Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce joined the HoopsHype podcast and discussed a wide range of topics. Pierce discussed life outside the bubble, his relationship with Trae Young, and free agency for Atlanta. We also touched on other topics, including whether his former players Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can co-exist long-term with the Philadelphia 76ers and Steve Nash college stories from their days together at Santa Clara. While recording this episode, Jim Boylen was fired by the Chicago Bulls, so Pierce gave his reaction on the spot. Take a listen to the podcast above or read a transcribed version below.
For you and the Hawks, what have you guys been doing outside the NBA bubble right now daily as you get ready for next season?
Lloyd Pierce: This is a very unusual time for anyone, but specifically with regards to us and basketball and not being in Orlando and our season being cut short. It’s the most time we’ve all been away from basketball collectively and individually. It took us two months to really figure out what was going to happen. Then, when Georgia opened up and the NBA started allowing teams to allow players back in the facility, we’ve been working since May 8th. We’ve had a good number of our guys in our facility consistently from May 8th on, and it’s been 45 minutes on the court for a couple of weeks, and then it transitioned to 45 minutes on the court and 45 minutes in the weight room. We’ve kind of maintained that schedule since May 8th. We’ve given a couple of weeks here and there for mental and physical breaks. For the most part, I’ve been encouraged and proud of our guys, the guys that have been here in Atlanta that have been doing that on a very consistent basis. It’s not easy, it’s not fun. There’s no versatility, but they have been diligent.
You talked about mental breaks. For you and the players, what’s it been like to get back in the gym for your mental health and psyche during these uncertain times?
LP: It’s the closest thing we have to normalcy. To be able to wake up and have something on your agenda that requires you to get out of the house is about as close to normal as we can make it. For our coaches specifically, those guys are able to come in and be in the gym for three hours, four hours at times. That’s normal. That’s kind of what we’re used to. We’ve been away from it for about two months. It just feels good to come into the gym. We’re wearing masks, we’re wearing the gloves. There is no contact, but we’re in the gym. I think that that feels great, breaks up the day and gives us something to look forward to, but also keeps us connected and bonded with our guys.
Because you guys needed to use Zoom, especially earlier in the pandemic, you brought on some guest speakers that are former coaches in other sports like John Gruden, Tony Dungy, Herm Edwards, and even Tony Ressler. What was the thought process getting those guys to talk to your squad?
LP: There’s so much going on in our world. I’m a curious learner and thinker. I’m always trying to figure out ways to connect with different people of different sectors and just learn and listen. This time has given us an opportunity to really do that as a team, but as a staff and for myself. I just wanted to try and make every meeting and every opportunity that we had with our players somewhat enlightening, keep it fun, keep it educational, keep it informative, but be different. We’ve been meeting twice a week on Thursdays at 5:00 PM and Sundays at 5:00 PM. We’re going to take a break on that until mid-September at the earliest. Each week, it’s hard to find what to talk about. I thought it’d be cool to have some fun and bring some different guests on and everybody’s living on zoom now, so it actually hasn’t been that hard to get the amount of guests that we’ve had from the coaches in the NFL. Tony’s been on a number of our meetings as a guest speaker to catch up or as a listener to some of our other guest speakers. We’ve had Chris Tucker, Spice Adams, Ernie Johnson, Mayor Keisha Bottoms (Atlanta), Stacey Abrams. It’s been fun. It’s been educational. Grant Hill takes in some of the meetings as well as one of our minority owners. It keeps us connected. It keeps us educated, and it keeps the meetings unpredictable, which I think is really the greatest challenge of it all.
You mentioned it’s hard to find what to talk about during these times. You wrote on The Players’ Tribune about becoming an activist and being in Atlanta specifically, what have you talked with your players about regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, things going on in the country during the protest and the pandemic?
