Examining Mike Woodson

Atlanta Braves at Milwaukee Bucks
Source: YardBarker.com

Any discussion pertaining to the Atlanta Hawks and their successes or failures will ultimately end up in a conversation about head coach Mike Woodson. To say that the coaching profession is tough would be an understatement. Coaching at the games highest level could be a nightmare. Are the complaints and concerns of thousands of Hawk fans deserved? Or does it just go with the territory?

Following the Hawks day in and day out gives you the opportunity to second guess a lot of things. I have done so and will continue to do so. Its part of being a fan, and in my opinion shows that I care about the outcome. It is like injecting “this is what I would do in this case if I were the coach”. I am not saying my opinion is right by any means but it is mine and as a fan I am entitled to have one.

A question I had even before I started blogging about the team was how different are the complaints that you hear about Mike Woodson from complaints other teams fans make about their coaches? This was something I wasn’t really aware of until I became active more in the NBA blogosphere. Just this season I have read about fans complaining about rotations and too many iso sets in Portland, not playing or developing young players in Portland and New Orleans and a multitude of others. Sound familiar? Even more recently I have read an article suggesting that Mike D’Antoni should have played a malcontent like Stephon Marbury.

Now I have always loved the way Nate McMillan has coached and developed his players. They were a young team that was competitive very fast. Their rotations probably haven’t pleased everyone due to their roster being deep. Stacked with a lot of young players like Jerryd Bayless, there is only so much time to go around. I had always been a fan of Byron Scott. I had no idea there was so much criticism of him until after he was fired. Scott didn’t play rookies not named Chris Paul and ultimately those young players didn’t develop. Marcus Thornton and Darren Collison could not get on the floor while he was coaching in New Orleans and have since performed well. Mike D’Antoni is another “name” coach who was architect of the Phoenix Suns. Yet when the team is losing even he isn’t safe from criticism.

Two of the three examples I gave you were from losing situations. New Orleans and New York are not going to the playoffs. Portland although being ravaged by injuries appears safe as a seventh or eighth seed. Their are many other examples out there of criticism. My point is that it goes with the territory. Its a players league and most of the time they get all of the credit for winning and coaches get all of the blame for losing.

Lets look at Mike Woodson. Here is a guy that comes from an excellent basketball background. He played for Bob Knight. I might not agree with a lot of Knight’s methods but there is no denying that he is one of the most brilliant basketball minds out there and Woodson played for him. Woodson was an assistant for Larry Brown when the Detroit Pistons won the NBA Championship. Brown is somewhat of a nomad but he is the only coach to ever win an NCAA championship and an NBA championship. He had some great teams in Indiana with the Pacers. Larry Brown knows basketball and Woodson coached under him arguably during his peak in terms of NBA success.

Woodson is now finishing up his sixth season with the Hawks. The team’s record has improved throughout each season. With three more victories the Hawks will become a 50 win team for the first time since the 97-98 season. Yet Woodson remains a maligned coach in Atlanta without a contract for next season. I think most Atlanta fans would scoff at the notion that Woodson might actually draw interest for other clubs in the NBA. I think that is a good question. Will other teams contact Woodson about their coaching vacancies this off season? Undoubtedly I have to feel that they will. Look at the track record. The career record is not great but his coaching record is on the upward trend. I would love to know how Woodson is thought of by other coaches and GM’s.

I still believe that the switching every pick strategy that the Hawks employ is a hold over from the Billy Knight plan of having long and athletic players that were versatile and not tied to a position. Like any other strategy in professional sports there have been nights where it has looked really good or has looked really bad. I don’t have a problem with switching screens. To switch or to hedge on a ball screen is an age old discussion and debate in all basketball coaching circles. Some coaches always switch, some always hedge. Some even trap every ball screen. My problem is that in the NBA the highest level of basketball I don’t think you can be successful night in and night out saying that we are going to switch every screen.

This is where the element of surprise and not being predictable is important. If you go back to the last game against the Bobcats, the Hawks trapped the first ball screen they saw in the second quarter and forced D.J. Augustine to take a time out. That was unpredictable and it worked. The offense thought one thing was coming and the Hawks surprised them with something else. Teams constantly tinker with screen and roll defense. They constantly change the way they are going to rotate defensively. To my disconnected eye I don’t see those adjustments. I am not at practice and I haven’t poured through hours and hours of tape but I don’t see the Hawks making adjustments in game or from game to game on a regular basis. Those adjustments are key especially once the game turns into the chess match that is the NBA Playoffs.

