This feels like a Falcons move, and not the newly clever Falcons. This feels as if the Smiths were still in charge, still firing Dan Henning only to promote the overmatched Marion Campbell. (Or, to cite a more recent precedent, dumping Jerry Glanville to elevate June Jones.)
Stan Kasten, once the Hawks’ general manager, used to say: “If you’re going to make a change, make a change.” The current Hawks had the chance to do it and passed. They found their new head coach in an assistant who has worked here for six seasons, an assistant whose most persuasive argument was, in essence, “Mike Woodson never listened to me.”
Maybe Larry Drew will work out. But what does it say about the Hawks that their far-flung search only led them across the hall, that the most dramatic upshot of swapping Woodson for Drew is that the Atlanta Spirit will be paying its head coach less money? What does it say about an organization that ran out of ideas in Round 2 against Orlando turning to a six-year assistant to offer something new?
What it says: The Hawks made a mistake.
There are examples of such tweaks working out: Phil Jackson for Doug Collins in Chicago, more recently Alvin Gentry for Terry Porter (who’d succeeded Mike D’Antoni) in Phoenix. But there aren’t many, and there’s a reason. Promoting an incumbent assistant when you’ve just determined that your problem was coaching is generally an exercise in denial.
Said Michael Gearon Jr., one of the Hawks’ several owners and a man fond of the Gentry analogy: “With the players we have, we have to figure out how to get the most out of them.”
Why, then, if Drew knows the secret to unlocking this team’s potential, was he unable to impart it during his six years under Woodson?
Said Drew, speaking Monday at his inaugural media briefing: “That’s a tough question. Assistant coaches give the head coach as much information as they can. His job is to decide what to use. As a coaching staff, we did our job. Mike made a decision to use what he wanted to use.”
Larry Drew is 52. He has never been a head coach. There’s no assurance the players who regarded him as the kinder, gentler voice in the locker room will, to use Drew’s phrase, “run through a brick wall” for him. He can’t be their good buddy any longer. He has to coach. (And there’s where the Phoenix comparison fails: Gentry had been a head coach three times previously.)
Drew again: “I’m a new voice … although I have been here six years.”
Gearon again: “We hired the best guy available.”
And here again we see the problem with the Atlanta Spirit. Gearon Jr. is the principal basketball man among ownership, and he’s a fine fellow who knows the sport. But he — like his father Michael Gearon Sr., once the Hawks’ president and now a co-owner — tends to fall in love with the talent on hand. And when the Gearons hear that a few minor alterations are all that’s warranted … well, they’re the Amen Corner swooning to string music.
The Hawks have good players, but not yet enough of them. They need more size — though not necessarily a different center — and a deeper bench. They need better and more willing defenders. Perhaps the sound of Drew’s old-but-new voice will lift them to greater heights, but the odds are against it. Odds are the Hawks will do as the forlorn Falcons did after twice promoting from within: They’ll be looking for a new coach three years hence.
Given the chance to hire a new new voice, the Hawks chose instead to blame it all on Woody and to anoint the aide he wouldn’t heed. (And to save a few hundred thousand bucks in the process.) I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but I have to admit I am.