Three things to know: Lloyd Pierce pays price for Atlanta owners’ expectations

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The NBA season is in full swing, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.

1) Lloyd Pierce pays price for Atlanta owners’ expectations

The list of things that can get an NBA coach fired is longer than Santa’s naughty list (we assume the naughty list is longer than the nice one, right?). However, Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce missed the mark on a couple of items that have to be priorities for any coach.

First, have a strong relationship with the team’s star. In Atlanta, Pierce and franchise cornerstone Trae Young were not on the same page. Star players fill the building (when fans are allowed) and keep the money rolling in, which means making them happy is a franchise priority.

Second, keep ownership’s expectations in line with reality, then live up to them. Atlanta’s ownership spent big money last offseason bringing in Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn, and Rajon Rondo (plus Clint Capela, going back to the last trade deadline). That outlay of cash meant ownership and the front office expected results, even if people outside the organization saw health questions and defensive issues with the roster.

Atlanta is 14-20 and 11th in the East, not even making the play-in games if the postseason started today — way below Atlanta’s internal expectations.

All of that combined led to Pierce being fired on Monday.

If you want to make the point that the Hawks have been unlucky and have the point differential of a 17-17 team (which would have them tied for fifth in the East), or that injuries hit the Atlanta roster hard and it’s not fair to judge Pierce on what he did with this makeshift roster, you’d be right. Gregg Popovich had Pierce’s back.

Life isn’t fair. The life of an NBA coach can be the opposite of fair. Ownership expected better results and the Hawks haven’t come close to meeting them. Someone was going to pay the price.

“Our goal was to have progress this season, to move forward, and it wasn’t happening as fast as we wanted it to,” Hawks GM Travis Schlenk said to reporters Tuesday, adding as a franchise they expected to make the playoffs. He said Pierce was fired because they “needed a change to change the trajectory” of the team.

This is how the NBA works: S*** rolls downhill.

Ownership spent money and wanted results they weren’t getting. The GM picked the players and wasn’t going to fire himself, but someone had to pay the price for failing to meet expectations. That was Pierce. The fact that those expensive veterans have been out — Gallinari, Bogdanovic, Dunn, and just drafted Onyeku Okongwu have all missed significant time — is irrelevant. So is the fact that team star Young doesn’t care about defense or consistently work hard off the ball on offense (how good a team can be with him as a centerpiece remains an open question — and don’t forget Atlanta traded the pick that would be Luka Doncic for Young and the pick that became Cam Redish).

Atlanta’s defense was the biggest on-court issue for Pierce (although the rotations had been questionable). Pierce was hired away from “The Process” 76ers where the defense was solid, but that never translated to the Hawks (25th in the league in defensive rating this season). There are going to be challenges setting up the defense on a team where Young is at point guard — and an injury to De’Andre Hunter this season has hurt — but the defensive issues are not new.

Nate McMillan takes over as the interim coach. He got the Pacers to overachieve on defense for a couple of seasons (although people are just starting to appreciate how much having Myles Turner helps on that end of the court).

If the Hawks get healthy and move up in the standings — they are just 1.5 games out of the play-in games and 3.5 games out of being in the playoffs outright without the play-in games in a tight Eastern Conference — McMillan will get credit. Whether that translates to him keeping the head coaching job beyond this season is a different question entirely.

2) James Harden is playing like an MVP and the Nets keep on winning

James Harden is not going to win the MVP this season. It’s unlikely he finishes in the top five — voters are not going to forget him showing up to training camp late and out of shape in Houston, demanding a trade, being a distraction, and sabotaging the Rockets’ season.

But since getting to Brooklyn, Harden has looked like an MVP.

Harden is averaging 25.3 points a game, a league-best 11.3 assists a game, and is adding 8.7 rebounds a night since coming to Brooklyn. Monday night he had a 30/14/15 triple-double with zero turnovers, leading the Nets to an overtime win against the Spurs.

With Kevin Durant still sidelined (he also has played like an MVP, but he’s now missed too many games to win it) and Kyrie Irving having an off night (9-of-24 shooting), a lot fell on Harden Monday. Again. And he continues to prove he can carry a franchise a long way.

3) Zion Williamson, Pelicans upset Jazz by going inside

Utah’s defense is based around Rudy Gobert owning the paint — he is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year for good reason.

Zion Williamson and the Pelicans went right at him and scored 74 points in the paint Monday night. Anyone who doubts Zion is the best interior scorer in the game right now just needs to watch him go into Gobert’s body and still finish. That will change any sane person’s mind.

Throw in a quality night on both ends from Lonzo Ball — 23 points, seven boards, eight assists, and good defense on Mike Conley — and 26 points from Brandon Ingram, and you have a New Orleans upset win.

New Orleans remains two games out of even making the play-in games in the West, and it will be a seller at the trade deadline (J.J. Redick and Eric Bledsoe are available), but it’s nights like this, when the team defends, that the potential in New Orleans is clear.