The development of Jeff Teague is another hot topic when it comes to discussing Woodson. Should he play more, should he be given a longer leash? Teague was unfortunate to have had the Hawks have so many veterans in the back court. Here is probably where I disagree with Mike Woodson the most. Phil Jackson for example has always gone out of his way to declare a role for each player on his team one through twelve or thirteen whatever the case. In reading his two books “Sacred Hoops” and “The Last Season” he chronicles how important it is to make those guys whether they are bench veterans or young players to feel that they have a place on the team. For the young players you have to develop them by giving them some sort resemblance of playing time. By defining roles they are not as over matched when they go into a game because they are focusing on their role that the coach has given them.

Whether you like Jackson or not, you can’t argue with his success. Sure he has been blessed with coaching some great teams with great players but when you have won as many championships as he has you are afforded those perks. This is where I think Woodson missed the boat on Jeff Teague. Teague is the anti Bibby. He is quick, a penetrator, and can be an outright pest on defense. Teague could have been sent into the game with the instructions to make the opposing point guard give up the ball, push the pace, and play hard while you are in there. Do those things and you will get your time.

Had Teague been given this opportunity I would argue that he would be better for it and so to would the Hawks. Sure their would have been nights where the rookie might not have gotten back in during the second half but their would have been nights that he could have made a difference. As it is now we are resigned to the fact that the Hawks will go into the off season unsure as to whether or not Teague is the team’s future answer at the point guard position.

Offensively the Hawks tend to run what I like to jokingly call “organized chaos” As a team they have some nice set plays that lead to decent shots or looks at the basket. They also from time to time will run a set to get a specific player (usually Al Horford) into a post up situation although I have seen them do this for Marvin Williams and Josh Smith. The problem lies in their iso driven motion offense. Lately they have been running a lot of ball screen and roll or screen and pop with Al Horford which has been effective due to his ability to knock down the perimeter jump shot. The problem lies when in the fourth quarter the Hawks simply spread the floor and hand the ball to Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford and say “go make a play”.

Make no mistake that good teams are going to have the ball in their best players hands at crunch time. That player then either has to make the shot or make the decision to pass the ball to a teammate that can get a better shot depending on what the defense does. When the double team comes the star player has to be able and willing to make the correct pass. Sometimes coming down the stretch Joe is not willing to pass the ball and other times there isn’t anyone available to pass it to due to no movement whatsoever. Many times the only player open is Josh Smith who is 19 feet from the basket which is a less than ideal situation. That is coaching and it is a bad design offensively.

Now a lot of what I have written here I admit is speculation or my opinion which I have formed by watching nearly every game this season and many over the last two seasons. I am not claiming to be completely right as without an inside look (think “A Season on the Brink”) there is no way to know what the Hawks actual game plan is and what adjustments are being made or attempted to be made. I think one important thing to remember is that the coaches on the Hawks coaching staff are professionals and have a strong basketball background. These are not YMCA coaches and sometimes as fans it is easy to write them off as such. As an aspiring coach myself I would love to take a look at the inner workings of the team and see the game plan, see the play books, to ultimately see the whole picture. From that you could draw a much better conclusion.

Coach Woodson did a great interview for The Starting Five that Peachtree Hoops covered pretty well. In that interview Woodson said:

You still have to be persistent every day you come to work. I haven’t changed much over the six years that I’ve been here. I’ve been persistent and stubborn at times to try to get my system across. Guys gotta wanna buy in. These guys have bought in. They play hard every night. I never question in terms of them playing hard. For five and a half years now, they’ve really played hard. That says a lot as far as I’m concerned from a coaching standpoint.

Ultimately this sums up coaching in my opinion. As a coach you develop a system and you have to sell it to your players. Coach Woodson has his system. I may not like it and there is nothing that says that systems don’t change but for the most part what you see is what you get. As a franchise the Hawks and General Manager Rick Sund will ultimately have to make the decision this off season whether or not they like the system and are willing to buy in once again.

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