After a 24-58 season that kicked off the team’s rebuild in 2017-18, the Atlanta Hawks and Mike Budenholzer parted ways. With then-general manager Travis Schlenk making his first major hire after one year on the job, the Hawks conducted an intriguing search largely made up of young, up-and-coming assistant coaches that could lead the franchise’s on-court product into its next phase. In May 2018, the Hawks hired Lloyd Pierce for his first head coaching position in the NBA and, prior to the conclusion of his first contract with the organization, word broke Tuesday afternoon that Atlanta was moving in a different direction.
“We would like to thank Lloyd for his work and commitment to not only the Hawks organization but the city of Atlanta. He and his wife, Melissa, are tremendous people who have made a positive impact throughout the city,” Hawks president of basketball operations Travis Schlenk said. “We have high expectations for our team on the court and we believe by making this change now that we can have a strong second half of the season.”
After a 4-1 start, the Hawks have struggled, even with mounting injuries as a significant factor. Atlanta finished 4-11 in the month of February, and Pierce was let go before the team’s first game in March.
The 44-year-old Pierce joined Atlanta after serving on the staff of the Philadelphia 76ers under Brett Brown, and he arrived with a sterling reputation for player development and defensive aptitude. However, the Hawks finished with a 49-100 record in his first two seasons at the helm and, even when accounting for mismatched personnel, the heat was seemingly on Pierce as the 2020-21 season loomed.
In March 2020, Pierce made waves by declaring his goals of reaching the 2021 postseason, and the Hawks made substantial moves during the off-season with an eye toward that goal. Atlanta’s roster has battled myriad injury issues throughout Pierce’s third season, but the team also struggled to close games in the fourth quarter, which could be seen as a reason for his dismissal.
On Feb. 25, Pierce spoke to Jeff Schultz of The Athletic and indicated that his hire date “was the first day I was on the hot seat.” In addition, Pierce reflected on the reality that he would likely be fired at some point, saying he would “love to be the next (Gregg Popovich),” but “the reality is it’s very rare.”
“Travis (Schlenk) is going to fire me one day,” Pierce told Schultz. “And do you know what I’m going to say? The guy gave me a great opportunity in life. Do you think I’m going to be pissed? He’s damn near my best friend. I’m eternally thankful for his belief in me, and ultimately the decisions he has to make are always going to be about the organization, but I’m eternally grateful for the belief and the confidence that he has had in me. That’s the beauty of this. That’s why there’s no pressure or stress. I have a job to fulfill. I have to hold all the responsibilities and standards towards me, and I understand that. That’s the job.”
Pierce will be replaced, at least on an interim basis, by Nate McMillan, though the Hawks did not announced that decision formally.
Initially, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the team was “hopeful” to have McMillan step in.
Sources: The Hawks are hopeful assistant Nate McMillan will choose to become the interim head coach. McMillan is meeting with Lloyd Pierce and rest of Hawks coaching staff now. McMillan has been fiercely loyal in his support of Pierce.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) March 1, 2021
Later in the evening, Wojnarowski indicated that McMillan accepted the interim job.
ESPN Sources: Nate McMillan has accepted the interim head coaching job with the Hawks. McMillan has a 667-591 (.530) record in 16 seasons as head coach with Seattle, Portland and Indiana.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) March 1, 2021
The 56-year-old McMillan has 16 seasons as an NBA head coach, beginning with a five-season stint with the Seattle SuperSonics before seven seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers. Before joining Atlanta’s staff prior to the 2020-21 season, McMillan was the head coach of the Indiana Pacers for four seasons, compiling a 183-136 record and reaching the postseason in all four campaigns.