Monday, May 30, 2011

2010-11 Season Review: Larry Drew

Previously: Rick Sund

Larry Drew entered his rookie head coaching season with modest, realistic expectations and, over the course of the regular season, largely failed to meet them. Though no one should have expected the Hawks to win 53 games again, neither should anyone have expected the Hawks to get outscored over 82 games. No one expected the Hawks to finish second in the league in offensive efficiency again, but neither did anyone expect the Hawks to finish in the bottom third of the league offensively. Despite Drew's generally effective deployment of Jason Collins as a defensive stopper in the post and Rick Sund jettisoning Mike Bibby three-quarters of the way into the season, the Hawks showed no ordinal improvement defensively, ranking 13th in the league for the second-straight season.

One can't dismiss the adverse effects of the Horford Treatment, Josh Smith's 482 jump shots, or Drew's bizarre and destructive infatuation with Josh Powell. But the central failure of Drew's regular season as a head coach was an over-reliance on shotmakers who, largely, weren't making shots and offered little else of value while on the court.

Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and Mike Bibby played 6525 regular season minutes for the Hawks. As a point of comparison, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Zaza Pachulia played 6593 regular season minutes. Another point of comparison: collectively, the veteran trio was essentially Toney Douglas offensively and achieved that personification of averageness (in just one aspect of the game) largely on the back of the fourteen-game stretch* in January and February wherein Joe Johnson scored more than 28% of his points for the season.

*His opponents: Clippers, Kings (twice), Jazz, Pacers, Raptors (twice), Rockets, Heat, Hornets, Bobcats, Bucks, Knicks, Mavericks.

Offense is all that those three have going for them. None of them are average rebounders. Individually, none of them are average defenders. Crawford is comically (or, depending on your perspective, tragically) poor at both. Thus, collectively, they don't complement each other at all when the other team has the ball. Yet, even as they contributed to so many empty offensive trips and asked so much of their teammates to cover for them defensively, for most of the season, Drew stubbornly ran two or three of them out there at a time while Jeff Teague and Marvin Williams and Damien Wilkins, each of whom combine some elements of what the Hawks lacked for most of the season, be it defense, rebounding, getting to the foul line, or not dribbling for a long time before taking a bad shot, sat and watched.

There's no rational explanation for Drew's refusal to de-emphasize his overlapping and ineffective veteran backcourt pieces. There's no tactical explanation. In fact, his uncreative use of his perimeter players pointedly contradicts the good work he did with the frontcourt: spotting quality minutes for Collins, getting effective play from Josh Smith at the 3, and, finally, using Zaza Pachulia as the third big man in the post rotation.

Joe Johnson's minutes can be explained away by the organization's massive delusion regarding his abilities. Drew owes his opportunity to be a head coach to that organization and it would take a very strong head coach to limit the minutes of his team's highest paid when said player wants to play through an injury. But who could watch Crawford* and Bibby play for any length of time and not run straight into the arms of any reasonable alternative?

Maybe a head coach who was himself, in his best years in Kansas City, an average (or slightly above) offensive player who didn't defend or rebound much. I'll admit it's not an especially convincing thesis but, then, why it's a bad defensive idea to play the Bibby/Crawford or Crawford/Johnson backcourt shouldn't really be a season-long puzzler for a head coach.

*Though I fully expected (and still expect) the Hawks to try to re-sign Crawford, I am a bit taken aback by the external debate being over whether or not the Hawks should re-sign Crawford rather than how grateful the Hawks should be to get out from under his contract.

Larry Drew did a better job in the playoffs. Jason Collins made a positive difference in a playoff series. Few people would have given him the opportunity to do so. Twice in six games, the Hawks scored easily against the Chicago Bulls. Drew deserves credit for both of those things. On the other hand, he gave away the second game of the Orlando series through one of the most creative and elaborately bad series of decisions we may ever see at this level. Given a choice, he presumably would not (as he did not all year) have played Jeff Teague regularly in the Chicago series. And, in an otherwise pleasant post-season, Drew brought all of his regular season weaknesses back out to make an appearance in Atlanta's elimination game.

Larry Drew's not to blame for the bad contracts on the books. He's not to blame (though he furthered the appearance of) the team's lack of depth. He's not to blame for (though he must be held accountable for his role in perpetuating) an organization-wide disinterest in rebounding and defense as skills or the relative value of shots by location or the effects of player aging. But the Atlanta Hawks played 82 regular season games and got outscored by 67 points. Then they played 12 playoff games (six at home and six away) and got outscored by 53 points. Neither is indicative of a successful season and any improvements Drew makes as a head coach may only be enough to offset further institutional decline.

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