Tuesday, May 19, 2009

2008-09 Season Review: Mike Woodson

After five full seasons and three playoff series what is there left to say about Mike Woodson?

First of all, he unequivocally deserves to return as the head coach. The Hawks won as many games this past season as could reasonably be expected considering the talent on hand. They won (as they should have) their first-round playoff series.

Yet even after five full seasons and three playoff series Woodson remains something of an enigma. The success of 2008-09 season seemed not to make an impact on him. At times he gave the distinct impression that he wasn't central to those accomplishments. Consider the volume of quotes from him regarding the Hawks winning games because half the rotation were setting career highs shooting the ball versus the volume of quotes from him stating that the Hawks were winning games because of vaguely defined lessons learned from getting beat by the Boston Celtics in the 2007-08 playoffs. It was as if keeping his job the summer prior outweighed the importance of the team's improvement. Frankly, I don't know what to make of him, or, at least, I lack confidence in my suppositions about the man. Perhaps the absence of personality (beyond stubborn reticence) he shares with and through the media and his insistence on sticking with tactics that seem less than ideal mask some very real, positive traits that help the team win games.

For the three or four weeks the national media* considered the Atlanta Hawks this season, much credit was given to the organization for employing Mike Woodson for five seasons and to Woodson himself for improving the team from 13 to 47 wins** over that period.

*I admit that the speed with which pundits ran out of things to say about this team pleased me in a petty way. With little to no variation from the basic gameplan ever made evident on either offense (isolate Joe Johnson) or defense (switch every screen) the Hawks are what they are to an astounding degree. Try working with that for 82 games a year, professional commentators.

**Why does Woodson get credit for coaching a 13-win team? It certainly wasn't his decision to make the team that bad but it's still odd that he gets to set his own baseline. Had he done a masterful job of coaching and squeezed 20 or more wins out of that group would the Hawks' overall improvement really be less impressive?

Now, the Hawks have improved in general* and made consistent progress defensively in particular during Woodson's tenure as head coach.

SeasonOff Eff (Rank)Def Eff (Rank)Margin
2004-05100.6 (29)111.1 (29)-10.5
2005-06106.4 (12)111.6 (27)-5.2
2006-07103.0 (29)108.3 (23)-5.3
2007-08106.9 (16)108.9 (18)-2
2008-09109.3 (10)107.6 (11)+1.7

Despite the progress the end result is only a slightly above average team despite the significant resources** expended since the summer of 2005. Given the head coach's long-standing difficulty with regard to making adjustments, exploiting matchups, and motivating or disciplining players I think it's a fair question as to whether the team's growth the last two years has as much to do with him as with the acquisition of both a point guard and a center who arrived as polished players in need of relatively little coaching.

*Though it is a bit disturbing that, relative to the league, the offense wasn't much better last year than in 2005-06 despite Marvin Williams' improvement and replacing Zaza Pachulia and Royal Ivey/Tyronn Lue with Al Horford and Mike Bibby. The Woodson/Joe Johnson offensive axis can really flatten the difference in quality between quite different players.

**Since the end of 04-05, the Hawks invested two first round picks and the rights to Boris Diaw to acquire Joe Johnson, picked 2nd and 31st in the 2005 NBA Draft, 5th and 33rd in the 2006 NBA Draft, and 3rd and 11th in the 2007 NBA Draft, spent $16 million over four years on Zaza Pachulia, and $15 million per pro-rated annum for a year-and-a-half of Mike Bibby.

Woodson's greatest visible weakness remains his unwillingness or inability to adjust. The team's defense faced an uphill battle due to Mike Bibby's inability to stay in front of anyone. Switching every screen as part of a sagging man-to-man defense worked fairly well against teams with at least one non-scorer against whom the Hawks could hide Bibby but allowed better offensive teams to isolate whomever they wanted against Bibby by virtue of using a single ball-screen. Despite this downside the Hawks failed to develop an alternative defensive strategy.

