Sunday, April 29, 2012

Larry Drew: Lessons Learned From His First Post-Season

By Buddy Grizzard

Larry Drew has only coached two playoff series but he already built a catalogue of highly-scrutinized postseason moves. As the Hawks prepare to face the Celtics and well-regarded coach Doc Rivers, here's a list of five of Drew's rookie playoff miscues. If coaching in the playoffs is a process of trial and error, Drew certainly has a wealth of research material.

5. Josh Powell, first big man off the bench

In Game 2 of the Atlanta-Orlando series, Al Horford picked up his second foul with 9:49 to play in the first quarter. The first big man off the bench for the Hawks was...Josh Powell. Remember Powell? He played in China earlier this year before reported that he had signed to play in Switzerland, then Puerto Rico. He is not presently on an NBA playoff roster. Surprised?

As previously noted, Zaza Pachulia is one of only 5 players to rank in the top 10 in playoff rebounding rate in 2 of the last 3 postseasons. Josh Powell (surprise!) is not on that list. Meanwhile, in Horford's absence, Pachulia has made a significant contribution to the team's success (which I speculated was possible in January).

Wrote John Hollinger of after the Hawks loss:
I was talking to two NBA front-office types before a game this month and we were trying to come up with the worst player in the league. Without any prodding from me, both of them nominated Powell.
4. Jason Collins, over-utilized

In Game 4 of the second round series against the Bulls, Drew tweaked his starting lineup by moving Marvin Williams to the bench, starting Jason Collins at center and moving Horford to power forward. This move seemed initially successful as the Hawks outscored the Bulls during Collins' 1st and 3rd quarter appearances on the way to a 2-2 series tie.

In Game 6, however, Drew stayed with the same substitution pattern for the third consecutive game and Bulls coach Thom Thibodeau made him pay. The Bulls clearly game planned to attack Collins' defense. Carlos Boozer pulled Collins away from the basket and hit jumpers until the Hawks were forced to switch defenders. With Horford guarding Boozer, the Bulls isolated Joakim Noah at the top of the key on Collins. Noah drove around the slow-footed Collins for a layup and a 19-11 Bulls lead en route to the series-clinching win.

Powell may have been named the worst player in the NBA by multiple NBA front-office types, according to Hollinger. But as I have noted, statistically, Collins has been one of the worst players in the NBA for the last 7 seasons.

3. Jamal Crawford, point guard

Just before Noah's layup, with the Hawks trailing 17-11, Drew sent Jamal Crawford in to replace Jeff Teague. The Bulls then outscored the Hawks 10-6 to close the first quarter with a 27-17 lead. The Hawks never recovered. The Portland Trailblazers, with Crawford playing significant minutes at point guard this year, missed the playoffs entirely.

2. Riding the cold hand

In Game 4 as the Hawks tied the series, Crawford shot 5-for-11 (1-for-5 from 3-point range) for 12 points in 29 minutes off the bench. Zaza Pachulia played 26 minutes, scoring 5 and pulling down 9 rebounds. It would be Crawford's last decent shooting game as a Hawk. In Game 5, Crawford played 27 minutes, shot 1-for-9 and scored 2 points with 4 assists and 2 turnovers. Pachulia scored 13 in 23 minutes on 5-for-6 shooting and added 4 rebounds.

Finally, in Game 6, Crawford shot 2-for-10 for 8 points in 25 minutes. Pachulia played 23 minutes, scored only 1 point but led the team with 13 rebounds. Crawford made a driving layup with 5:41 to play before halftime. It would be his last field goal as a Hawk. It's hard not to think that more minutes for Pachulia, who led the team in +/- for the postseason, or allowing Crawford to play off the ball and focus on making shots, might have made a difference in this series.

1. The Horford Treatment

After Horford, as mentioned above, picked up his second foul 2 minutes into Game 2 against Orlando, Drew left him on the bench for the rest of the half. The Hawks led 32-22 with 9 minutes to play before halftime, but the Magic closed the half on a 26-10 run as Horford, the team's most efficient offensive player, sat the entire second quarter.

Horford never picked up his third foul as the Hawks lost to even the series 1-1. Hollinger wrote:
There is no way to sugarcoat it: This is the most indefensible coaching decision I’ve seen this season.
He further noted that Horford, who has one of the lowest foul rates in the league at his position, was never in any danger of fouling out.

One of the unintended consequences of losing Game 2 was that the Hawks, winners of 3 of the first 4 games in the series, missed a chance to sweep Orlando and gain valuable rest before the Chicago series. Instead, the series went 6 games and Kirk Hinrich was lost for the second round after suffering an injury with just over 3 minutes remaining in Game 6.

A further consequence of Hinrich's injury was Jeff Teague's breakout series as the starting point guard in the Chicago series. However, this fortunate circumstance cannot be used to justify bad coaching. Indeed, the belated discovery of Teague's value stands as a further indictment of Drew.

Lessons learned

Looking ahead to the series against the Celtics, the following are lessons that I hope Drew has learned from the 2011 playoffs. Firstly, Drew must stop giving significant minutes to scrubs and washed up veterans. This means that Collins, Erick Dampier, Jerry Stackhouse and Vladimir Radmanovic should only see spot or emergency minutes.

Second, Drew must trust Teague and let him be himself. He's not going to morph into Steve Nash or Rajon Rondo any time soon, but the Hawks cannot succeed if Teague sacrifices his offense so Joe Johnson and Josh Smith can launch more jumpers.

And finally, Drew needs to realize that Ivan Johnson, not Collins, is the only hope at center. Johnson, the reigning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April, has outplayed or held his own against Andrew Bogut, Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert this season. Collins hasn't come close to playing at that level, and if Drew thinks he's the answer, then he hasn't learned anything.


Knox said...

I would love to see the day come that Larry Drew allowed Teague to be himself. Teague has seen his minutes double since last year and triple since the 09 season. However, Drew seems ok with leaving Smith and Johnson on the court when they start throwing up junk, but is quick to get Teague off the court after a few mishaps. If Teague is to grow into the point guard that I think he is capable of being, then he has to stay on the court.

Buddy Grizzard said...

Knox, the Celtics are very hard to score against. If Teague is attacking the basket, he's taking a higher percentage shot than a Josh Smith 22-footer or a contested Joe Johnson fall away. Teague can't set up teammates and rack up assists like Rondo can. But he can still create easy baskets... by attacking the basket.

mr. ice said...

I'd normally agree with you about ivan for center, but not against garnett. I've seen garnett score on him too much as is

Unknown said...

Ivan on garnett?? Thats a joke. I am surprised that you are critical of Collins.
Does a player have to score to make a huge an impact? Collins made garnett work for his points and also set very good screens especially when the game started.

Buddy Grizzard said...

Unknown, Collins has possibly his best game as a Hawks but he was clearly gassed down the stretch. Boston got back into the game because Ivan sat for barking at the refs and LD and Collins' defense was not as good in the second half as it was in the first.

Ivan sat on the bench and watched Rondo lose his composure, cost the Celtics a chance to steal Game 1 in the final minute, and possibly cost his team a shot in Game 2 if he is suspended. Drew's decision to over-utilize Collins helped Boston get the lead down, but the object lesson Ivan learned on the bench could change the whole series.