The Atlanta Hawks could have changed a lot this offseason without doing very much. They could have said goodbye to both general manager Rick Sund and coach Larry Drew without having to buy either out. By announcing Friday that they’ve chosen to keep Drew another season, the Hawks have again sent the message that they regard being pretty good as good enough.
Sund’s fate — his contract expires June 30 — is still unknown, but it seemed rather significant that he was the only one quoted in the we’re-keeping-Drew release. (Would a GM who’s actually leaving be allowed to vote yea or nay on a coach? These being the Hawks, maybe.) And if you wondered how long Sund would wait to invoke injuries as an excuse for remaining status quo, the answer was 25 words.
Then this: “The Hawks have reached the postseason in each of his years on the bench, and we feel Larry’s experience, expertise and dedication to the game were a key ingredient to our success.”
As we know, the Hawks reached the playoffs in each of Mike Woodson’s final three seasons, but that didn’t keep this crew, Sund included, from dumping him and promoting his longtime assistant. On the record, the Hawks have been worse in their first two seasons under Drew than in their final two seasons under Woodson, but apparently this, to Sund and presumably to ownership, constitutes “success.”
Which only goes to show: No matter how often this organization boasts of its commitment to excellence, all it’s really trying to do is not to look too bad. Would the Celtics or the Lakers — franchises that co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. suggested his team belongs alongside because all three happened to reach Round 2 of the postseason three years running — define “reach[ing] the postseason” as “success”? Could anyone look at the opportunity just wasted against Boston as anything but a reversal?
This offseason could have been — and still might, theoretically — a time for recalibration. The Hawks could have found a better coach (Nate McMillan would have been my first call) and a new general manager (Dennis Lindsey and Troy Weaver, assistant GM’s with San Antonio and Oklahoma City, would have been my starting points) and tried to reshape the prized Core Four to reflect the growing reality that Josh Smith, not Joe Johnson, is the key to brighter tomorrows.
Instead: Eight days after elimination, the Hawks moved to keep Drew. Why? Well, he works cheap. Beyond that, I really don’t know. To say he hasn’t been a disaster as head coach ignores the reason he was given the job: Drew convinced management he could improve on what Woodson had done. Two years later, he hasn’t.
Drew has de-emphasized Joe Johnson without finding a workable replacement for the Iso-Joes. (And the Hawks still do the Iso-Joes — just not quite as often.) One of the league’s better collections of youngish talent has become a crew dependent on the jump shot, which is utterly counterintuitive: You’d want a team so quick and agile to shoot driving to the hoop, not standing 20 feet away.
The most damning number on Drew involves, as do many damning Hawks numbers, Josh Smith: In his final season under Woodson, Smith took 263 shots of 16 feet or longer (this according to Basketball-Reference.com); in his first season under Drew, he took 526. The belief here is that Drew’s way of handling his most gifted player has been to let Smith do as he pleases, which benefits neither team nor player. The belief here is that Smith is less apt to listen to Drew in 2013 than he was in 2004 or 2011. The belief here is that, if the Hawks are ever to maximize Smith, they won’t do it with this coach.
Another sobering truth: The shortened schedule wasn’t exactly balanced. The Hawks played 25 games against the seven Eastern clubs who failed to make the playoffs, all of whom finished under .500. Boston and Chicago and Indiana each played 23 games against those seven; Miami played 21. Among Eastern playoff qualifiers, only the Knicks had so many games against the conference’s bottom tier. The Hawks played the minimum four games against the top four finishers in the West; every other Eastern playoff qualifier except Indiana played more.
The Hawks could have taken their first Round 1 elimination since 2008 as a signal that change is warranted. Alas, it comes as no great surprise that they pointed to injuries as the reason to stay a course that hasn’t really gotten them very far. Maybe they’ll fool us now by letting Sund leave and hiring someone to come in and bust up the Core Four, but in light of this offseason’s first big move there’s no reason to hold out hope. We’ve again been reminded that these are the Atlanta Hawks.
By Mark Bradley