Schlenk fired Lloyd Pierce on Monday, but will he be the next to go?
By Brad Botkin
Expectations are the root of frustration. Coming into the 2020-21 campaign, after an aggressive offseason that saw them add the likes of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo, the Hawks had playoff expectations. When half their team went down the injury hole, with those four players plus De’Andre Hunter missing a combined 103 games, those expectations were not adjusted.
Entering play on Monday, the Hawks are 14-20. If the playoffs started today, they wouldn’t even make a play-in series in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. The expectations, however outsized they might be, haven’t been met, frustration has set in, and on Monday coach Lloyd Pierce was fired, becoming the first fall guy for an organization that could be teetering on more firings.
Namely, Hawks president and general manager Travis Schlenk.
It is pretty easily deduced that ownership gave Schlenk something of a playoff mandate this season, expediting, and in many ways undermining, his previously patient timeline while informing his decision to pursue win-now players in Bogdanovic and Gallinari over continuing down the development trail.
Along that trail, the Hawks have done good things. Trae Young has become an All-Star. John Collins, who was Schlenk’s first draft pick upon taking the job in Atlanta, will probably be a $100 million player, at least, this summer. DeAndre Hunter, who was seen as more of a defensive specialist with spot-up-shooting ability coming out of college, was showing significant progress as not just a capable self-creator, but an actual dangerous one before he was forced to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in early February. Schlenk, and certainly Pierce, deserve credit for these things.
That said, it’s possible Schlenk is fighting a battle with Atlanta management that he already lost back in 2018, when he traded the rights to Luka Doncic to the Mavericks for Trae Young and a future first-round pick, which became Cam Reddish. We have endlessly debated the merits of that trade for the last two-plus seasons, but the bottom line is this: For as great as Young has been offensively, not to mention the tantalizing upside Reddish has shown in stretches, it’s hard to imagine Hawks ownership is happy that Luka isn’t on their team.
This isn’t a knock on Young, who, again, has been a fantastic, at times historic offensive player at this stage of his career. But there hasn’t yet been any real evidence that he can be the best player on a winning team. He’s a defensive liability and he has refused to commit to making any kind of off-ball impact, though to be fair a lot of the players that were supposed to remove a portion of that burden from Young have been hurt.
Either way, Luka is a championship-level alpha, plain and simple. There is absolutely no reasonable argument anyone could make to the contrary. Trading him is probably never going to be looked upon favorably from the Hawks’ perspective, but at least if Atlanta is winning in its own right., it’s a pill you can swallow.
Is it fair to say Young can’t win at a level somewhat commensurate with Luka given the right pieces around him? Maybe not. The team’s young core (Young, Hunter, Reddish and Kevin Huerter), main offseason additions (Gallinari and Bogdanovic) and veterans Clint Capela and Rondo have played exactly one game together this season, the second game of the season vs. the Nets, in which Gallinari was injured inside the first five minutes.
Hunter’s absence, in particular, cannot be overstated as it pertains to Atlanta’s struggles, and certainly Pierce’s firing. Before he went down, the Hawks were 10-9, with a plus-2.7 net rating, and in line for a top-six seed. Since Jan. 29, the last time that Hunter played, the Hawks have gone 4-11 with a minus-4.2 net rating.
Gallinari was billed as the second option that Young needed, but the reality is he can’t do much more than stand-still shoot these days. Bogdanovic has only played nine games. Hunter had become the secondary creator. With him on the court, the Hawks are outscoring opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions this season, per Cleaning the Glass. When Hunter’s not playing, they’re being outscored by 4.2 per 100. That’s a 10.5-point difference, trailing only Young’s plus-12.2 on-off split.
Hunter’s development should be a feather in the cap of Pierce, and Schlenk, who saw enough untapped potential in Hunter to trade up with the Pelicans to take him at No. 4 overall in 2019. But if ownership is resentful over Doncic slipping through their fingers, these smaller development victories don’t carry as much weight. You flip Doncic for Young right now, even with the injuries, and Atlanta is a better team. You give Doncic a healthy Atlanta roster, and you could argue a top-four seed with legit potential to make real noise in the playoffs.
Doncic is that great. He very well could’ve beaten the Clippers in the first round last season were it not for Kristaps Porzingis‘ bogus Game 1 ejection and subsequent season-ending injury, and this Hawks team, if healthy, is arguably better than that Dallas team. There’s a ceiling on how good you can imagine a Young-led team being at this point in his career. There is no such ceiling on Luka dreams, particularly if you had him in the Eastern Conference.
If this is the root of ownership’s frustration, which has manifested itself as premature urgency to make the playoffs ahead of schedule, it stands to reason they’re not going to be looking for reasons to keep the general manager who pulled the trigger on giving Luka away. They’re going to be looking for reasons to get rid of him. That isn’t necessarily fair, and who knows if it’s even the case. Perhaps Schlenk is safe. But you have to wonder, if the Hawks don’t turn their season around under interim coach Nate McMillan, if Schlenk is next in line to be let go. And if so, is it a battle he’s already lost?