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Atlanta Hawks: Perception & Reality

A few days ago, Hoopsworld posted an interview with Atlanta Hawks GM Rick Sund on a variety of topics ranging from the trade deadline to where the Hawks stand as a team. Sund offered a strange comparison to the San Anotonio Spurs prompting an excellent response from our own Jason Walker. Hoopinion's Bret LaGree weighed in yesterday with his take on Sund's words and a variety of other Hawks topics. (If you haven't read it then stop now and go do so) Today I am going to take my turn. I am not going to delve too much into the Sund interview because I think both Jason and Bret do a great job of offering opinions about his words. Instead I am going to focus on the Hoopinion piece and what in my opinion can be said or not said from someone that is coaching or managing a team. First some background.


I am a life long fan of this franchise and have only been writing about the Hawks since last January. I don't have the experience or knowledge of past workings that either Jason or Bret do. I may be accused of homerism from time to time and I won't deny that because at the heart of it all I am a fan. If I didn't love this team and didn't live care about each and every win or loss then I most certainly wouldn't be writing about the team.

In his article Bret discusses the possibility of Sund's public comments influencing a casual fan. I will argue later that isn't that what he is supposed to do? But lets not get into that just yet.  First lets talk about Larry Drew, his staff, and defense. 

Larry Drew appears not to have made the adjustment from thinking, during his 18 seasons as an assistant, about how he would coach an NBA team in the abstract to coaching the particular team he was hired to lead.

I don't think it is fair to point out the adjustment from thinking without mentioning that fact that Atlanta has significantly changed its style of play under Larry Drew. Maybe I am missing the point here but coach Drew brought a new offensive philosophy and defensive philosophy to the team in training camp. If anything he has taken a Hawks team that looks a lot like last years team and made it into something else in its entirety in my opinion. I believe that during his time on the bench as an assistant, he did form an opinion of what changes this team needed. Defensively the Hawks are not a great team. Anyone that watches the team long understands that. Yet I think Bret misses the point on coaching in general with his criticism of Drew's words about Jamal Crawford

Shooting is Crawford's game. There is no rest of it. His assist rate sits in a similar range to those of Al Horford and Josh Smith, not those of lead guards. Crawford is almost 31 years old. He is the player he is at this point and that's a useful player if a head coach leverages his strength and remains aware of the potential damage his weaknesses could cause the team.

While I think this is an accurate assessment of Crawford do we really not want Drew to coach him to be better? Will it change anything? Probably not but coming into this season Drew was ridiculed by people claiming that Joe Johnson would resist sharing the ball and that this group couldn't run a motion style offense. Do we really want Larry Drew to say "You know Jamal, your whole career you haven't done anything but chuck up shots and that is all we want from you here. Don't worry about playing defense"? I don't for a second believe that coach Drew thinks Jamal is a great defender anymore than I believe he thinks Mike Bibby is. I do think that Drew believes Jamal could be better. If a coach doesn't ask for better from a player, then will he get it? Would this same conversation be happening if Avery Johnson was the coach? Would we think it was ludicrous if Johnson came out in the Atlanta paper and asked Jamal to play defense? 

Energy's not going to improve this team's defense. Better defensive players are going to improve this team's defense.

Then there is the argument of defensive effort versus defensive skill. I agree that some players are better defenders than others and no amount of effort will ever make up the difference. However, there is something to asking for more effort from players. Personally I think Josh Smith could be a better defensive player than Al Horford. On a lot of nights though it is Horford's effort that puts him above Smith. It is about getting a player to do things that aren't necessarily comfortable to them. For Atlanta that usually means putting a body in front of a driving offensive player but it also means being tuned in to the rotations and giving effort to get out to shooters. It also means rebounding and I have long thought that effort in rebounding was worth way more than any text book skill. Hell I once saw Kevin Willis average 15.5 rebounds in one season largely because he simply wanted to get every rebound. 

Which brings me to Rick Sund, Larry Drew and his assistants, public perception and what can and cannot be said publicly. In the interview with Hoopsworld, Rick Sund used the term elite in association with the Hawks. He offered his definition of elite. It is not necessarily my definition nor is it Bret's. Can that term elite without the definition skew a casual fan? Perhaps but if they transition from a casual to a more engaged fan they are going to form their own opinion. Sometimes we criticize Sund for never talking then we get worked up when he does speak. He is not going to say anything tangible and is going to sing the praises of this team every time. Why wouldn't he? The situation could be a lot worse. Could it be better? Absolutely it could be! Point is you are not going to hear Sund say we are disappointed in Jeff Teague's development or we might not have really needed Etan Thomas. You aren't going to hear the negative so quit waiting for it to come out of a team official's mouth. 

The public comments of Sund and Drew are not disconcerting because I assume either of them to be disingenuous, they're disconcerting because I assume them to be honest and it's the self-serving and/or impractical expression of their honesty that enervates.

Bret finds the most fault in that he terms many of the things Sund and Larry Drew say as genuine. I do not and I don't think you can be in the NBA as long as Sund has been and miss the point that bad. During Sund's tenure here he has been forthcoming with only one thing and that was that the Hawks were going to do everything they could to bring back Joe Johnson no matter what. Many laughed and didn't believe him but that was exactly what they did. I have a hard time believing that a man in Sund's position wouldn't understand this team's weaknesses more than I or any other blogger would. If Sund never offers up any information then why are we taking his comments in Hoopsworld so seriously?

Coach Drew and his assistants are in an even worse situation because they can't duck the microphone the way the GM sometimes can. They have to do the pre-game and sideline interviews. Do we expect Lester Conner to say between quarters " You know Jerome, We would be much better defensively if we had different players"? Of course not. It is this staff's job to go out and sell it to these players that they can beat anyone even if they know in the back of their mind that it isn't likely. They have to coach players to be better at something even if they know that they have probably maxed the guy out in potential. That is the coaching profession and the minute a coach stops doing those things then it is time to move on. To call the staff out as disingenuous in my opinion is unfair. 

I think both Bret and Jason nail the Spurs comparison for exactly the poor choice it was. The Spurs don't screw up player acquisitions. They don't sell draft picks and hold roster spots 1-15 accountable. That isn't the Atlanta Hawks but don't try and tell me that Gregg Popovich isn't trying to make every player on that team a better defender no matter their talents.

My intent was not to sell that Rick Sund has been perfect as GM and Larry Drew is coach of the year. That is hardly the case. Critical self assessment in professional sports doesn't happen publicly whether you agree or disagree. At the end of the day it will be the ASG that gets to decide that. Just like they have decided most of (if not all) the parameters for which management has operated.