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The Case Against Mike Woodson

I don't want to be known as the guy who dislikes Mike Woodson. I don't know Mike Woodson and have no reason to believe he's a bad person. I have watched him coach a lot of NBA games, though, and I do dislike that he's still the coach of the Atlanta Hawks.

In the interests of fairness, I'll start with the case for Mike Woodson*: The Hawks have won increased their win total for three consecutive seasons. The Hawks made the playoffs last year. The Hawks lost their playoff series to the Celtics in 7 games.

*The practical case for Mike Woodson is probably that he's willing to work for Atlanta Spirit LLC for what they're willing to pay a head coach. Disclaimers about ownership could derail every discussion about the Hawks.

To which I rebut: Those increases are from a starting point of 13 wins and have (thus far) peaked at 37 wins. The Hawks made the playoffs more due to the vast majority of the Eastern Conference was mediocre or worse than through any notable accomplishment of their own. The Hawks were not competitive in any of their four losses to the Celtics and were outscored by an average of 12 points per game over the course of the series.

My reaction to the news that the Hawks were signing Mike Woodson to a second contract to be the team's head coach was not positive:

This franchise is of the opinion that a man with a career record of 106-222, a man who does not hold the respect of the franchise's best player (who is, by the by, a free agent of sorts), a man who cannot figure out how to deploy the few good players he's been given to coach so as to utilize their strengths and hide their weaknesses, a man whose offensive system does not appear to take into account the legality of zone defenses, a man whose least unsuccessful team had chronic problems (problems they spoke about publicly and repeatedly) with game preparation and consistently playing hard, a man who has demonstrated little to no interest in playing the 11th overall pick, a man who has failed to develop the skills of players who came to the NBA less than fully formed, a man who consistently struggles to express a coherent thought to the media deserves a new contract. This franchise believes that this man needs more time to demonstrate that he is unsuited for the job of NBA head coach. This franchise believes that it is better off with two more years of Mike Woodson than with Avery Johnson, Flip Saunders, Dwane Casey, or anyone else who has proven himself to be a competent NBA coach.

Some specific examples of the above shortcomings follow after the jump...

On January 28th, I wrote a post entitled "The Small Ways Mike Woodson Sacrifices His Team's Margin For Error"

There were two examples in last night's game that went beyond his on-going (and oft-chronicled here) indulgence of Josh Smith's worst characteristics (petulance and taking jump shots), his complete inability to design and/or call a useful play in the half-court in the final minutes of a game, not playing Al Horford enough in the fourth quarter, and using Acie Law as an off guard.

1) His mistaken perception that Mario West is some sort of defensive stopper. Putting Mario West in the game to guard Brandon Roy for the final 17 seconds of the first half succeeded only in making West (accurately) look over-matched as Brandon Roy beat him with a cross-over, made a lay-up, and converted the free throw earned by the pointless desperation foul West committed after he'd been beaten.

2) Leaving players in a position to fail. Zaza Pachulia had another decent game off the bench last night. Woodson undermined the value of Pachulia's four made field goals and four defensive rebounds last night by leaving him on the floor for more than half of the fourth quarter allowing Portland to spread the floor with five shooters and be assured that one of them would be open because Pachulia lacks the foot speed to close out on the perimeter. Zaza gave as good an effort as he could but he's simply incapable of doing what was required of an Atlanta defender in that situation.

Opposing teams are going to try to create favorable match-ups for themselves. Sometimes they will succeed in doing so. A good team counters that. The Atlanta Hawks generally do not.

Decisions that do not work will be made and forgiven every game. Making the same decisions that do not work game after game is simply evidence of incompetence and can be solved not through forgiveness but by replacing the incompetent decision maker.

Two days later, I took the coach to task for shifting the blame for certain of his tactical decisions not working onto the players.

Woodson said, "You have to look at guys and see what they're doing out there late in games and figure it has to be fatigue. Because we're making so many mental mistakes right now."

