The Hawks decided not to offer coach Mike Woodson a new contract.
Woodson coached the Hawks for six seasons. The team improved its record in each of the last five years, including a 53-29 record this season that was fifth-best in franchise history, but GM Rick Sund decided the team needs a new leader.
“It was a hard decision,” Sund said. “When I analyzed and looked at it, I went round and round. Finally I think it got to the situation where the compelling thought is, ‘Maybe change is good for everybody.’ That happens quite a bit in the NBA. Maybe the players need to hear another voice, and maybe Mike needs to talk to another group.”
Sund declined to comment on the details of his evaluation of Woodson. Sund also didn’t want to discuss any potential candidates to replace Woodson or offer a broad outline of what qualities he wants in a successor.
Early media speculation has centered on Dallas assistant Dwane Casey, whom the Hawks interviewed before hiring Woodson. Sund was the Seattle GM when Casey was an assistant coach there for five seasons.
Woodson, who is free to seek other jobs, did not return a message. He has defended his tenure with the Hawks while highlighting accomplishments that include three consecutive playoffs appearances, and said he received unfairly harsh criticism for the team’s loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
But Hawks management had doubts that Woodson’s approach would lead to further improvement, according to two people with knowledge of the decision. Among their concerns was that Woodson would have an increasingly difficult time getting through to his players if he returned.
Some players felt Woodson didn’t rebuke certain players as strongly as he did others for their mistakes, according to four people familiar with the locker-room dynamics. The differing levels of accountability led to resentment for some players , the people said.
Players credited Woodson with helping to maintain a loose atmosphere and reducing the length, frequency, and intensity of practices in an effort to keep them fresh for the playoffs. But one player said he hopes a new coach who doesn’t “play favorites” can improve the team’s chemistry.
Beyond those issues, the Hawks weren’t satisfied with Woodson’s 8-14 postseason record over the past two seasons. Last season the Hawks beat Miami in the first round before losing 4-0 to Cleveland in the semifinals. This season the Hawks beat Milwaukee in the opening round before losing in four games to the Magic by an NBA-record total margin of 101 points.
Hawks forward Josh Smith said the team’s decision to part ways with Woodson despite his success is a sign of the higher expectations for the franchise.
“It feels good to know we are not just satisfied with just being the eighth seed or improving every season,” he said. “We’ve got expectations of going to the playoffs every year and being a difference-maker in the playoffs. The organization has everything going in the right direction.”
Woodson, 52, had a 206-286 record with the Hawks. He took over for Terry Stotts in 2004-05 after previously serving as an assistant coach in Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Milwaukee.
Former Hawks GM Billy Knight tried to fire Woodson more than once during his third season but ownership rebuffed him. Knight resigned after the 2008 season and was replaced by Sund, who signed Woodson to a two-year contract after he guided the Hawks to their first postseason appearance in eight years.
Smith is the only player on the roster to play all six seasons under Woodson. The two had a contentious relationship at times but Smith said they had come to an understanding.
“It was rough starting out, but everything was smooth sailing a couple of years ago once we finally figured out what we wanted out of each other,” Smith said. “You just hate to see somebody you came in the game with leave like this.”