LP: We’ve had some emotional conversations. We’ve had good open dialogue. I did forget to mention one other person that’s been on our calls and that was Junior Bridgeman. That was probably one of our better calls. Just the enlightenment education he gave us as a former NBA player in the financial world and business world, which was really great for our guys to hear. The conversations off the court have been plenty. We’ve talked a lot about my feelings, how I felt initially when the George Floyd incident occurred, and the Amy Cooper incident occurred in New York in the park. We talked about what I felt was needed, which is to be open, to be vulnerable and not afraid to express frustration, anger, fear, concerns that I have as a black man. We have a team that’s predominantly black, with the exception of Kevin Huerter. It’s also been an extremely enlightening and educational period for him. The conversation has really surfaced around what’s going on in our country. It’s gone a few different places. Our guys aren’t extremely vocal, but they’re smart, they’re high character guys, they’re listening, learning and understanding. They’re trying to figure out all of this as we all are at the same time. I just felt like it’d be great to have some conversations about what the players in the bubble are doing, what our guys think, and take it from there as if we were there and in that position. What would we do? Just speaking openly about equality, racism, systemic racism, politics. That’s why we had Mayor Keisha (Bottoms) and Stacey Abrams on to really educate us about voting and understanding politics a little bit, what they do, some of the challenges that they have and what we should be doing with our platform as athletes and coaches in the league.
You’ve also become an NBA committee leader on racial justice and reform within the coaching community. You’ve got a group together with Steve Kerr, Quin Snyder, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Brett Brown, J.B. Bickerstaff, and former coaches Stan Van Gundy and David Fizdale. What is your goal with that committee?
LP: We’re basically all in it together. It’s really every coach. It isn’t just a committee. It’s all 30 of our coaches, and the former coaches, Stan, Mike Brown, David Fizdale, and Kenny Atkinson. All of those guys have been active in our meetings as well. The committee was really just kind of the brainstorming group that we could meet a little more often and share some ideas about what we can do as coaches to really rally each other and educate our players about steps, conversations, education, the necessary dialogue that we need to have to be a part of the solution and change, to use our platform with proper context. We’ve really just tried to commit ourselves to connect with the right people, organizations, both nationally and locally, and really trying to blend our resources, our access, their information, their knowledge, and put together a plan that can enact change in 30 NBA cities, and be a model as an organization of coaches, players, ownership, and league of what we want to see our country look like. The ability to coexist in a way that is necessary. The way we have to in sports is really our goal. How do we bridge the gap in our community so that police and young people of color don’t feel like they’re aliens to one another, and they can’t communicate, and communication doesn’t have to lead to arrest or death all the time? What can we do to be a part of that change to be a part of those solutions to create tough conversations? That’s what we’re focused on.
We’ve seen some of those guys, especially Popovich and Doc Rivers, talk about things going on in society during press conferences. Speaking of coaches, I don’t know if you’ve seen this as we’re recording this podcast, but Jim Boylen was let go by the Bulls. What goes through your mind when you see another coach gets fired?
LP: For me, it’s disturbing. It’s upsetting. Jim’s a great man. I know the challenges that he was facing as a coach with a team that’s similarly young to ours. You’re trying to get that thing going. It’s not always the easiest task at hand when you’re dealing with the media, social media, young players, and the expectations of everyone. Everyone wants to win, and everyone wants to win right now. I know the position. I’m in the position, but we all know as coaches that this is the job we’re in. We understand the expectations that come with the job. We understand the seriousness of those expectations, and we take on the task knowing that. I think Jim will be fine. He’ll land on his feet soon. He was granted a great opportunity. I hope nothing but the best for him. I also understand this is our business, so it is what it is sometimes.
You mentioned social media, having to win, and being tasked with a rebuilding project. It seems now more than ever, it’s important for a coach to have a really good relationship with his star player. For you, that guy is Trae Young. How would you describe your relationship with Trae and the balancing act of coaching an All-Star in today’s NBA?
