Lloyd Pierce is stress-free, can't stop talking about Team USA and is ready to resume his NBA routine
"I have a big saying: Getting better helping others get better. So the more I can help others get better, the better I’ll be."
Lloyd Pierce was set to jump on a Zoom call on Wednesday for an introductory press conference after joining the Pacers as Rick Carlisle’s top assistant. But before that, he had team business to handle, and Carlisle called him into his office.
He arrived about 20 minutes later and took a seat in front of the computer to meet with the handful of reporters on the call. “How’s my shirt look,” he asked about his white Pacers polo, which represented this fresh start joining his sixth different NBA franchise.
He’s in a new city, working with a new coaching staff, and won’t have nearly the same level of responsibilities and pressure that come with being a head coach.
And yet, he emphasizes, “I’ve never stressed a day in my life.
“I don’t stress, this is just basketball. It’s a wonderful opportunity. The same year I was fired, I had a daughter, I won the Olympics and have a new job. I’m good.”
Pierce, 45, was without a job since March after the Hawks sputtered to a 14-20 start to the season. “I am good,” he wrote then. “It’s just basketball. If you feel sorry, volunteer or donate to those truly in need.”
Former Pacers head coach Nate McMillan — who Pierce brought on as his top assistant a year ago in Atlanta, was promoted to interim head coach and then named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month after a strong March performance, including eight straight wins out of the gate.
Pierce saw that, he saw those Hawks reach the Eastern Conference finals and push the Bucks to six games. And still, he kept his big-picture perspective — all while enjoying unexpected time with his newborn daughter and two-year-old.
“I always believe in tomorrow,” he said. “It’s part of the journey. Which coach hasn’t been fired? Which coach hasn’t changed teams? In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m just now starting my career.
“You can no longer say I don’t have head-coaching experience, I’ve been on a bunch of teams. I feel like once I got let go and you go through the self-awareness, self-reflection, there’s so much stuff I don’t know. … Managing, delegating, things of that nature. How you do it. And I thought I did a good job, but there’s some stuff you look back and you let go of even more of as a head coach.”
He played college basketball at Santa Clara and then four years overseas before returning to his alma mater to start his coaching career. That was in 2003. Now almost 20 years later, he feels like he’s got his footing and is proud of the way he’s climbed the ranks through hard work.
“Fifteen years ago, I knew three people in the NBA: Steve Nash, Rex Chapman and Dave Fisdale,” he said. “Twelve years later I was a head coach, 15 years later I’m entering my sixth team, I have been fired as a head coach and I’m still rolling. I’m good. I don’t stress. That’s a blessing.”
It’s hard to believe considering the high-stakes game of the NBA, where owners and fans are impatient and players can get you fired.
Coming off two and a half seasons as a head coach, he now will be Carlisle’s right-hand man. Together, with the other three assistant coaches, they’re tasked with making the franchise relevant again — and that starts with getting out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
“I have a big saying: Getting better helping others get better,” said Pierce. “So the more I can help others get better, the better I’ll be.”
Pierce spent most of the last two months away from his family, with USA Basketball as a member of Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff. Ironically, he replaced McMillan two years ago. First, they were in Las Vegas for training camp and exhibition games, then Tokyo, Japan.
“I don’t know if there’s a higher, greater feeling in any sport than the Olympics,” he said proudly. “I think we all grew up watching, admiring, thinking about the Olympic experience.”
I spoke with him about that experience almost a month ago, after they had arrived in Tokyo but had struggled through exhibition play. Several players had entered the health and safety protocols, a couple players were replaced, and three more arrived in Tokyo without any time in camp together because they were playing in the NBA Finals. Those three — Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Devin Booker — turned out to be among the most reliable players for Team USA.
Still, they all felt it. Those who cover the team felt it and you watching at home could see it, the immense pressure on this team to win a fourth straight gold medal. No one felt it more, though, than coach Popovich.
“Everyone wanted to do it for Pop,” Pierce said. “It was a special moment (winning) because he did feel the pressure. We had kind of an inside joke that Pop and Jay Wright were the stressed out coaches, and Steve Kerr and I were the arrogant, too relaxed coaches. Pop would always say, ‘How are you guys calm in these moments?’
“Steve and I expect to win by 30, what are you talking about? Pop is worried about one pick-and-roll coverage or whatever the case may be. He felt it, and it’s his job to feel it as the head coach. It’s our job to balance what he’s going through with the preparation and getting the guys ready.
“The postgame feeling was unbelievable. The locker room was great. You guys saw a snippet of Pop’s speech to the team I’m sure. There was a lot more of that once we got back to the hotel.”
(Pop’s speech starts at the 6:05 mark below.)
The team secured gold with a win over France in the morning, then had to wait until after the bronze game to receive their medals and have that moment on stage in the evening. Seven players then took off on a charter flight home to Las Vegas while the coaches and the rest of the team stayed behind to watch the women’s team win gold and then leave together.