Four years ago, it made sense for the team's offense to be built around and over-reliant upon Joe Johnson. Today that makes sense to no one other than Mike Woodson and Joe Johnson yet the strategy persists and suppresses the talents of Horford, Marvin Williams, and Josh Smith.

This lack of strategic flexibility extends to the use of players themselves. Once Woodson decides on a role for a player, that role does not change. His rigid hierarchy for players is most often evidenced by the starter/reserve distinction on which spurred Josh Childress's flight to Greece, sees Maurice Evans pulled from a game if the Hawks give up a basket due to poor pick-and-roll defense from Mike Bibby or Josh Smith, leaves Smith in a game the Hawks are losing on the defensive glass because Smith is a starter and Pachulia is a reserve. It also reveals itself in favoring players regardless of their basketball ability by refusing to develop Acie Law IV even as a backup point guard while persisting in using Mario West as if he were a special defensive player. The only real change one saw with Mike Woodson last season was a greater willingness to play players after they picked up their second foul in the first half.

I struggle to envision how this team, as currently constructed and deployed can improve upon the 2008-09 season. To progress beyond the second round of the playoffs I suspect that the team needs to make personnel changes, the players who remain need to change their approach in some ways, and the head coach either needs to evolve to take advantage of all the talent at his disposal or find a job better suited to his skills.


Unknown said...

i struggle to reconcile the unequivocal pronouncement with the article that spells out every reason why the bold, yet correct move would be to fire him. Or provide an alternative to keeping him in the same philosophy.

I understand that it will be difficult, but it wouldn't be unprecedented to replace a coach whose team got better. B/c all indications are that we're getting better in spite of Woodson.

My fear is that investing further in Woodson is like investing in those companies in a boom time where the decisions and leadership is poor, but EVERYONE is making money, then when the recession comes - they are making moves at AIG levels to survive. Anyway, I fail to see one reason to keep the coach. I'm not sure I read one in your review either.

jrauch said...

To me, you outline the perfect basketball example of correlation not being causation.

Mike Woodson is coach of the Hawks. They royally stink.
Hawks improve over time. Woodson remains coach.
Woodson is responsible for the Hawks success.

Hardly. In fact, I'd argue a better coach would have helped this team improve far faster than the slow boil approach under Mike Woodson.
Horford has to become a bigger part of the offense. Acie Law has to play, period. We can't switch on every screen defensively, and Joe Johnson can't be the black hole the ball enters on every offensive possession.

Woodson hasn't shown me any ability to change in the three years I've gone to games. Why expect that now?
With a better coach, despite the injuries, this team could have won north of 50 games, and that Heat series surely wouldn't have gone 7.

Unknown said...

I agree with these comments, but the Hawks are in a bind. As much as watching the game makes me think Woodson doesn't have anything to do with the recent success, the Hawks won ten more games this year, and improved defensively, which is usually credited to coaching.

I can't imagine giving Woodson another year on his contract, but if the Hawks don't, then Woodson is a lame duck. And he already had a difficult time getting the attention of players, notably Josh Smith. That will only get worse if the front office sends the message that next year could be his last.

The nightmare next year would be having the same Woodson in all of his infuriating stubborness, but Marvin Williams, Smith and Horford naturally progress and the team improves again, leading to the long term extension of Woodson.

Bronnt said...

It took until the end of this season, but I think I'm beginning to get a feel for Woodson.

As a head coach, I think he's effective at getting his message across-it's just that his message sucks. I can't recall an instance where a player publicly complained about being lifted with two fouls. They DO switch on every screen per his philsophy-you seldom see any kind of delay or confusion. There is no one willfully resisting the Joe Johnson isolation offense when it rears its ugly head.