LP: The balancing act is the job. You want to be able to connect with all your players. You definitely need to connect with your star player. You have to balance the challenge of connecting with and coaching up. When you take on young players, similar to what we had in Philly and obviously what we have here in Atlanta, when you’re coaching young players, your commitment to their development and growth is on and off the court. Trae’s at an age, turning 22 next month in September, where he’s coming into his own not only as a player but as a man. Buying houses for the first time, being on his own, financial security. All of those things are happening at once. I definitely want to be a part of him understanding how to balance work, play, social life, as a star player. He’s a star player, he’s the face of a franchise right now. He’s an All-Star in his second year. He’s headed for greatness. You want to be able to challenge him to achieve all of those things seamlessly, if possible. When those bumps in the road occur, be able to handle them accordingly. It isn’t just about having a great relationship; it’s about having an honest relationship. It’s having a relationship of trust. I tell all my players, I hope none of you guys trust me when we meet each other. I hope you all trust me as we go through everything because you can see the commitment that I have to their development. You can see the commitment that I have to their growth, and that’s where the trust should come from. It shouldn’t just come from the fact that I’m the head coach. I need to earn it. I need to earn it by being truthful, honest, and committed to their development. Our relationship has been just that, trying to help him grow, trying to help him see things that maybe he doesn’t see, and then trying to help him apply things that we want to see in the future of leadership, advancement, things of that nature. We’re at this period where we’re trying to form this partnership, we’re trying to grow this partnership because our goals are aligned. We want to win. We want greatness. We want it sooner than later. We also know we have to go through the necessary rigors and steps as an organization and for him as a player without skipping those steps, or trying to advance too quickly. It’s been great because he has advanced fairly quickly, but I think he’s taken the necessary steps as well.
You touched on the social media aspect of being a head coach. I know you have a Twitter account. How does social media affect you as a head coach daily?
LP: Not one bit. I look at it. It doesn’t affect me. I don’t have thin skin. I’m fine. I’m on social media because I choose to. I actually like criticism. I actually like controversy. For me, I tell our guys all the time, and I tell our local media this all the time, this is basketball. This comes with the territory. You go into the barbershop, guys in my barbershop, they killed me. ‘Hey coach, what’s going on, coach?’ As soon as I walk in. I grew up on that. That’s easy. If you bring it to me, expect it back. We’ve had season ticket holder events and postgame events where I’m meeting with fans. Season ticket holder events are great because they’re at Top Golf, they’re at a brewery or different events and people get a couple of drinks in them and, ‘Hey, coach. Can I ask you a question?’ Sure. Go ahead. You ask candidly, I’m going to answer candidly. I think the respect has grown, especially when you can have interaction with someone. On social media, I don’t interact with everyone. I’m also not going to shy away from the fact that someone’s going to be critiquing everything that I do. That comes with the territory. I’m good. I got no problem with that. I go on social media, and I critique all the politicians and all the stupid stuff I see as well. I try and keep it to my own thoughts. I don’t really send it over the waves too much, but it’s natural. It’s what we do. As a head coach, even if I didn’t see it, I know it’s out there. It still wouldn’t bother me. It still doesn’t bother me because it is just sport. It is just basketball. I think 2020, if any year, has shown us there are greater things in life that we have to and should be concerned about. Basketball is our escape. It’s what we do. It’s a way of life. It’s been very transformative for me and the opportunities that it’s given me, but it’s just basketball. When you’re talking about this virus, you’re talking about the racial injustice, you’re talking about inequalities that we have in our country, those things really bother me. Those things concern me. Those are the things that get under my skin. Those are the things that I’m really committed to speaking up on and speaking out against.
I can imagine your barber gives you a shorter buzz if they get heated.
LP: It’s all out of respect. I think when you can go back and forth with someone, and this is a competition. If I go to the barbershop, and those are my guys, they’ll come in and say, ‘Man, coach, I didn’t have it last night. What was up with that?’ I’m not an excuse guy. I’m just going to take it. When the tables turn, they’re also going to be the same people that’s gonna say, ‘Coach, man, I gotta give you credit. We stuck with you. You stuck with it. Everything worked out.’ I think critics understand that too. Some people are just going to hate. I can’t control that. I think some people want to critique because they want a challenge. They want to see the challenge. They want to see things change, and they’re going to critique until they are. Then, when things do change, passionate fans are loyal. Passionate fans will speak up and say, “Hey, we were wrong. We’re glad you stuck with it.’ That’s sports. That’s just how it is.
John Collins got suspended. You made the trade for Clint Capela, but he didn’t get to play for you guys. You mentioned the younger guys like Kevin Huerter as part of the core and younger guys with Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter. What did you take away from this season?
