Hawks coaching candidates: Nate McMillan, Alvin Gentry among potential full-time replacements for Lloyd Pierce

Lloyd Pierce may not have been able to turn the Atlanta Hawks into a contender,

Lloyd Pierce may not have been able to turn the Atlanta Hawks into a contender, but that shouldn’t diminish the potential appeal of the job to the right candidate. The Hawks come with a readymade star in Trae Young. The roster features a staggering seven former first-round picks aged 23 or younger, and after a free-agent spending spree last offseason, players like Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, when healthy, give the Hawks a compelling base of veteran talent. 

When the Hawks have had all or even most of that talent on the floor together, they’ve actually played quite well. They were 9-9 before DeAndre Hunter’s injury, for instance, and that includes nine missed games from Bogdanovic and 12 from Gallinari. A 5-11 mark since Hunter’s injury cost Pierce his job, but if the Hawks can get healthy, they offer the rare combination of immediate talent and long-term upside that makes a coaching job desirable. Whoever lands this job could conceivably lead a winner for the next decade. 

So who will get that chance? We can’t say for certain yet, but an obvious starting point will be those with ties to the Golden State Warriors. That is where general manager Travis Schlenk spent the bulk of his career before landing with the Hawks. Atlanta’s win-now mandate likely means that first-time candidates are at a disadvantage, so experience is another trait to watch out for. Seven candidates stand out at present as possible replacements for Pierce with those criteria in mind. 

1. Nate McMillan

McMillan, in all likelihood, will have the incumbency advantage. The Hawks named him as the team’s interim coach on Monday night after McMillan agreed to take on the position. That audition will likely go well. Gallinari is back in the lineup. Bogdanovic has been upgraded to questionable on the injury report, indicating an upcoming return. Hunter’s timeline is less clear, but he is expected to return in the somewhat near future. Barring further injuries, McMillan would have the chance to coach the version of this Hawks roster that Pierce expected to. Should he lead it into the postseason, he would become the heavy favorite to retain the job. 

Hiring McMillan would address one of Atlanta’s most-glaring needs during the Pierce era: defense. The Hawks finished No. 28 in defense during Pierce’s two full seasons on the job. Personnel is a likely explanation for that, and with an improved roster, they made it up to No. 9 on Feb. 1, the night of the first game that Hunter missed with his current knee injury. But McMillan’s presence on the bench likely contributed to that. His Pacers finished in the top-six defensively in each of the past two seasons despite lacking talent that would indicate that they should do so. 

The price for that defensive success has been offensive modernity. The Pacers finished in the bottom-five in 3-point attempts in each of McMillan’s four full seasons in Indiana, including a last-place finish last season. Schlenk prizes shooting dating back to his Golden State days. Would he be comfortable hiring a coach with different offensive goals? That is the central question behind McMillan’s candidacy.

2. Luke Walton

Our first (but hardly last) foray into the Steve Kerr coaching tree is the one that has struggled the most as an NBA head coach. Walton was fired by the Lakers after three underwhelming seasons, and now, midway through his second season in Sacramento, his Kings are 1-10 in their past 11 games. On Sunday, they lost a game that they led by eight with only one minute left. The man who hired him in Sacramento, Vlade Divac, is gone. Walton’s time with the Kings appears limited. 

But Walton could credibly argue that circumstance ruined his first two jobs. The Lakers were, after all, the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference before LeBron James suffered a groin injury on Christmas in 2018. Injuries went on to ruin that Lakers season. He then joined a Kings team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the Paleolithic era. If he can’t get another job, could any other Kings coach? 

Well, there are different degrees to Sacramento’s struggles. Dave Joerger was fired by the Kings, for instance, but that came after their best season in eons. Walton took over for Joerger and inexplicably tinkered with the one thing that was working for the Kings: their speed. Sacramento’s pace dropped from third under Joerger to No. 19 under Walton last season. It’s back up to ninth now, but the damage has been done. If Walton couldn’t figure out how to maximize DeAaron Fox, why would the Hawks trust him with Young? Young’s stylistic similarity to Stephen Curry, whom Walton once led to a 24-game winning streak, is an argument, but not enough of one to earn him this job. Walton’s candidacy will hinge on his ability to explain what happened in Los Angeles and Sacramento. 

3. Alvin Gentry

If Walton gets the axe in Sacramento, another former lieutenant of Kerr’s is likely their top internal candidate. If Walton turns things around? Alvin Gentry will likely be on the lookout for another top job, and unlike Walton, he at least has some history of winning as a head coach. He led the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference finals in 2010 and the New Orleans Pelicans to the second round in 2018. 