An opinion to which I responded with constructive criticism:

The majority of the mental mistakes I see being made late in games are by the guy who's averaging 48 minutes a night as head coach. If Josh Smith's too fatigued to get back on defense against Portland, take him out of the damn game.

It isn't a fatigued player that calls "Joe Johnson dribbles around the perimeter against five defenders while his four teammates (at least two of whom can't make jump shots should they ever receive the ball here) stand around watching" ever chance he gets in the last four minutes of games until the Hawks finally lose.

To this point I've cut Woodson some slack about this team's lack of depth. (Not that he can sort through the relatively few useful options he has and deploy them optimally.) If he starts using that as an excuse for his own limitations and failings as a head coach, I'll stop being so fair.

Oooohh, blog threats. Carrying on...

In the final game prior to the All-Star Break, the Hawks blew a 12-point fourth quarter lead and lost at Charlotte in overtime.

I'll introduce two more pieces of evidence and then rest my case that Mike Woodson shouldn't, nay, can't be coaching this team on Tuesday night in Los Angeles.

1) He just got out-coached by Sam Vincent.
2) He threw his team under the bus following the game.


"Our guys are somewhat clock-watching right now. They get leads, and the teams start to make runs. They start to look at the clock and hope the clock runs out. That's not good."

That couldn't have anything to do with the plays you're calling, could it? Or playing Tyronn Lue for the final 24 minutes of the game despite Charlotte running every single play (warning: slight, very slight, exaggeration) at him and his inability to dribble-penetrate (like Acie Law IV) or push the ball up the court (like Anthony Johnson) to create shots for someone other than his own, miniature self?

If I never see again the isolation for Joe Johnson on the left side, with a guard standing on that side of the floor 25 feet from the basket and the other three guys standing in a clump below the free throw line on the opposite side, I'll be happy. It's amazing that such a well thought out and designed set is so easy for opposing teams to guard.

When you sit in front of the television and think, "I wish the Hawks could space the floor like Charlotte," a serious change must me be made.

I'm convinced that this team plays so much better in transition not only because their talent is better suited to that but also because they're freed from Mike Woodson's stagnant, unimaginative sets. The players can play hard but they can't be expected to design their own half-court offense. Hence their frustration with losing game after game because of the same flaw.

Case in point: the final possession of regulation. Atlanta tried to get the ball to Joe Johnson. Charlotte knew Atlanta would try to get the ball to Joe Johnson. Charlotte kept Atlanta from getting the ball to Joe Johnson and there was no second option available to Al Horford. Horford and Anthony Johnson made chicken salad (thanks to some inattentive weak-side defending by the Bobcats) out of that situation, but their dilemma was created by a poorly designed play.

Of course, this team's overriding philosophy appears to be: Make time in every game to try and do what you're least good at as a basketball player. Then watch the coach make Joe Johnson try and score against at least four defenders.

A couple of weeks later, we would learn that Billy Knight agreed with me (There's a phrase that engenders self-doubt.) and made one of his three failed attempts to get permission to fire Mike Woodson following that game.

Here's some more game-management criticism from a narrow home win against the Knicks on February 29th:

The Hawks weren't playing especially well for three quarters, but one felt they were in control of the game. They appeared to recognize that they could get easy shots more often than the Knicks could. Every Hawks stop, every converted layup or dunk, inched Atlanta closer to victory. Through three quarters, Atlanta did a good job of getting the ball to any player with a significant advantage against his defender. Granted, that's not hard to do when playing the Knicks but still it's something (sadly) unusual to see the Hawks accomplish.

Then the fourth quarter started.

Jared Jeffries is an overrated defender. Which isn't the same thing as being a poor defender. Which Jeffries demonstrated in the fourth quarter as Atlanta forced the ball to Joe Johnson either posting him up or putting him in isolation against Jeffries. Joe Johnson's strength is not beating players off the dribble. Jeffries could stay in front of Johnson and possesses the length to challenge Johnson's pull-up jumper. Joe Johnson couldn't get any easy shot off against Jeffries yet the Hawks insisted on continuing down the path of greatest resistance.

