In the aftermath of Friday night’s 102-94 road win over Cleveland, there was a small groundswell around the fact that Larry Drew willingly chose to sit Josh Smith for the duration of the 4th quarter. It’s a (relatively) small decision like this that can be magnified to the point of full-fledged scrutiny, and with the Hawks having won three straight games, I didn’t feel that such a move was worth the ire of pundits. This caused me to take a little deeper look at Drew’s performance in the recent past, and highlight some efforts that I’ve enjoyed.
Firstly, his handling of the back-court, both during the Devin Harris injury aftermath and prior, has been very good. Earlier in the week, Drew called out Jeff Teague for “lack of energy” (reported by the AJC’s Chris Vivlamore), and Teague responded with solid play, for the most part, against Detroit, and an outstanding, 27-point, 8-assist performance against Kyrie Irving on Friday night. Drew hasn’t been afraid to deploy his two best guards (Teague and Lou Williams) together at times, and he’s gone with the hot hand in crucial situations instead of sticking with a confined rotation of the two players. I don’t always agree with what he terms as the “hot hand”, but there is something admirable about being adaptable.
Team defense has been the calling card of this team from the first jump-ball this season, and credit for that falls squarely on Drew. It is no doubt a huge positive to have two mobile, athletic, and defensively-capable big men like Josh Smith and Al Horford to place the team in good positions, but if you examine the roster itself, it is at best defensively neutral, and there are probably more offense-first guys than defense-first guys. While this is a season-long praise of Drew, it should be noted that even on nights where his “stopper” Deshawn Stevenson can’t play due to a back-to-back, Drew and his staff have been able to deploy players like Morrow, Korver, and even Anthony Tolliver in positions where their defensive limitations haven’t buried Atlanta. Being 5th in the league in defensive efficiency (at time of press) is remarkable, and if you would have presented that statistic to me in the pre-season, I would have laughed.
Lastly, there is the ever-present cloud over Josh Smith’s offensive decision-making. This is an area where I’ve been highly critical of Drew in the past for the lack of accountability surrounding Smith’s selection, but in the past week, Drew has been active in putting pressure on Josh. First, in an article published by the AJC’s Chris Vivlamore, Drew was quoted as saying that Josh’s issues in the 4th quarter and overtime of Wednesday’s game against Detroit were “just poor shot selection” and that he and Josh had discussed the issue. Then, on Friday, in the midst of an epic 2-12 shooting night for Smith that included 1-7 shooting on shots from 16-23 feet, Drew benched Smith for the entirety of the 4th quarter in a closely-contested battle. While it certainly wasn’t a “confirmed” benching due to shot selection, I’d imagine that there is some basis to his unwillingness to bring Smith back into the game, and I actually loved the move. It is tough to process that in the next game after a public questioning of his shot selection, Smith would attempt that quantity of long two-point jumpers, and maybe Drew finally reached his boiling point. At any rate, the head coach was able to press the right buttons, and the Hawks mounted a huge 27-14 advantage in the 4th quarter to win a road game.
Overall, I think Larry Drew has taken the steps required to climb out of the bottom-third of the league’s coaches. I wouldn’t go as far to say that he’s a top-10 option in the role, but for a coach making peanuts in comparison to the upper-echelon coaches, he has brought value to this year’s edition of the Hawks. His relationship with Josh Smith will always get the most headlines, but Drew’s ability to coach the defense up, and motivate/deploy Jeff Teague & company in the appropriate ways will go a long way toward wins.