Mike Woodson is a free agent at season’s end. He says he wants to stay, but he has been nettled by Rick Sund’s refusal to offer an extension. And if the Hawks crash out in Round 1, Sund’s hesitance might turn out to be sagacious. For all the good work Woodson has done here, wouldn’t a loss to the understaffed Bucks suggest that this team and this coach have gone as far together as they’re going to go?
But know this: Woodson is respected around the league. He’ll be a head coach somewhere next season, and he might well get a better offer than a re-up from the Hawks. Already the annual Larry Brown rumors have commenced, the latest ticketing the nomad’s nomad for Philadelphia, where he’ll become team president and hire his buddy Woody to coach the 76ers.
So now, as the Hawks face a rather enormous Game 5 tonight, we must ask: If not Woodson, who? The drums will beat for the usual suspects — Avery Johnson, Byron Scott, Eddie Jordan, even Sam Mitchell — but I can’t see any of them as an upgrade.
Johnson presided over one of the biggest flops in NBA finals history, taking a hugely gifted Dallas team and losing to Dwyane Wade. Scott had the benefit of coaching two of the finest point guards of the era — Jason Kidd and Chris Paul — and still contrived to get fired by both the Nets and the Hornets. Jordan, seen as the brains behind Scott with New Jersey, has been fired three times and his most recent team, the Sixers, quit on him. Mitchell, who grew up in Columbus and played at Mercer, had one winning season over four full years before being dumped by Toronto.
If the Hawks indeed wind up searching for a coach, they won’t be seeking someone to preside over a rebuilding team. This is a gifted roster that’s getting close to what should be its peak years. (This applies even if Joe Johnson flees, which I don’t believe he will.) The next coach should be someone who could take what Woodson has done and lift it higher.
To be frank, there aren’t many available coaches who fit that bill. Gregg Popovich isn’t walking through that door; Doc Rivers isn’t, either. And the biggest name on what some believe to be Sund’s wish list — meaning Doug Collins – isn’t all that big.
Doug Collins has coached three NBA teams over eight seasons. He hasn’t taken a team to the NBA finals. He has won a total of three playoff series, all with Chicago in the ’80s. He was fired by the Bulls to make way for assistant coach Phil Jackson, who started winning titles by the bushel. Collins has since been canned by both Detroit and Washington.
He’s a high-profile guy because he’s on TV, but so is Jimmy Fallon. Besides, Collins keeps turning teams down. What about Atlanta would make him want to do it again at age 58?
If there is to be a Woodson replacement, it’s apt to be a current NBA assistant. Tom Thibodeau is Rivers’ defensive coordinator in Boston, but would he have the cachet to make a roster of guys now making huge money listen? (Maybe.) And don’t the Hawks need a guy to redesign the Iso-Joe offense more than another defensive-minded man?
Were I Sund, I’d target Dwane Casey. He was a head coach in Minnesota, where he was fired 40 games into his second season. But the T-Wolves have become an example of how not to run a basketball operations, and Casey has worked alongside two of the best in business — Nate McMillan in Seattle and now Rick Carlisle in Dallas. Casey is smart and personable and good with his players, and he has the added benefit of having served under Sund with the Sonics.
I know what you’re thinking: Dwane Casey isn’t a household name. That’s the point. The Hawks aren’t going to land one. (Would Rick Pitino leave Louisville to work for the Atlanta Spirit?) And honesty compels me to report that, as much as I like Casey — he’s a Kentucky guy, too — I don’t know for a fact that he’d do better than Woodson.