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New Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce explains what it’s like to move from assistant to head man

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The former 76ers assistant talks to SB Nation about the differences between the two jobs and how he plans to develop the young Hawks.

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MLB: Chicago Cubs at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

LAS VEGAS — Talk to Lloyd Pierce for a few minutes, and it’s easy to see what Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk saw when he hired the 40-year-old to coach the Hawks. Pierce’s understated positivity and clear-eyed confidence would seem to be an ideal match for a young Hawks squad in the early stages of a rebuilding project.

With three first rounders, including electric point guard Trae Young, along with players such as John Collins and Taurean Prince, the Hawks project to be one of the youngest teams in the league. The architect of Philadelphia’s top-four defense during his time working with Brett Brown as a Sixers assistant, Pierce is no stranger to this kind of situation.

In a wide-ranging interview about his coaching philosophy, we talked about his influences, what he learned from Brown, and the rewards of coaching players like Robert Covington.

(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

SB NATION: What kind of team do you want to be?

LLOYD PIERCE: I get asked that question all the time. Anytime you go into preconceived notions with what you want to be, that’s a trick situation. My job right now is to get a feel for who I have. The scary part of the preconceived notion, you spend a lot of time, and then all of a sudden: that’s not going to work. I don’t want to put myself in a corner. This is who we’re going to be, this is how we’re going to be.

We have to be in great condition, we have to take advantage of our youth. We have to find a way to play high efficient basketball. Layups in transition, threes in transition, score before the defense can get set, play with pace.

Pace to me, as I’ve tried to define it, is not just getting the ball up the floor and jacking up a shot. It’s moving the basketball and not getting stuck with the ball and being hard to guard. That’s going to require a lot of work on our staff to getting our guys committed to believing that.

SB: Play fast, but not in a hurry, right?

LP: How much movement can you create, whether it’s the ball or body movement. You’ll see defenses break down. You’ll see guys enjoy playing together. It’s not static basketball. We’re not going to be good enough to play static basketball.

James Harden can hold the ball for the entire possession and hit a three and make it look easy. We don’t have that. We have to play together, create our own energy, and the shots we take and the plays we make have to be about high efficiency.

SB: You mentioned in your introductory press conference, ‘Defense is who I am.’ [Sixers coach] Brett Brown entrusted you with that defense. What can you take from that experience?

LP: People say, how do you get head coaching experience and how do you get comfortable being in that seat and making those decisions? I’ve had a couple of years of making those decisions. I credit Brett. It’s not an ego thing for him. He didn’t need to take credit for this, he didn’t need to make every decision. He wanted us to help him, and that was one of the ways he wanted to do it.

As a result I sat in the chair during timeouts and drew up the coverages or adjustments. I had to be able to read and react to situations that were occurring during the flow of the game. I don’t feel as nervous or hesitant because I’ve made those decisions already. That’s a credit to Brett.

SB: When you move one chair over to the head coaching position, it can be a big adjustment. How do you intend to deal with the stuff that comes your way?

LP: The position requires more delegation than I’m used to. As an assistant, you’re working, you’re grinding. It’s late nights, early mornings. As a head coach, you’re doing those things, but you’re also relying on your guys to provide you with some of that. You can’t watch everything all the time.

Doing the defense [in Philly], I got to be intentional about one area of the game. It was easy to lock in and see everything from the previous game or something that didn’t work that we needed to get better on at practice. This seat requires me to pass that on.

I would argue with Brett about decisions that I wanted to make because I spent so much time on it and I took it personal and had a lot of pride. I have to flip the script and trust my assistants.

SB: Who influenced your coaching?

LP: It started with Dick Davey. (Editor’s note: Pierce played for Davey, the longtime Santa Clara University coach, along with Steve Nash in the ‘90s.)

I didn’t grow up the son of a coach. What I had was a college coach that cared about his players, and he presented the opportunity of coaching to me. His exact words, ‘Whenever you’re done playing, I have a spot for you. But make sure you’re done playing.’

Everything was detail. You have a personal pride of being tougher than the next guy. It’s not a fist fight. It’s not a bar fight. It’s, ‘Am I mentally tougher than you? Am I more locked into the details than you.’ That’s toughness.

SB: I’m fascinated by that description of mental toughness. As a distance runner I’ve found that my body can only take me so far, but it’s my mind that will get me over the finish line. How do you impart mental toughness?

LP: I read Born to Run. When they talked about mental toughness, the competitiveness wasn’t about your opponent. It was what you had inside. When you got to Mile 50, that was when it became fun. That was when it was easy and you got to relax. It was the mental challenge you had with yourself.

I talked to my guys today. You should want to be coached, but you shouldn’t rely on a coach to motivate you. Every great player loves to get challenged, They don’t want a coach that’s going to let you do anything they want and be a pushover.

You should always want to be coached and want someone who’s going to challenge you and push you to another level, but the great ones don’t need it. They don’t rely on it. And they’re definitely not asking for it.

I’m not going to hold anybody’s hands. We have a lot of young guys and you have to educate them on how to get the through the process of being professional and being competitive. If I have to call a player every night — ‘Are you going to be in the gym tomorrow?’ — we’ve already lost the battle because they don’t understand what it takes. The ones that do, they’re calling me and asking me when we’re getting in the gym so they can get in an hour early.

SB: You had great chemistry in Philadelphia that developed over time. You can’t snap your fingers and say, ‘Here’s our chemistry.’ Is that something you have to let happen organically?

LP: Again, it’s hard to have a preconceived notion. What we did in Philly may not work in Atlanta. We’ll try. Our culture, our emphasis in Philly, was about being the hardest working team about representing the city of Philadelphia with character. Good people, hard workers, being in great shape. It’s being dedicated to the sport and dedicated to the profession.

It starts with good people. That is the first carryover. We want to make sure they’re good people.

SB: Was it hard to leave Philly?

LP: I’ve been fortunate that a job was presented to me and I had a good one. There wasn’t pressure. It wasn’t like, ‘I didn’t get the job and now I’m stuck in this bad situation.’ If I didn’t get the [Hawks] job, I get to go finish what we started. There’s a lot of personal victory to stay with Philly and continue.

However, I got a great opportunity. There’s 30 jobs, one was presented to me and I was able to get it. I can’t look at it any other way.

SB: One guy that stands out with you is Robert Covington. He was an undrafted player who developed into a starter and got a great contract. When you’re able to help a guy get to that point, what’s that like as a coach?

LP: It symbolizes what the G League is all about and it symbolizes what coaching is about. You merge the two together and the bottom line is, can you help players get better? Cov was a G League product that we were able to get early and four years later he’s first team All-Defense. He’s rewarded with the great contract. (Editor’s note: Covington signed a 4-year, $62 million extension in November.)

As a coach, we can win a championship or we won’t. But at the end of the day, knowing that guy like Cov has been set up for life because of the work he put in and the little amount of help that we were able to give him, that’s the reward of it all.