For a guy considered an afterthought of a candidate, a guy who some figured was hired because he lobbied so hard, wouldn’t make demands and certainly came cheap, Larry Drew keeps passing tests.
It’s one thing for a team to play hard for a coach in his first season, when everybody in the locker room is just happy that the previous guy is out of town. It’s another to keep that same team from derailing in Season 2, particularly when the coach has no real resume for how he responds to landmines.
Al Horford went down 11 games into the season. Still, this Hawks team, wrapped in gauze much of the season, managed to go 40-26, the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks overcame injuries. They used lineups resembling the Lollipop Guild. They endured Tracy McGrady publicly whining about his playing time and Ivan “The Ticking Time Bomb” Johnson getting sent home off a road trip because of a spat with teammates during a game.
They accomplished this in part because of Drew.
Some coaches succeed because of X’s and O’s. Drew has succeeded largely because of his ability to manage players and massage egos. He has stressed positives and avoided verbally beating down his players, a la Mike Woodson.
It helps that this is a veteran team. It helps that Jerry Stackhouse, for as few minutes as he has played, has been the locker room’s resident psychotherapist. But head coaches set the tone.
After Horford’s injury, Drew said, “I was a little birdie on everybody’s shoulder. I was always trying to inject some confidence in them. You don’t manipulate them. You just constantly remind them how good they are. Even in losses, rather than pound them with negativity, I’d find a positive in the game. I think the players appreciated that. In the past sometimes when things didn’t go well, they expected to be chastised. But when I took over, I just thought with the make-up of our club it was important to take a different approach.”
That last comment could’ve been taken as a veiled shot at Woodson, his former boss. To say there’s a chill now between the two would be an understatement. They haven’t spoken since Woodson was fired two years ago. It follows that when the Hawks faced the New York Knicks this season after Woodson took over as interim coach, it was a big moment for both parties.
Asked if there was a tenseness when the teams met late in this season, Drew said: “I wouldn’t say tenseness. I’m competitive, but I’ve always try to remind myself not to view any game differently.”
So what’s a better word?
To prove yourself?
“Pretty much. Once New York made the coaching change, I knew they would be a little different. I knew there would be a level of intensity there because players usually respond to a coaching change. I knew he wanted to come back here and beat us — and I sure wanted to beat them.”
Josh Smith has had the best season of his career. Whether that’s because of maturity or Drew, we may never know. But it happened. Smith said of Drew, “He’s always positive,” and he remarked that, “This is the closest team I’ve ever been on.”
Given the backdrop, that’s remarkable. General manager Rick Sund brought in six new players. The lockout and condensed training camp limited bonding time. Drew turned Marvin Williams into a sixth man. He shifted Joe Johnson to small forward. He has tapped into the unusual melding of personalities on his bench.
Even the rarely effusive Johnson said, “L.D. has been great as far as picking his spots, knowing when to pull guys aside. You’ve got so many egos in the locker room, you never know who’s having a bad day or a good day. That’s the hardest part of his job.”
In Drew’s first season, the Hawks eliminated Orlando, one of their tormentors, in the first round of the playoffs and took Chicago, a No. 1 seed, to six games in the second round.
But he described the season as “a touch-and-feel situation. Now I feel like I can win every game I go into. I didn’t have that feeling before.”
He talked about Pat Riley, for whom he played at the end of his career in Los Angeles, saying Riley had more influence on him than any other coach.
“After I signed he sent me a letter before I had even met him, and I felt the energy in the letter,” he said. “The way he managed people was impressive. Everything was done with such precision. I called my brother after the second practice and said, ‘I see now why they have all those banners hanging up in the Forum.’”
The contract: Drew was hired as the NBA’s lowest-paid coach. His second-season salary, close to $1.5 million, still scrapes the bottom in his fraternity. Nobody has said a word to him about the team option for next year being exercised.
“I feel everything will take care of itself,” he said. “I was grateful just to get the job. I had something to prove. Not trying to toot my own horn or anything, but I feel good about these last two years.”
Drew’s next test comes against the Boston Celtics and Doc Rivers, the league’s highest-paid coach. Regardless of how this playoff series turns out, Drew has shown he can coach a little. To go 40-26 this season was significant. And somebody deserves a raise.
By Jeff Schultz