LP: You mentioned a few things. That’s what happens in sports is you end up with a suspension. You end up with the trade, and a player is injured. You end up with, and this is not in sport, this is in society, you end up with a shortened season. For me, it’s my second year, and when you’re building through the draft, and you bring on a lot of young guys, these are the necessary steps that we chose to take as an organization. Do you want to? No. No one wants to go through injuries and suspensions. I think, for the most part, when we were healthy, it was fun, really promising, and encouraging to see what our guys are capable of doing. We feel, if some luck comes our way and our guys are all healthy and together for a long period of time, we’ll be fine with the stuff that we can control. The stuff that we can’t control that comes our way, we have to work through. We were able to work through some of that this year. I think you saw Trae’s development because we were short-handed. He put more on his shoulders, and he can handle more. When John came back, he had a lot to prove, and he did. He averaged 21 (points) and 10 (rebounds) on 40 percent from three, 80 percent from the line, and almost 60 percent from the field. When Cam and De’Andre got their opportunities early, they were overwhelmed. But, because of those opportunities, they also were able to grow throughout the year. They’re pretty seasoned as first-year players with the amount of minutes that they were able to play. You go through each guy, and you say, ‘We’ll be alright.’ Each guy got an opportunity to grow. In sports, there are always going to be some adverse times and adverse situations. We went through a bunch of it this year. I’m not holding that back. That’s just what happens. If that’s the luck of the draw for me, then I just got dealt a bad hand. I got a great hand. I got a great hand of young guys, I’m very encouraged by those young guys. I can’t wait for us all to be together because I think we can do something really special with this group.
I’m curious to see where Cam Reddish goes next season.
LP: I call him Cam Motherf—— Reddish because I think he’s a bad man. I think he’s really going to turn out to be something extremely special. I want him to have the toughest mentality. I want him to think he’s the greatest player in the NBA. I want him to believe it because he’s got an opportunity with this potential, his skill set, his size, his confidence, he’s got an opportunity to really do something special. I’m trying to really bring that out of him. He’s a young guy. He’s only 20 years old. It’s scary. But we all want it now. That’s the challenge, but I’m going to be patient with him. I’m also going to challenge him to get the most out of everything he has.
Another part of your job is the constant communication you have with your GM Travis Schlenk and your owner, Tony Ressler. How often are you in conversations with Travis and Tony?
LP: Travis and I have short conversations daily. He’ll send his joke my way. I’ll send my complaint or criticism his way one day and we’ll laugh everything off, or we’ll just strategize on what we should be doing right now. We talk about everything. I think the strength of our relationship has been that we keep each other up to date on both of our worlds because they’re all going to overlap. If I need to know something about Kevin Huerter, Travis got the information from his agent. It’s a good heads up. It’s a really positive relationship to have, so no one’s really ever caught off guard. It’s been great that we can have those short conversations and often conversations about where our guys are, what we should be doing, what we’re planning, what some thoughts may be down the line. It’s also good because of the understanding of who we are as an organization and team in our second year, going into our third year. Having that vertical alignment with Travis and Tony, that we can relate to our players about where we are, what our plans are, what we should be doing, what we’re thinking. I think that that’s a sign of a healthy and positive organization. If someone is ready to move in a different direction, at least it’s communicated, thought about, and talked about. Tony and Travis obviously speak more of a diverse conversation. It’s not just the team, it’s more about the organization, the team, everything, especially with COVID, safety issues, things of that nature. Tony, Travis, myself, Grant Hill, we meet every other Wednesday for about an hour over zoom and we just catch up on all things basketball specifically and anything else that may come up. That’s that vertical alignment, just making sure we’re on the same page, we’re communicating. What are our next steps? What should we be thinking about? What should we be doing? They’re not meant to be everybody listens to one person and that person’s right. They’re meant to challenge this notion to share this notion. Tony and I have had some great conversations with our CEO and our community relations team about a lot of the off the court and racial injustice issues and things we should be doing as an organization here in the city to get involved.
Do you give Travis a wish list as a head coach of what you think you guys can use to help the team get better going into next season?