Atlanta ran two plays for Josh Smith in the fourth quarter. On the first, with just under 10 minutes remaining in the game, Smith caught the ball on the wing, beat David Lee off the dribble, and missed a spinning layup in the lane. The next play Atlanta ran for Smith was the pick-and-roll with Bibby that resulted in an alley-oop dunk with 1:12 left in the game. Smith snuck in a couple of fourth quarter jump shots to break the boredom, but once again Atlanta's best player stood and watched while Joe Johnson was asked to do something extraordinarily difficult.

Atlanta scored 81 points through three quarters with a balanced, relatively up-tempo offensive attack. They scored 18 points in the fourth quarter (inflated by five made free throws in the final 11 seconds) forcing the ball to Joe Johnson in the half-court. If the Knicks were marginally better or if the Hawks were marginally less lucky (Smith made one of those boredom-induced jump shots, a corner three to tie the game at 88.) The Drive for 35* would have stalled before it really began.

*My tounge-in-cheek rally cry for the Hawks' post-All-Star Break playoff push/stumble over the finish line.

That game also featured another example of Woodson's bizarre, season-long policy of doing everything in his power to keep Horford from committing six fouls in a game.

Horford picked up his fifth foul with 1:58 left and Woodson took him (he of the 20 points and 11 rebounds) out of the game in favor of Marvin Williams (he of the 6 points and 3 rebounds). Horford returned to play just 16 more seconds. Woodson obviously wasn't saving Horford to use in a particular situation to help win the game. The only explanation for taking Horford out is that Woodson didn't want Horford to foul out.

My new suspicion is that Woodson does this in a misguided attempt to avoid criticism. I suspect he'd prefer not to face any questions that would arise if the Hawks fell apart and lost a game after Horford fouled out. First of all, if this is the case, Woodson overestimates the amount of mainstream media scrutiny he's under. To say that no one cares about the Hawks is but a slight exaggeration. Secondly, the indefensible absence of a not yet disqualified Al Horford on the court is obvious to anyone seriously watching the game so the only people liable to criticize Woodson's coaching are going to do so if Horford's unnecessary absence appears to cost the Hawks a game.

The next week, I was in Philips Arena to witness first-hand the difference between a Mike Woodson-coached team and a Don Nelson-coached team.

Say you've got two young, talented post players on your team. Say neither one is a good spot-up shooter. Say one of them is, to be blunt, a terrible yet enthusiastic spot-up shooter. Say the team you're playing is putting four or five guards on the court at a time. Say the team you're playing, when they only have four guards on the court is using a poor post defender as the fifth player.

Do you then...

A) Post up one of your young, talented post players at every opportunity since the other team has no one on the court who can effectively guard either of them?


B) Post up a guard who, talented though he may be, can be reasonably well guarded by two or three opposing players individually and, of course, draws extra attention because no one has to pay much attention to the young, talented post players as they stand around on the perimeter?

If you chose A, you're possibly qualified to coach in the NBA. If you chose B, you're probably not. If you chose B and also chose to play your two young, talented post players a combined total of just 6:18 in the second quarter for no apparent reason, and sat your Rookie of the Year candidate (and at worst, third-best player) for over seven straight minutes of the second half because Austin Croshere made a three-pointer, you could only be Mike Woodson and if you possessed a shred of dignity you'd resign before further embarrassing yourself and further crippling a frustrating, dysfunctional franchise.

Monta Ellis played almost 46 minutes. Stephen Jackson played 44 minutes. Baron Davis played almost 41 minutes.

Even ignoring his willingness to put unusual groups of five on the floor, it was clear Don Nelson was trying to win the game because he played his best players a lot.

Joe Johnson played 42 minutes (and was again mis-used in the second half but so far, so good from a playing time perspective). Al Horford played almost 32 minutes. Josh Smith played just 30 minutes. Marvin Williams played 36 minutes. Mario West and Jeremy Richardson combined to play 15 of the least productive minutes you could witness.

