Now that the dust has settled and Larry Drew is officially the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, I want to take a look at what may be happening down the road. The more I read about Larry Drew, the more I’m liking this hiring despite the fact that it isn’t interjecting a lot of enthusiasm in the fan base at the moment. I’m not much for making moves to draw attention anyway. I’m more about the bottom line, which is winning. Throughout this process, I wanted the Hawks to hire the coach they could win with, not a coach that would bring fans to the arena. To be honest with you, I’m not sure of many fans that go to games to see a coach coach. George Karl once made the comment that a good head coach has the same impact as a 5th or 6th man on the roster. To me, that is a profound statement and shows the reality that this is a players league. It’s probably one of the reasons college coaches don’t do well in the NBA. They are used to micromanaging and coaching every aspect of the game at the college level, and in the NBA, there are times where you just have to let the players play. The coaching in the NBA is so equal across the board as it is, it makes the differences between teams in the league a matter of the players on those teams. So while some would have rather seen Mark Jackson get the job because they have seen him on TV and know him, there is no evidence that supports Mark Jackson would get more out of this team or even bring more fans to the arena.
The guy Larry Drew will draw the most comparisons to over the next few days is Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry. While there are some differences in head coaching experience and coaching style, the situations they are going into are very similar. Both coaches took over teams that have good players and are playoff bound. Larry is one of the few lucky first time head coaches whose first opportunity comes with a winning team. The interesting thing that Alvin Gentry did when he took over is that he got the Suns playing up tempo basketball again. When Terry Porter took over, he slowed the team down with the idea that the slower pace would improve the defense. After his firing, Alvin Gentry pushed the tempo back up, and the Suns immediately made a push for the playoffs. That push got him the job full time, and in his first full season, Alvin Gentry did as good of a coaching job as any coach in the NBA. He maintained the up tempo approach, got the team to play consistent defense, developed his bench into a strong unit, and had the players on the team believing in themselves.
The last sentence above is the task that Larry Drew will be charged with.
1. Install and maintain an up tempo approach to playing basketball
This is something the Hawks players have been wanting, and this is something Hawks fans nationwide have been wanting to see. This is a very athletic team that is built to run. Under Mike Woodson, this athletic team was routinely in the bottom ten of the league in pace factor. Maybe some of that had to do with not having a point guard that could operate in the open court and make good decisions without turning the ball over at a high rate. While no one really knows if Larry will do this, those who cover the Hawks and have been around the coaching staff report that Larry will likely do just this. There has been talk that Larry has been pushing for a more up tempo style for a while now, but he was rebuffed by the stubborness of Mike Woodson.
2. Get consistency with the team’s defensive effort
While many people like to focus on the offense and point to it as the Hawks main problem, the biggest issue facing the Hawks to me is their lack of consistent defensive effort. Mike Woodson has the reputation for being a defensive minded coach, but he was never able to get consistent defense out of this group. Many will say that it is because they don’t have good defenders. I don’t buy into that notion. I’ve seen teams who are much less athletic than this one play much better defense overall. There is a book called Stumbling Upon Wins written by Dave Berri and Martin Schmidt. In this book, the two economists do a detailed study of the head coaches in the NBA, and they found that NBA head coaches have more of an impact on the defensive play of the team they are coaching than they do with any other aspect of the team. I would like to see Larry move away from the switching defense that Mike Woodson employed. This team simply was not good at running the switches, and too many one on one mismatches were set up. What I would like to see is more straight up man to man, and I would also like to see the Hawks use the zone. A zone defense would allow the Hawks to utilize their length to their advantage.
3. Develop the bench into a strong unit
This is probably the biggest fault I see in what Mike Woodson did last year. Instead of developing the bench, he shrank it and had a lot of success in the regular seasons. Hawks fans learned during the Lenny Wilkens days though that you have to have a bench in the playoffs. Lenny was notorious for not utilizing his bench. The addition of some players will help here, but the coach has to be willing to use his bench for stretches during the game. Mike Woodson wasn’t with the exception of a couple of guys routinely. This past year in Phoenix, Alvin Gentry was able to utilize his bench and got great play from unknown guys like Goran Dragic, Louis Admundson, Jared Dudley, Robin Lopez, and Jarron Collins.
4. Get the players to believe in themselves
It was as obvious as the nose on my face at the end of last season that the players on this team had lost confidence in themselves and confidence in each other. The signs were there late in the season, and Mike Woodson was unable to do anything to change the direction the team was going at that time. There were some chemistry issues in the locker room as well, and some of that came from the fact that some players on the team felt that certain players were being held less accountable than others. Utlimately, the team tuned Mike Woodson out. The fact that Larry was in this locker room gives him the advantage of knowing this and knowing where the problems existed. I think he has a better perspective on how to fix these problems than someone from the outside has. Those close to the Hawks state that Larry is a very good communicator and has a good relationship with the players. Some may wonder why these things weren’t done by him as an assistant. My response to that is that an assistant can only do so much, and everything ultimately is on the head coach’s shoulders. Now, Larry is the head coach.