LP: Definitely. I think you have to look at it with a very understandable lens. I never say, ‘Hey, get rid of this guy.’ If I don’t like a guy, I’ll tell him I don’t like the guy. If I do like a guy, I’ll tell him I like the guy. It’s just some of the things you may not be aware of that I feel are important in our locker room is where I try and lend my greatest value. We need leadership. We need an older guy. Whatever it may be. I don’t say who that guy is, but I say, here’s an example of what we need. I think he and his staff do a tremendous job of gathering information, meeting consistently and discussing information about the free agents, players in our league, the draft prospects, and trying to identify who those guys could be down the line. I offer what I can, but I also am mindful that I’m not watching a player from the other team consistently. I’m only watching them when we scout them and trying to figure out how to minimize their effectiveness on the court. I don’t know about their relationships with their coaches and what their coaches are saying. That’s why our scouts and his staff do a tremendous job of going around and gathering that information and then share it as a group, so we have education and are properly guided when it’s time to make a transaction or move going forward.
What do you think is the next step for the Hawks next season?
LP: I think the biggest thing for me is our growth is going to be dependent on our young guys getting better, and that includes Trae and John. I don’t know what better exactly means. It’s not a number thing. I hate that people evaluate our guys or any guy in the league on numbers. If Trae’s numbers go down next year, and we’re tremendously better, he’s probably a lot better. I think all of our guys because they’re a major part of what we built, they need to be better. Then, we have to add some veterans, rotational, professional depth, and experience to complement our young guys. We have nine guys, I believe under contract right now, so we have roster spots to fill. To make the next step to have some NBA experience in our locker room, some high character experience in our locker room and some leadership in our locker room to help those young guys get better, but also to bring it. You’re looking at the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, LA Clippers, and the Denver Nuggets, who have tremendous depth. We want to be in that same category. We want to make a huge jump next year. We want to be in that same category, so we’ve got to add some guys that can come in and contribute right away. But we also have a high draft pick. We’ve got a guy like Bruno Fernando that we still will develop. As we continue to grow, they can be a part of our growth. Not necessarily just right now, but also guys that we can see come into this thing two or three years down the line and really be ready to make positive contributions.
Another part of your job is getting these young guys up for weekend afternoon games in big cities. They might try to go out the night before. Is it harder for guys to get up for those early afternoon games?
LP: Our young guys openly discuss how tough the second night of a back-to-back set of games is. They just haven’t experienced that and the routine of handling the preparation for the second game. I think it’s a good experience. That’s why playing those young guys early is important, so they learn that the second nights are tough. The same goes for an early afternoon game on the road. You get into the city, you may get there late, especially in New York, you think you’re getting there at 4:30. By the time you get through the tunnel and across the bridge into the city and deal with traffic, you check into the hotel, it might be 6:30 or 7:00. Everybody wants to go to dinner, shop, or do whatever they do in New York. That’s part of the growing experience to play in the NBA. Some guys end up preferring to play early, and it becomes their favorite game time. There’s nothing I can do to really help facilitate that routine. I think you just have to go through it a few times and understand I got to make sure I’ll wake up earlier this time and go to dinner immediately the night before and not wait until 10:00 and get a late dinner slot.
For you, what’s a game day like for you schedule-wise? What time are you getting up? How do you break down the day leading up to tip-off?
LP: I’m the same every day. My clock is usually around 6:45. It doesn’t matter if I go to sleep at midnight, which I never do, or 2:00 AM, which I commonly do. I’m just up. I’m up at 6:45. I’ve never used an alarm clock in the NBA. If we have a staff meeting, let’s say we have a shootaround at 10:00 AM, we’re on the road, we’re probably leaving the hotel at 9:30 AM. We typically do our meetings an hour or so before the bus leaves, so that’s an 8:00 or 8:15 meeting. I try and get work started an hour before the meeting. Work for me is to get my Starbucks, get my video sorters in order, and organize and prepared for the meeting. The flight over the day before is where I get a lot of the work done. Then, the morning of the game is where I kind of organize all of the thoughts, the sorters, and the questions that I may have for whoever is doing the scout that day. What we do at shootaround is we put 75 minutes on the clock, so from the time we touch the floor, we’re done in 75 minutes. That includes whatever amount of video we want to show and the time we’ll be on the court. On the road, I normally try and get a little bit of outside time in. If I’m in New York, I always go shopping or get out and walk around. I normally get a quick workout in before the bus, then change and head to the bus. I’m on the second bus to the arena. Half of the year, I was wearing sweats to the arena. In the second half of the year, I just started wearing the suit to the arena to change it up. Then I get to the arena and basically just unwind a little bit. I read on the bus to the arena to get away from basketball for 20-30 minutes. Then, I do all my game prep. What offense can we run against these guys? What are some of the ATOs I need to prepare for? What are they going to run late in the game?