That's an odd allocation of playing time if you're trying your hardest to win the game. What was Mike Woodson trying to do?

If I asked him, I doubt he would have an answer. My guess is he just makes decisions without even disturbingly faulty reasoning to back them up. His decisions are purely reactionary and based entirely on fear. He took Al Horford out of the game because Austin Croshere made a three-pointer. Like a bad golfer who sees only rough, sand traps, and water hazards, Woodson saw the Horford/Croshere matchup only as one where Horford would struggle to close out to the three-point line when defending the pick-and-pop rather than one where Al Horford could score or draw a foul close to every time the Hawks had the ball. Not to mention that you'd (were you the Hawks' head coach) probably be fine with Golden State running their offense through Austin Croshere for a while seeing as how no one on your roster is capable of guarding either Baron Davis or Monta Ellis.

This is rather cathartic for me.

On April 8th, the Hawks visited Indiana with a chance to clinch a playoff spot with a win. The Hawks did not win. The Hawks did not give themselves a chance to win. At a loss for words myself, I let the head coach and the team's two best players carry that particular game recap.

Monday, April 7

Josh Smith:

"Don't think we don't know it, that we don't feel it. We have to keep our eyes on the prize right now. We know that, too. But if we play like we did in [Saturday's win] in Philadelphia ... we just have to handle our business."

"We've had our ups and downs along that way, but we're in a good position now. We just have to finish what we started."

Tuesday, April 8

Josh Smith:

"This is the game we needed to win to lock things up, and we didn't do it. Now we have to go down to the wire with this thing and play every game like it's our last."
Joe Johnson:
"We just added a level of drama to this whole thing by not taking care of our business. They just played harder than us. It's how hard they played. We don't play hard, we get our [expletive] kicked. Point blank."
Mike Woodson:
"Unfortunately you have to play four quarters. We only played one quarter. We got back in it and cut it to 10 twice. But you can't spot this team 30 points and expect to come back and win. We didn't have any kind of defensive presence. You're talking about making the playoffs; you better play defense and rebound the ball to give yourself a chance to win."
Joe Johnson:
"That's an inexcusable defensive effort. I don't think we realize what it was going to take [defensively] and it showed in the way we played."

Joe Johnson:
"We acted like we didn't want to play tonight, and if you can't get up for this game, you don't need to be playing at all."

Lack of effort was a frequent explanation following Hawks losses last season. A better blogger would have chronicled the litany more thoroughly.

Woodson spoke at greater length about his substitution patterns later that same week:

From Sekou Smith's AJC article this morning:

Managing the minutes of his starters has been one of Hawks coach Mike Woodson's toughest tasks this season.

I'd go (or have gone) with something more along the lines of managing the minutes of the few players on his roster who can play NBA basketball has been demonstrably beyond the capabilities of Mike Woodson this season but I don't have to talk to Woodson on a daily basis and can thus be blunt without suffering any real consequences.

It happened Tuesday in Indiana. Horford picked up his second foul with the Hawks leading 20-18 with 5:46 left in the first quarter.

Woodson sat him and the next time he saw the floor, at the start of the second half, the Hawks had been outscored 49-32. They trailed by what turned out to be an insurmountable 15 points. So don't expect Woodson to yank his starters at the first sign of trouble Friday night in New York.

It's taken 78 games to figure out that the best players should play the most minutes? Or has it taken 78 games to learn that players (even rookies) are disqualified after their sixth rather than their fifth foul?

"Certainly, if you take him out, you have to bring him back at the seven- or eight-minute mark of the second quarter [rather than sitting him out until the third quarter]," Woodson said. "A lot of it depends on the situation in the game. When Al got his second Tuesday night it was still a back-and-forth game.

"But he came out and then they just took off. We couldn't even get out of the first quarter, so you don't want to risk that again going into the third quarter."

I've read the above several times and it makes little sense to me. I guess we can take away two things from that quote: 1) Mike Woodson coached the game in Indiana so poorly that even Mike Woodson can recognize how poorly Mike Woodson coached the game and 2) Mike Woodson can't form and communicate a coherent thought about how to deal with foul trouble (either real or perceived).

