Mike Woodson began his tenure as coach of the Atlanta Hawks with a shitty team. There were no stars, and two rookies named Josh were in the starting line up. He racked 13 wins that year, and improved that total in the following 5 seasons, winning 53 this past season en route to another second round exit (via sweep) in the playoffs.
The sweep was the most lopsided in a 7-game series in NBA history. The Magic made it look like the state champion varsity squad was running a scrimmage against the JV team. The Hawks didn’t look like they belonged playing the sport, let alone being in the playoffs. It wasn’t pretty. Not in the slightest.
But the series pointed out a lot of things that fans of the Hawks (I know, it’s not just me anymore) have known for some time. Mike Woodson had deficiencies. Let’s run through the list.
- He preached defense, but his teams were never stellar defenders – Sure, when we locked down it all looked great, but this was reserved for the beginnings of seasons, and a few isolated games. Josh Smith is the best defender on the team, followed by Al Horford. Joe Johnson can be damn good, but he was often left to guard the back court all by himself as Bibby is a non-entity out there. And Marvin Williams really made strides last season before disappearing this season. He was often benched at the end of games this season in favor of Jamal Crawford, who’s a notch or two above Bibby. It has to start with defense, but it needs to be more than just a mantra. It’s a team effort, and everyone on the floor needs to deliver.
- Iso-Joe – The name given to our isolation heavy offense, especially in the fourth quarters. Yes, there were some games where it was effective as hell. But more often than not, it led to one guy moving with the ball, getting in late clock situations and forcing shots. It took us out of our game and led to bad possession after bad possession. But we never went away from it. Unlike the switching on defense, which for all its problems was a good strategy, there were only downsides to the iso offense. Look no further than the anemic efforts against the Magic in Round 2. And yet Woody couldn’t draw up plays to save his life.
- Slowing it down – the Hawks are a young, athletic team who will tear up anyone in the league in transition. And yet for the most part, Woodson stressed running half-court sets. Why? Couldn’t tell you. We looked awful in the half court since Woodson took over, but he refused to abandon this tactic. We run and won plenty, but it was always off of turnovers or by accident. He never turned the Hawks loose to do what they do, always to their detriment.
- 4th quarter problems – I don’t know if it started with the Cavs back-to-back series in which we took leads into the 4th in both games and lost (going scoreless for 9 minutes in the first of the two games), or if it began earlier. But for most of the season, 4th quarters were a problem. Chalk it up to poor scheming or iso-Joe, the team broke down. They stopped running, stopped moving the ball, and more often than not stopped scoring. Defense got lax and things stalled. Leads evaporated, and surefire wins turned into losses.
- Monotone – Woody wasn’t a motivator. All he did was speak about defense, and use the same monotone delivery to do so. He did it at practice, he did it in the huddles, he did it in press conferences. It was boring, and something to make fun of. What it wasn’t was a way to inspire the team.
- Losing the trust of your players – you could see it in spurts during the season, little blow ups. It happens to everyone – between players and between players and coaches – but this had always been a problem for Woody. As the Milwaukee Bucks pushed the Hawks to the limit in Round 1 of the playoffs, the players turned on each other. Body language was bad, they were yelling at one another. And Mike Woodson lost them. They didn’t pay attention in the huddle. They didn’t hustle and run plays. It became 5 guys in similar jerseys, not a team. And where a coach is supposed to unite his team, they turned their backs.
Despite all of this, the team and the culture of the organization improved under him. Chalk it up to the players, who both improved under him and the roster itself got better, but give the man some credit. Some of what he did was right. But to show no improvement except in regular season record this year, one thing became abundantly clear to me.
Mike Woodson had taken this iteration of the Atlanta Hawks as far as they were going to go. And the next move didn’t involve him sticking around.
Woodson’s contract was up. He knew what he and his staff were playing for out there, in addition to vying for a championship. And he didn’t change. He didn’t adjust as things got worse. As much as I can give him some credit for his teams getting better, he gets the blame for being too unreactive.
I was on the “Fire Woody” bandwagon very early. Even when he got us to the playoffs two years ago and took Boston to 7 games. But I thought maybe either he, or the team (or both), was starting to get it last year. I began to see some of what he was doing working. Hell, we started out white hot each of the last two seasons. But as each wore on, the Mike Woodson system failed. And it crashed and burned really hard against Orlando. They might be the best team in the NBA, and might win it all, but it’s no excuse for how poorly the Hawks played (can you call it playing when it’s that pathetic) against them.
Today the Hawks severed ties with Mike Woodson, notifying him that they would not tender a new contract. Kudos to him for making this team viable again, but I’m really hoping the next coach is the one that takes us from “not crappy” to elite. There are plenty of options out there – good, bad and interesting – and I don’t know which way GM Rick Sund will go. A bad hire here will hurt more than renewing Woody might have. But we’re talking about the guy that traded dead weight for “The Difference” and stole Jeff Teague in the draft. I have to have some faith that things will turn out.
I can’t go through another ten-year spell of terrible. It hurts too much.