeling is, based on just seeing when we think there will be some form of normalcy, when will the curve flatten, I think there will be an attempt to resume the season in some capacity,” Pierce continued. “I think the NBA is probably having conversations on a daily basis as to what that attempt may look like. I don’t know what those conversations are, but I think there will at least be an attempt to resume the season.”
At a different point in the discussion, Pierce acknowledged that everyone wants basketball to return, with varying incentives, but there is an obvious and overarching feeling of uncertainty in how that transpires.
“I think everyone, for a lot of different reasons, wants the season to resume,” said Pierce. “I think everyone does. There’s a financial component, there’s a basketball component, everything. Some days I just look at it and say ‘I have no idea how this is gonna happen.’
The team is meeting regularly through Zoom which, ironically, was the same medium in which Pierce met with reporters on Friday. Those gathering include a now-weekly meeting with players on Sundays and the reality that Pierce, as a linchpin of the organization, is participating in virtual gatherings that feature many different components.
“I’ve become a master of this Zoom app,” Pierce said. “It’s been a constant. I think I’ve literally had a meeting every morning for the past ten days of some capacity. Whether it’s our team, our coaches, front office, town hall, we met with some other coaches from the league last night, just playing catch-up. This is the new reality. I’m adjusting well and enjoying some family time.”
As far as the players are concerned, logistics are challenging. Pierce noted that younger guys, with Cam Reddish as a specific example, don’t have access to gyms due to apartment living, whereas Trae Young is able to get shots up at his home in Oklahoma and some players — Jeff Teague, Kevin Huerter and Brandon Goodwin, to name a few — are at least able to get to a gym in some capacity through various connections.
Pierce, who said that he is “probably 30-40 percent basketball, at most” right now in terms of his attention and time, made it clear that it would be “bad management” for him to push players to attempt to find gyms. Instead, the coaching staff is trying to influence players to expand their horizons, with basketball study of film and an injection of learning that could help them on and off the floor.
“They want that feeling back,” Pierce said of the players. “They want that routine back. They want that discipline back. They want that competition, that challenge back. … When we get back to normalcy, hopefully we’re all a little bit better in taking it less for granted than we may have before.”
When prompted, Pierce did reflect on some basketball-related activity, shedding light on the established process with President of Basketball Operations Travis Schlenk and how the pairing is accustomed to essentially traveling together for draft preparations, beginning in May, over the first two years of their partnership. He indicated that, as of now, Pierce isn’t digging deep into the draft, though Schlenk and his staff are breaking the draft class up into five-prospect sessions to discuss them, with different staffers leading each gathering.
Still, there is a league-wide question when it comes to how the pre-draft process will materialize, even if the NBA (like the NFL) continues its offseason programming on a relatively “normal” schedule.
“We won’t have the same access that we’ve had in the past, in terms of bringing in players, working out players, evaluating players,” Pierce said. “We missed that window of opportunity with Travis (Schlenk) and his staff to go out and scout. So there’s one element that’s already gone.
“At best, we’ll be able to see a group of guys in the gym one day, like they do in Chicago,” Pierce continued. “I don’t know. I think the draft has to continue. I think, like everything else, the reality of when that will be is gonna be the more important question. We all want to get back to normalcy, we all want to move forward. Whether it’s games being played, the draft occurring, the season ending and we just start preparing for what next season looks like. Whatever the return to normalcy looks like, all of those things still have to go into play.”
From a roster standpoint, Pierce was open in saying “we need to add shooting and we need to improve shooting,” all while bringing things back to an emphasis that includes the team’s “core five” of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and John Collins. Pierce shared that “there’s gonna be a major shift for our team moving forward, and the focus starts with our core five and the evaluation is about each guy’s growth individually.”
Basketball was certainly not at the forefront of the interaction on Friday, however, and that was impossible to ignore. Even in light-hearted moments discussing Netflix’s mega-hit documentary series Tiger King — with a hat-tip to SI’s Ben Ladner, the AJC’s Sarah Spencer and The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner — there was a sense that, well, nothing was exactly normal about the format.
In some ways, Pierce seemed to be happy to engage with the media in a friendly setting and, to put it plainly, Atlanta’s head coach is an excellent conversationalist, especially when compared to the majority of people that hold his current position across the league. In the end, though, it was a reminder of the uncertainty that awaits the NBA world, even if it is an uncertainty that stretches well beyond professional sports.
In one simple reflection on what his summer was supposed to hold, Pierce may have summed things up best. He shared that the entire summer was essentially planned to a meticulous degree but, well, none of that is going to happen — at least on schedule — at this point.
“All of those things are now erased,” Pierce said. “It’s a new timeline, whatever the timeline may be, and we have to adjust.”