Horford's impact on the game, a 29-point blowout before a late Hawks rally, was non-existent. He finished with four points and five rebounds in under 20 minutes, an unacceptable performance for one of the Hawks' most important players.

Horford also finished the game with five personal fouls. It's disappointing that Horford had a bad game but nobody's going to play 82 good games. It's unacceptable that he sat for 17:47 of the first half with just two fouls and 10:46 of the second half with just four fouls.

Al Horford:

"After you sit that long it's tough to come back into that type of game in any kind of rhythm. I know I felt out of it at the start of the second half. We were already down big and it wasn't easy trying to get back into the flow."

See also, Acie Law IV's inability to improve as a point guard while playing 0 to 6 minutes a night; those minutes coming regardless of whether he plays well or plays terribly.

Recognizing mistakes, trying to correct them...these are positive traits. Or rather, they are positive traits if you can remember your good intentions when it matters. The very next day, Woodson repeated the behavior he found fault with himself.

One day after attempting to communicate a new, open-minded and flexible approach to a player picking up 2 fouls in the first half, Mike Woodson sat Josh Smith for the final 7:56 of the first half and Mike Bibby for the final 6:39 of the first half. For six minutes or so at the end of the second quarter we got to see Marvin Williams, Solomon Jones, and Salim Stoudamire on the floor at the same time against Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo. The Hawks were down 35-36 when Smith left the game, down 35-39 when Bibby left and down 44-55 by the time both returned for the start of the second half.

Woodson's post-game assessment:

"If I had to do it all over again, I probably should have had Bibby's butt on the floor."

I guess we can add Mike Woodson to the list of Hawks' personnel who don't listen to Mike Woodson.

It's this lack of learning from his mistakes that makes me fear we are about to witness a second wasted season for Acie Law IV for Mike Woodson has found fault with his handling of the potentially useful point guard during his rookie season.

From today's otherwise dull account of Acie Law IV's desire to succeed:

"The bottom line is this, when I got desperate coming down the home stretch last season I'm the one that shrunk the rotation," Woodson said. "Nobody did that but me. My coaches fought me on it. But I thought it was the right thing for us to do in terms of making a serious run to get that playoff spot. It worked out in our favor, but if I had it to do all over again I wish I would have played [Law] a little bit more. But that's hindsight now."

I'm afraid that feelings desperation and regret provide some foresight as well. This isn't the first time Woodson has come late to this party (see also: this post three days later with damning quote from Woodson).

Mike Woodson's Thought Process Regarding Personal Responsibility and Decision-Making

1. Mistakes will be made.
2. Mistakes should be recognized (eventually).
3. Don't dwell on your mistakes. That's hindsight.
4. Repeat mistakes.

It's useful to know that it's not just the players who dislike Mike Woodson's decisions and manner of making them: David Fizdale, Hawks' assistant coach last year, now an assistant coach for the Miami Heat. Harold Ellis, Hawks' scout last year, now an assistant for the Detroit Pistons. Herb Brown, Hawks' assistant coach last year, now an assistant coach for the Charlotte Bobcats. Each took their new job after the Hawks signed Woodson to his new contract.

Larry Drew and Bob Bender must be hanging around simply for the chance to add "Interim Head Coach" to their resume. They can't enjoy working for an incompetent who is unwilling to question his decisions until well after the fact and then blithely dismiss his own error. Then again, Larry Drew is a Missouri alum.

This pessimism pre-dated the acquisition of Flip Murray, 44 eFG% for his career. The Hawks have lacked guys who can create their own shots in the past. Is that something that you see as part of your role with the team?

FM: Definitely. I had a conference call with the team when we were negotiating the deal, and I got a chance to talk to Coach Woodson. I asked him exactly what role he was looking to fill, and he said he was looking for a combo-guard, a guy who could create his own shot and make plays happen on his own. Hearing that opened my eyes and made the decision that much easier for me.

Oh dear.