Brett Brown. When I was in Philly, he was always the first person to the practice facility. He’d get there as early as 6:30. I know he was an early sleeper. I’m not an early sleeper. You woke up and you had about three messages from Brett already because you know he’s up early and he’s already in his car and then at the facility. You can’t hit him (call or text) past 10:00 at night because he’s knocked out. I’m doing a lot of my work from 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM watching the West Coast games. As long as you get your work done, I think that’s kind of a common thread in NBA. Most head coaches don’t micromanage too much. We’re always on top of stuff, but I think we empower our assistants to do great work. Everybody has a different routine. Mine happens to be I am a late-night worker. I’m still somewhat of an early morning guy. I don’t sleep. I don’t need sleep. I don’t get a lot of sleep. I just make sure I get my stuff done. I’m willing to stay up late and willing to get up early if I have to.
You brought up Brett Brown. The 76ers are in the playoffs. When you hear people talk about whether Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can coexist together, what do you think of that? People wonder if they have to trade one of those guys to balance out the team? What do you think?
LP: I think it’s blasphemy. I think in this league, the challenge is, can you win? Are you a winner? If you’re that guy, it doesn’t matter who you play with. Winners get extra rebounds, run the floor, attack, defend, compete. To think you have a top-10 and a top-15 talent and you have two of them, and they can’t co-exist? I think they both impact winning. I’m not getting rid of one to go find another because you might not find another. It’s hard to find top-15 talent that impacts winning and is competitive. Both of those guys, I think, have shown that. They were a basket away from going to the Conference Finals last year. Chemistry is real. You have to have team chemistry. You have to develop it. You have to continue to work at it. Impacting winning and competing is real as well. I think both of those guys have that. I’m more concerned with how do you make it work, not let’s get rid of it and try another route. I don’t really agree with that approach for any team.
Before I let you go, you played with Steve Nash back at Santa Clara. What is the best Steve Nash college story you have, whether it was going out somewhere or something that somebody may not know about the former two-time MVP?
LP: He’s a big Nas fan. When we were in college together, he and his roommates had the best college parties. They lived at a place called the Firehouse or Fire Place. It was the best place to go and party after a game. The best story I can give you, for me, we were playing at Gonzaga. I think it was his junior or senior year. I want to say it was a deciding game to win our conference. It was kind of the high school gym they had back then before they built the new arena. Gonzaga has its fans there two hours before the game because they want to create a hostile environment. First come first serve, and so it’s packed when we get off the bus. They’re in this cheering section that goes as close to the court as you could possibly imagine. We go out there shooting early, and he goes right over to that side of the court where the cheering section is, and he just drains jumper after jumper on that side, and he doesn’t move around. He just stays right on that side, and they’re giving it to him yelling all kinds of stuff about him, ‘Canada. CBA.’ They were saying he was going to be a CBA player at the time. I think he had five points at halftime. It’s a tight ball game at halftime. We ended up winning in overtime. He ends up with 40 points. It was truly one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. The guy just completely took over the game in the second half and overtime. It was like he embraced that atmosphere. He embraced that pressure and that criticism.
And it was at that moment that you said to yourself, he’s going be a two-time MVP in the NBA, I’m sure, haha.
LP: You never said that. I knew he was different the first time I played with him. I didn’t know how different, but I knew he was different. His handle, his IQ, his hand and eye coordination, his ability to just shoot the basketball. All of it was there. He was a very cerebral skilled player who could shoot, and you knew he was a pro. You knew he was a first-round pro by the time he was all done at Santa Clara. When he got to the NBA, the glimpses he had, you knew he was going to be a good player. Then it just went to a different level. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.