This will sound strange coming from the guy who wanted Mike Woodson fired a half-dozen times, but here it is: The Hawks need to offer Woodson a new contract today. He has earned it, and there’s no reason to let a smooth season be roiled by uncertainty.
Woodson’s contract expires June 30, 2010. General manager Rick Sund has said he’ll wait until the season ends to begin negotiations. This wouldn’t have been a big deal three years ago when the Hawks were awful and Woodson was sitting on a career record of 69-177. But it has the potential to become a big deal — or non-deal — now.
Because folks around the NBA don’t see Woodson as the guy who was 100-plus games under .500. They see him as the coach who rode out the 13-69 of 2004-2005 and now has the Hawks on pace to go 61-21. They’ll see him as a coach who held things together long enough for talent to gather around him and who knew what to do when finally he got it. (Which is how I, who railed long and loud over his first 3 1/2 seasons, view him now.)
Woodson can be contrary. (For the record, he and I have never had a cross word in person.) He’s rightfully proud of what he has done and believes he should have been handed a new contract long ago. Asked about the matter this week, he politely declined to comment. But that’s where the contrariness comes in.
Sometimes Woodson will say, “I don’t want to talk about my situation.” Other times — usually with out-of-town reporters — he’ll bring it up. As this season unfolds and media types gather around the Hawks, the matter will become a Talking Point, the same as Joe Johnson’s stated intent to play out his contract. The difference is, Johnson is choosing to become a free agent. Woodson doesn’t want to be.
Asked if the Woodson matter could become a distraction, Sund wrote in an email: “No, I don’t think so.” I have great respect for Sund as an administrator — he did retain three big-name free agents and land Jamal Crawford and Joe Smith in one offseason — but I think he’s wrong here.
It’s generally not good policy to renegotiate while a team is playing. (What if the party in question gets offended by the team’s offer? Does he sulk for a month and therefore damage the team?) But I don’t think Woodson is looking for absolute top dollar. He’s seeking affirmation. If this lingers beyond the Hawks’ final playoff game, he might just decide to seek affirmation from another franchise.
The weird part: Hawks management showed it valued Woodson when the valuation was open to debate. Ownership rejected then-GM Billy Knight’s request to fire Woodson in February 2007, and Sund could have dumped the coach when he arrived four months later. (Woodson was out of contract then, too.) But Sund offered two years, which seemed reasonable at the time. Now he’s sticking to those two years.
“We’re extremely pleased with the job Mike has done,” said Michael Gearon Jr., the chief basketball voice among ownership. “And we’ve demonstrated loyalty to him with the growth that has taken place over the last six years. That’s why he’s the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference.”
So why not just say: “Here’s five more years?” Because Sund wants to wait.
I wish I could say I understand this, but I don’t. Woodson wants to stay. The Hawks like what he’s doing. Where’s the sticking point?
There’s a chance this all gets put to rest with a 10-minute negotiation six months hence. Sund says, “Woody, you’re our guy,” and Woodson says, “Where do I sign?” But there’s risk involved. If this team reaches the Eastern Conference finals (or, gasp, goes beyond), this coach will be a hot commodity.
Not long ago, few among us would have been sad to see Mike Woodson depart, but times and dynamics have changed. The guy who didn’t seem the right coach for any team is the right coach for this team. And this is a really good team.