Firings shouldn’t be celebrated. But the message that a firing sends can be.
Mike Woodson is out as Hawks head coach. Don’t celebrate a man’s unemployment. But celebrate why.
“This wasn’t an easy decision,” general manager Rick Sund said Friday night, his eyes a bit red at the end of a long day of meetings and interviews. “But at the end of the day, I thought it was time for the players to hear another voice. Change in sports is sometimes good, and I felt we needed change.”
Sund didn’t feel a need to get into the specific of the whys and hows. But this was the message: The bar has been raised.
The Hawks are not calling Woodson’s exit a firing. They don’t have to. His contract was about to expire. But this is semantics. They no longer wanted him to coach their team. Regardless of what’s legally correct, it’s a termination.
Why? Because tere’s a mandate to win now and win big. Imagine that –a pro sports team in Atlanta shooting for something higher.
Would Sund have kept Woodson if he had a year left on his contract?
“I don’t answer hypotheticals,” he said.
I think we know the answer.
The Hawks’ regular season win totals increased every season under Woodson. He took the team to the postseason three straight years. He won first-round series in the last two, and in neither year were the Hawks expected to get past their second-round opponent (Cleveland and Orlando).
But winning 53 games and a playoff series isn’t good enough anymore.
Few expected the Hawks would defeat Orlando. But getting stretched to seven games by Milwaukee in the first round and losing four games to the Magic by an NBA record composite of 101 points — including an embarrassing 30 points in the desperation Game 3 at Philips Arena — was unacceptable.
Sund thought so. Atlanta Spirit owners thought so. Certainly, the thousands of fans who booed the Hawks early and often during Game 3 — and the thousands who didn’t show up for Game 4 — thought so. The Hawks had gone as far as they could go under Woodson.
All of the Hawks’ ills are not Woodson’s fault. This roster has flaws. There is no true center (Al Horford is playing out of position). The starting point guard (Mike Bibby) declined significantly this year — after getting a new three-year contract, oddly enough. The team’s most dynamic player (Josh Smith) is a Hall of Famer one minute and the epitome of a petulant professional athlete the next.
But it had become clear in the playoffs that players had stopped listening to Woodson. A new voice was needed before the direction of the organization started to turn south again.
The Hawks played two playoff series this year and Woodson was outcoached in both. Scott Skiles, whose Milwaukee team lost one starter (guard Michael Redd) early in the season and his best player (center Andrew Bogut) three weeks before the playoffs, nonetheless got his players to believe in themselves and their head coach. The Bucks pushed the Hawks to the brink of elimination before Atlanta players woke up in a cold sweat and won the last two games impressively.
Question: Why did it take being pushed to the edge of a cliff before responding?
A focused team plays with equal parts confidence and desperation in the playoffs. That goes back to preparation. That goes to coaching. Yes, players share in the problems. Even Horford questioned the effort level of teammates after the third game of the Orlando series. But it also goes to players listening to, working for and following their coach.
The first game against the Magic was an embarrassment. The Hawks lost by 43. Sund said he didn’t put much stock in that result because the Magic were rested and the Hawks were coming off a grueling, seven-game series. Left unsaid was the cause of the series going seven games. Regardless, there was no reason for Game 3 faceplant at home.
The half-court offense was too predictable (we’ve all seen enough of “Iso” Joe Johnson). The defensive effort was inconsistent. Rookie point guard Jeff Teague sat on the bench for most of the season, a not uncommon fate for a young player under Woodson.
In all matters concerning Woodson, stubbornness reigned. Flexibility, creativity, objectivity — not so much.
Woodson’s six year record (206-286) will not rank as one of the best in franchise history. His impact will be debated. Defenders will say he can’t be blamed for going 13-69 because he didn’t have players. Critics will claim he received too much credit for going 53-29 because he had players.
We’ll find out soon enough who was right. But there’s no question the right message is being sent.