As sometimes happens in the fast-paced world of 21st Century sportswriting, events have intervened. The Hawks announced at 1:59 p.m. Friday that they have exercised their option to keep Larry Drew as head coach. A new post will be forthcoming, but I’m leaving this up as a reminder that … well, that it wasn’t MY idea.
The other day, someone who follows the Atlanta Hawks in a journalistic capacity asked: “Do you think Josh Smith really wants to be coached?” That’s not just a great metaphysical question — it’s the key to this offseason and the seasons to come.
After thinking a bit, I said: “I think he does.” And right there I had my blueprint. At this moment in their strange history, what do the Hawks need to do?
Keep Josh Smith but find him a coach.
There are three major variables: Smith has one season remaining on his contract and has made noises about wanting out of here; the club holds an option on coach Larry Drew, and general manager Rick Sund is out of contract after June 30. Put simply, the Hawks have a chance this summer to change their dynamics without having to buy anybody out.
In place since June 2008, Sund has acquired two talents of the first rank: Jamal Crawford in trade in June 2009 but since gone to free agency, and Jeff Teague, drafted in 2009. Four of the Hawks who started Game 6 against Boston this month started Game 7 against the Celtics in May 2008. Think about that: A team that hasn’t gotten past Round 2 is still trying to make Billy Knight’s grand design work.
Drew arrived in 2004 as Mike Woodson’s chief assistant and was promoted when Woodson was shown the door after presiding over five consecutive seasons of improved results. Drew’s selling point to ownership was that he’d be able to get more out of the players than Mean Ol’ Woody, but all he has gotten is a (slightly) worse record and (many) more jump shots.
For the Hawks to get really good, as opposed to trying to stay pretty good a bit longer, they’ll need more dynamic management. They’ll need a GM who can stand up to ownership and swat away bad ideas. (Such as: Promoting the top assistant of the guy you’ve just fired.) They’ll need a coach who might actually make the players listen. But in both cases, they’ll need men who recognize that the Hawks’ future must revolve around Josh Smith.
And that’s scary. He could leave after next season. But the guess here is that Smith would look favorably on staying if he knew he, and not Johnson, would become the centerpiece. That’s scary, too. Smith can look like the best player on the floor and the worst player in the world in the span of 30 seconds. But he just finished his eighth NBA season and hasn’t yet made an All-Star roster, and he has arrived at a personal crossroads: He can either maximize his gifts and become a superstar, or he can continue to play at 70 percent capacity and be remembered as a guy who never figured it out.
I’m inclined to give Smith the benefit of the doubt, for this reason: In eight NBA seasons, he has known only two head coaches, and one of them has been with him for all eight. He didn’t play college ball. He’ll turn 27 in December, but I’m not sure Smith has really been taught how to play.
Woodson came the closest, but his manner grated. Say this for Woody, though: He had nearly convinced Smith not to hoist so many jump shots, but then he was gone and Drew offered free rein. In his final season under Woodson, Smith took seven 3-pointers; in his first season under Drew, he took 154.
I’m not sure Smith sees Drew as more than the nice-guy assistant, and Smith doesn’t need a buddy. He needs a firmer hand on his shoulder and a voice of experience in his ear. He needs someone who has been around the NBA, who has a reputation as being good with players without being an enabler. Dwane Casey, since snapped up by Toronto, would have done wonders with Smith. Nate McMillan, who’s between jobs, could have the same effect.
As for a new general manager: Start with the organizational charts of San Antonio and Oklahoma City. (Two assistant GMs worth knowing: Dennis Lindsey of the Spurs and Troy Weaver of the Thunder.) But here we come to great imponderable regarding the Hawks: Would anyone of consequence be willing to work for these owners?
For the sake of argument, let’s say someone would. (Given a suitable pay packet and the assurance that meddling would be kept at a minimum.) Let’s say there’s a rising executive who wouldn’t be afraid to tamper with the Core Four and a learned coach who would welcome the chance to turn Josh Smith into one of the best players in the sport. If so, these Hawks might yet have a future that’s not just more of the same.
By Mark Bradley