And if you listen to the press conferences, you'll hear a lot of similarities between what the players say and what the coach says. A lot of this is still due to the fact that there's a lot of young players, and young players tend not to have enough interesting commentary to fill an interview. But Woodson's disputes with players are fairly limited, given the amount of frustration this team engenders on a night-to-night basisd-Josh Smith being the most significant malcontent, and he's got such a penchant for inconsistency-and pouting-that it seems to justify Woody.

It makes me wonder if he spent more time getting across the importance of blocking out and attacking rebounds aggressively whether the team might respond. Or whether he might be able to convince guys to play to their respective strengths. I've never heard Woodson come straight out and say that he needs Josh to stop shooting jumpers, or that he needs to run more isolation plays for Marvin, or pick and rolls with Bibby/Josh, nor have I heard him acknowledge the significance of rebounding upon a Hawks' victory (rebounding is also often an afterthought during his spiel that summarizes every loss, following "not ready to play tonight" and "lack of defensive intensity"). So it makes me wonder, if he somehow stumbled upon an excellent gameplan, whether he'd be capable of implementing it.

Unknown said...

I think Woodson has done a nice job so far with as the coach, but I dont think there's really any excuse for not developing Acie Law at all. Although thats the only real problem I have with him, I think this team can really take a big step forward if they would fire him and hire Jeff Van Gundy. He's the type of coach the Hawks to the next level even with the current group, but especially if they can make a couple of moves.

Unknown said...

TThis is ridiculous. The team is improving in spite of the coach??? I just don’t get it. Why on earth should Woodsen be fired? He guided the team to the 4th spot in the East. All the analysts and so called experts said the Hawks would not make the playoffs. Heck even the GM said yesterday that when he saw the roster at the beginning of the year, he did not think the team would finish 4th in the East.
Since when do you fire a guy for exceeding the goals set for him at the beginning of the year? This reminds me of Toronto Raptors. They had a good coach, the team made the playoffs last year and what did they do...COMPLIAN!! COMPLAIN !!COMPLAIN! Oh he does not develop Bargnani ( same thing as Law). What happened? They fired him brought in a new coach who played the Bargnani fellow and what happened ? They did not make the playoffs, and now they risk losing Bosh because the team is not improving.
Woodsen is NOT THE PROBLEM!!!!We just spent 10 years trying to get to this point and what do we want to do??? BLOW IT ALL UP??...!.
Please guys at least give him the opportunity to fail before you call for his head. The Hawks CANNOT be getting better every year in spite of a bad coach. If that is so, then I think I would prefer a bad coach..

Bret LaGree said...


I think Woodson did fail during the 2007-08 season. They signed him to a new contract anyway and the team improved so of course you don't fire him then but I understand the skepticism regarding Woodson going forward and have concerns about him getting full value out the talents of Horford, Williams, and Smith or developing any player he's not forced to put into the 8-man rotation immediately.

The latter directly impacts the Hawks flexibility in the draft and the free agent market.

jrauch said...


What's frustrating about Woodson is his complete inability to be flexible and respond to changing game situations.
Example: The Cavs ate Mike Bibby alive on the perimeter, because of Woodson's stubborn defensive philosophy of always switching on a screen. All the Cavs had to do was take whoever Mike was guarding, have that player set a screen for LeBron, and voila, the NBA equivalent of an adult playing an 8-year old.

They didn't do this once or twice. They did it consistently over four games. I realize the playoffs aren't the time to start throwing new wrinkles in, and we were losing that series anyways, but if anything it hastened the demise.

Anytime you put Woody against a good coach in this league, he's playing checkers while the other guy is playing chess.

Just as the team improves over the last 4 years, I'd expect the same from the coach. Hope. Same ol' Woody. And that's why he's got to go.

Jason Walker said...

*I admit that the speed with which pundits ran out of things to say about this team pleased me in a petty way. With little to no variation from the basic gameplan ever made evident on either offense (isolate Joe Johnson) or defense (switch every screen) the Hawks are what they are to an astounding degree. Try working with that for 82 games a year, professional commentators.Amen to THAT---