Today we finally wrap up our series of 2011 reviews with a closer look at Hawks coach Larry Drew's first season as the head man in Atlanta. Drew came out of nowhere to land the Hawks job last summer after Mike Woodson was let go following a 53 win regular season but a disappointing exit in the second round of the playoffs. Drew impressed Hawks ownership with his ideas for what he thought Atlanta needed and landed the job over other candidates such as then Dallas assistant Dwane Casey and ESPN broadcaster Mark Jackson.
On Drew's first day as head coach, he talked with the AJC's Michael Cunningham about his ideas for the Hawks offense which had been a major point of contention under Woodson.
"It will have some pick-and-roll in it," he said. "What it does, it forces the ball to move. That is probably the best way to explain it. Yes, teams will try to lock into it, but there are reads to it. There are triggers to it. It forces the ball to move, it forces the body to move. Now we become more effective. We become a five-man attack team. It puts all five guys in position to attack and to score."
Drew was reasonably successful in instituting the offense with the club although it never felt like it was fully embraced by the players. There were games where the ball movement was crisp as was the player's movement and there were others where they seemed to revert back to their isolation habits of the previous season. One thing that plagued the offense numerous times was the Hawks failing to get into the set until late in the shot clock.
Then there was all of those jump shots. Notice the word "attack" in the above quote. To describe the 2010-11 version of the Atlanta Hawks as a jump shooting team would be an understatement. Was that a by-product of the motion offense? It is to the extent that it did help them come up with open looks but the offense wasn't designed to just primarily produce jump shots. Instead that falls more on the group of players that Atlanta has assembled to run the offense. Of course it also falls on Drew for not insisting that players like Josh Smith take the ball to the basket instead of settling. I marveled on more than one occasion last season that I had never seen a team turn a 3 on 1 break into a long jump shot attempt more than the Hawks.
Defensively Atlanta attempted to play more of a straight up game than under Mike Woodson meaning that Atlanta didn't switch off of screens nearly as much as they did the year before. That was both good and bad. The problem under Woodson wasn't that Atlanta switched on screens, the problem was that they switched on nearly every screen. Woodson very seldom changed things up in his attack and opposing coaches could get any match up that they wanted late in games because they new Atlanta would switch.
By playing more straight up this season, we also saw primarily why Woodson instituted switching in the first place. In short, players like Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford struggled to stay in front of their man and the Hawks had to come up with a way to address it. Players like Josh Smith and Al Horford, even in a mismatch, often had a better chance of making things tougher on players like Steve Nash than if the Hawks had chose to play it straight up. Atlanta looked to address this problem mid-season when they traded Bibby for Kirk Hinrich who is a much better perimeter defender.
Another aspect that Drew implemented this season was a willingness to adapt and change. Atlanta often shuffled their starting lineup by inserting Jason Collins in an effort to match up with opposing big centers like Dwight Howard and Andrew Bogut. Early on Drew often went ten deep with his substitutions before trimming it down as the season went along. The downside to this was that it never really felt like the Hawks fell into a solid rotation. Often that had to do with injuries but other times it was less clear which I think is a good time to discuss Jeff Teague.
Coming into the season, Drew challenged Teague rather publicly saying that he wanted to see him take the point guard job from the then incumbent Mike Bibby. Teague immediately suffered an injury in training camp and missed a portion of the exhibition season. Throughout the season, Teague was like a yo-yo, constantly in and out of the lineup for no apparent reason. I understand that there had to be some sort of accountability problem coming out of training camp. Obviously Drew wasn't seeing the things he wanted to see from the young point guard. However, every dog house must have a way out. By not seeing what Teague could do first, the Hawks could have jumped the gun when they made the Kirk Hinrich trade.
Teague used the second round of the playoffs for his coming out party after Hinrich was injured in the series clinching victory over Orlando. Personally I like Hinrich more every time I watch him play but Atlanta paid a steep price for him in Jordan Crawford and a No. 1 pick. Teague wasn't just serviceable in the playoffs mind you. He was arguably the best player on the floor for Atlanta. One of the biggest questions going into this season will be whether or not Teague can sustain that level of play. I have to believe he can considering his performance came against the league's regular season MVP in Derek Rose. Performing at a high level for 40 minutes a night against the league MVP has to suggest something right?
During the regular season the Hawks were full of peeks and valleys. They dropped from 53 wins and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference to 44 wins and the No. 5 seed. However, in the playoffs, they defeated Orlando without home court advantage and took two games from Chicago who was the East's top seed. I will give Larry Drew a lot of credit because I was very skeptical that Atlanta could make a decent showing in the playoffs with the way they closed out the regular season.
Despite being in the league for a number of seasons, we need to remember that last year was Drew's first as a head coach. No doubt he made some mistakes along the way but Atlanta has to hope that they can build on the momentum that they gained in last year's playoffs. I anticipate the core returning once the NBA resumes operations and feel optimistic about Bibby/Crawford being replaced by Teague/Hinrich.
Drew enters the season on the last year of his two year deal with the club. He faces some challenges to further develop and incorporate Al Horford into the offense as well as finding the right balance for Josh Smith. The Hawks and Drew have to hope that Jeff Teague can provide a difference and solidify the point guard position along with Kirk Hinrich. With rumors of a possible change in ownership on the horizon, he needs to show the organization that he is the coach that can get this group to the next level.