“I could talk Team USA all day,” Pierce said, laughing.
“It was a big party in the airport provided by the women’s national team, and there was a big party on the airplane. I don’t think many people slept that entire flight back. It was a lot of champagne. I got a lot of good pictures with some new friends, Sue Bird and Diana (Taurasi). They were great.”
The celebration ended once the charter flight returned to the United States. It was back to business for Pierce. He went straight to Las Vegas for summer league to meet with Carlisle and most of his other new teammates with the Pacers.
While out there, Pierce and the coaches got on the floor with the core players who were in town: Caris LeVert, T.J. Warren, Myles Turner and newcomer Torrey Craig. Then they watched what the young guys play, like Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson.
“Conversations have just been simple,” said Pierce. “I don’t want to speak with players too much about X’s and O’s in August… so really it was just getting to know them. I had dinner with Caris (LeVert) after one of the summer league games. We didn’t talk about basketball at all. We spoke for about two and a half hours and it was really about travel, about business, about opportunities.”
Back home in Atlanta last week, Pierce connected with Malcolm Brogdon and watched him work out at Georgia Tech.
“I think in this business your trust is earned, and your trust is earned through the relationship,” Pierce said. “A lot of times you want to try and get to know the person as opposed to just coaching the player.”
Basketball Isn’t His First Love
Track & field is.
So Pierce was disappointed that they couldn’t do much outside the team hotel. If not for COVID-19 and strict protocols, he would have taken full advantage of attending other events.
Especially track & field, the sport he grew up on. He stopped competing his sophomore year of high school in San Jose, Calif. “I was kind of a top five guy in my area, Central Coast section,” he said. “I did the long-, high-, and triple-jumps and 4x100.
“If you know track, it’s taxing. You do the jumping, but you’re basically running at practice all day. It’s about the endurance, it’s about the build up, it’s about the power. And that’s a critical time in your life when your body is still growing, and basketball and recruiting are starting. I just felt it was too much. Every Saturday you have an invitational, but every Saturday you’re trying to play spring league basketball. You have no legs trying to go to a spring league game and that’s the game I’m going to be recruited in.
“So I made a decision and I do regret it. I wish I would have stayed with track, but it definitely was my first love.”
A New Chapter Begins in Indy
Pierce got a call from Carlisle in June, he wanted him on his staff. It wasn’t the first time, according to Pierce. “Rick tried to hire me away from Brett (Brown) in Philly about five or six years ago. So that was an eye-opening moment back then as you’re trying to get established and knowing someone is trying to reach out when they had an opening.”
They talked, Pierce liked what he heard and he could relate with Carlisle.
“He was in a similar situation, in terms of style of play and what they were doing with Luka (Doncic) in Dallas and what we were doing with Trae (Young). We had some conversations about what this (Pacers) team could present and where they are and how we could help and have some success here.”
Team president Kevin Pritchard turned to Carlisle after an eight-month experiment with the previous staff failed. Carlisle brings instant credibility as an NBA head coach for 19 seasons and he returns to familiarity, where he won a franchise-record 61 games during the 2003-04 season.
His staff has the credentials and experience too.
“The one thing I always think of with this group is it’s old-school basketball,” said Pierce. “Obviously with Domas (Sabonis) and Myles (Turner), having two bigs. And they’ve done a great job of creating an identity of how they play.
“I thought offensively (last season), there was such tremendous movement. Everyone is worried about spacing and things of that nature, but they do a great job of moving the basketball. You can play through Domas, Myles has reinvented himself to where he can space out on the floor, and there were so many different scoring options on the team. Hard to guard is the simplest way of putting it.”
Pierce puts an emphasis on defense and frequently called out player assignments for Team USA. They switched often. While he’s not expected to be defensive coordinator — that will be Ronald Nored — you can bet he’ll be watching that side of the ball more closely.
It’s his speciality, he explains, “because I couldn’t shoot. I had a great point guard (Steve Nash, Nets head coach) and a great shooting guard (Marlon Garrett, Hornets assistant) that I played with. … Run the lane, catch lobs, get backdoors and defend the best player — and I loved it.
“Self-awareness, see,” he added with a big grin. “You got to know thyself.”
Pierce arrived in Indy with his family on August 23 and closed on a house in the suburbs. Unlike most of his peers in the NBA, he’s not looking forward to a break in the action over the next few weeks. After being out of the league for four months and away from basketball, he’s raring to get started up again.
“I got fired. I had four months of doing nothing, no routine. I’m looking, dying, I need routine,” he said playfully but sincerely. “That’s who we are, that’s how we’re built.
“I know exactly where I’m going to be for the next seven months. That’s the beauty of it. You know exactly when you’re waking up, you know exactly when you’re taking a nap, you know exactly when you got free time, and that’s what we enjoy.”
It all officially begins in training camp on Sept. 28. Their first preseason game is Oct. 5 and opening night, in Charlotte, is Oct. 20.
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