That Suns tenure is likely what will appeal most to Atlanta. Aside from Curry, the player Young is most often compared to is Steve Nash (despite Nash’s distaste for Young’s foul-hunting). Gentry knows how to build fast-paced offenses around singular ball-handling talents. He led the Suns for three full seasons. All three featured top-10 offenses, including a No. 1 finish in 2010. Curry’s 2015 Warriors finished No. 1 in offense as well thanks to a scheme developed by Gentry and Kerr. Few coaches are better equipped to build an offense around Young than Gentry. 

But Gentry’s history of defensive struggles won’t do him any favors. He’s held four full-time head-coaching jobs and been fired from all four. His career record of 510-595 is discouraging, to say the least. Gentry is an offensive genius, but is he a viable head coach for a winning team? That’s for Schlenk to determine. 

4. Jarron Collins

The lone first-timer on this list is one of Kerr’s current proteges. Collins interviewed with the Hawks in 2018, and while he didn’t get the job, the overwhelming belief around the NBA is that he will one day get an opportunity to lead a franchise. Like Gentry and Walton, years of working with Curry will appeal to an Atlanta team hoping to turn Young into a similar weapon, but a storyline to watch with Collins will be the development of No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman. Former big men that turn to coaching often play a direct role in developing the younger big men their team employs, and Atlanta just spent the No. 6 overall pick on Onyeka Okongwu, another big man. Collins’ presence could be beneficial to him.

Schlenk chose a first-time head coach in Pierce the last time he led a search. Whether he will be willing to take such a plunge a second time, especially with so much pressure to win immediately, is less clear. But it should be noted that Kerr was a first-time coach in 2015. The Warriors won the championship. Nash has a chance to replicate that success in Brooklyn this season. If Collins is the right candidate, his experience might not matter. 

5. Mike Brown

You won’t find a coach more experienced in the art of managing superstars than Brown. In addition to his time with Curry in Golden State, Brown has worked with Tim Duncan in San Antonio, Reggie Miller in Indiana, LeBron James in Cleveland and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. He held the top job in Cleveland and Los Angeles, and while he never won a championship in either position, his 347-216 record makes him one of the winningest coaches available on the market. That doesn’t count an 11-0 stint leading the Warriors in the 2017 playoffs as Kerr recovered from back surgery. 

Atlanta would represent a different sort of challenge for Brown, known as a defensive specialist around the NBA. He got Cleveland to the NBA Finals in his second season there. His stint in Los Angeles didn’t even last that long thanks to an 0-4 start in his second season. Brown is used to the pressure cooker of immediate contention. Ownership may expect immediate growth, but the Hawks are very much still developing into the team they will one day be. Brown hasn’t ever guided such a young group, but his third chance is long overdue. 

6. Mike D’Antoni

If you’re looking for quick improvement, history says hire Mike D’Antoni. His first full season in Phoenix saw the Suns jump from 29 to 62 wins. The Knicks improved by nine wins under his watch, and the Rockets gained 14. D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll-heavy offense is notoriously easy for players learn and his laidback style tends to immediately ingratiate him to his new rosters. D’Antoni might be the most overqualified assistant in basketball right now as he sits on Nash’s bench in Brooklyn. 

D’Antoni’s playoff history is the reason he doesn’t hold a top job right now, but a more pressing concern for Atlanta might be his refusal to use deep benches. He tends to rely on seven or eight players almost exclusively, especially in the postseason, and that makes little sense for an Atlanta roster filled with young players in need of development and expensive veterans only recently added. His defensive track record leaves plenty to be desired as well. Nash and James Harden grew into MVPs under D’Antoni’s tutelage. Young could as well, and if his growth is the priority in this hire, D’Antoni will be a top candidate. But there are arguments against hiring him that extend beyond his lack of jewelry. D’Antoni would need to make significant adjustments to his typical style to fit in Atlanta. 

7. Kenny Atkinson

Kenny Atkinson has no connection to Schlenk, personally, but he is connected to the franchise at large. Atkinson was an assistant under Mike Budenholzer for three seasons, all of which included playoff berths for the Hawks. Budenholzer is otherwise occupied in Milwaukee, but every now and then, an ownership group with regrets over prematurely ending a previous era looks to rectify that perceived mistake by bringing in a familiar face. The Philadelphia Eagles, for instance, brought in longtime Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson to replace Chip Kelly, who replaced Reid in the first place.

This isn’t to suggest that Budenholzer or any other coach would have done better with such a young roster, but young rosters are Atkinson’s specialty. He led a far less talented rebuild in Brooklyn and was dismissed once the Nets were ready to win with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. In Atlanta, Pierce had to endure the lean times. Atkinson could take over with the Hawks primed for improvement. His pass-heavy, 3-point friendly style will not only appeal to Schlenk’s Golden State sensibilities but could, perhaps, encourage Young to move more off of the ball. 

Atkinson is currently with the Clippers, and a lengthy postseason run might make the interview process complicated for him. The Hawks would no doubt be anxious to hear his side of the Brooklyn story. So long as they’re satisfied with what they hear, Atkinson makes sense as a candidate for this job.