It’s easier when your team sucks. At least it’s easier for the GM/executive/owner in charge of hiring a new head coach. When an NBA team sucks (Clippers, 76ers, Nets) just about anybody who’s different from the previous coach is a good hire. If he’s got a solid resume and some name recognition? Gravy.
But when a team is replacing a coach who was relatively successful, the process becomes tougher. Some organizations go for the big, splashy name (Tom Izzo, Cleveland); others promote an assistant from the previous regime to maintain some semblance of continuity (Phil Jackson, Chicago); others bring in a lesser-known name with lowered expectations (John Kuester, Detroit) as a silent admission that it’s time to rebuild.
Coming off their best two-year stretch since the mid-’90s, the Atlanta Hawks picked Option B, with a side of C: Larry Drew, an assistant under Mike Woodson, was hired over the weekend as the franchise’s next head coach. Drew played in the NBA in the ’80s, but lately has been recognized on the mainstream level as the father of North Carolina PG Larry Drew II more than he’s known for his coaching acumen. Drew has never been a head coach, so the expectations have to dip a bit going into next season, but with a young Hawks team that could be on the verge of something big, it made sense that management wouldn’t want to upset the chemistry too much.
So will the Hawks be a different team under Drew? At this point, that depends more on whether Joe Johnson will re-sign this summer than anything the coach will do. If Joe does come back, though, expect a few changes. Columnist Michael Cunningham wrote about it in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday:
I talked to some players this weekend, and all of them said they expect LD’s approach to be different than Woody’s. Drew often ran the second-team offense in practice and was said to deploy creative sets, with one player describing them as a “fun” departures from the isolations. Another player said when things went badly for the Hawks, LD tended to be more of an “encourager” than a “screamer” and focused his energy on laying out a detailed plan for how the Hawks can get better.
The players have better insight into LD than the rest of us, and so it’s significant that he enjoys wide support among them. But they can’t be sure how Drew the assistant will work out as Drew the head coach. His relationships with players will be tested. Now LD has the final say on how to run the team, including playing time and touches, and players inevitably aren’t going to like some of his decisions.
It’s probably not much different than most real-life workplaces when your direct boss becomes the “big boss.”
The NBA is filled with assistant-to-head coach success stories: Phil, Pat Riley, Rudy Tomjanovich, Stan Van Gundy, etc. Drew could be one of those guys, or he could be another Larry Krystkowiak or Bob Weiss.
Weiss is the worst example of what can go wrong when a well-liked assistant takes over the reigns. When Nate McMillan left the Seattle Supersonics for Portland in ’05, reportedly the players enthusiastically pushed for Weiss — who’d previously held head coaching jobs with the Spurs, Hawks and Clippers — to get the job. Weiss was the “nice” assistant, the “player’s coach” or “good cop” who worked in contrast to the hard-driving McMillan. What happened? Weiss was dumped 30 games into the season, with those same players reportedly admitting he was too light on them; they needed a hard-ass. Assistant Bob Hill (the “bad cop” under Weiss) was brought in, and he didn’t last long either. And next thing I know, we don’t have a team in Seattle anymore.
Presumably, Drew’s hiring isn’t the beginning of a process that leaves Atlanta without an NBA team. But if he’s going to have some success and stand a chance of getting the Hawks over the hump as legit contenders, his players need to get with his program quickly and let whatever they had with Woodson go. Drew isn’t a new face, but this is a new era. From the AJC:
The players credited Woody with creating a loose atmosphere that made it enjoyable for them to come to work but then they didn’t get serious when it was time to do so. Woody backed off from the long, hard and frequent practices players didn’t like and in the end they didn’t work as hard as they should. Woody gave them on-court freedom (especially J.J.) and instead of taking that trust and becoming a free-flowing offensive team, they became a selfish “get mine” kind of team — and resisted Woody’s efforts to get them to share the ball.
Do you think the Hawks will keep improving under Larry Drew?