Back to the Drewing Board
By Jon Cooper
There is only so much a head coach can control.
A head coach cannot make a game-winning jumper.
He can't make a game-tying free-throw or pull down a rebound insuring a late stop.
What a head coach can do is put his players in position to do those things and get them in the proper mindset.
Larry Drew did those things consistently throughout an unpredictable 2011-12 season. That, in addition to his roster-maneuvering through a minefield of injuries surely factored into the decision to exercise the option for the 2012-13 season.
“Larry did an outstanding job this season in guiding our team to the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, despite a condensed schedule and unfortunate injuries,” said Hawks General Manager Rick Sund. “The Hawks have reached the postseason in each of his years on the bench, and we feel Larry’s experience, expertise and dedication to the game were a key ingredient to our success.”
Drew led the Hawks to a 40-26 season and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference despite playing 55 of the 66 games without starting center and two-time All-Star Al Horford, using their projected Opening Night lineup a total of nine times and juggling 11 different starting lineups.
They reached the Playoffs for the fifth straight season, something which deserves more praise than the criticism by some over not advancing for the first time in four seasons.
Could they have beaten the Celtics? Sure. That's part of the frustration they'll take into the summer.
"You want to put yourself in a position to win and I thought we did that in all but one game," he said. "It just didn't fall our way."
The Hawks will allow Drew to spend his summer thinking about ways to help things fall their way in 2012-13 rather than worrying about where he will fall.
He deserved that and deserved to be cut a little slack after what was a bizarre NBA season by any standard. Drew felt even stronger about his team.
"First of all I told them how proud I was of them," said Drew. "It was a long season, a difficult season, obviously, with the lockout and the season being compressed. The injuries that we went through. It was a very tough season but we endured it and we dealt with that adversity in a very professional manner and had a great season.
"Unfortunately, the Playoffs didn't go quite the way we wanted them to but still I thought we had a phenomenal season," he added. "I just told the guys how proud i was of the way they handled themselves, the way they dealt with all the situations. I've seen teams go the other way in that type of situation but our guys dealt with it in such a mature manner. The way they came out and played and didn't make excuses says a lot about the team."
Drew makes no excuses. He called one of the team's final possessions, which resulted in a Josh Smith missed jumper, a broken play, and while he admitted the execution was not as drawn up, he threw no one under the bus.
He has moved on and, thanks to the picked up option, now can move forward with a much clearer head without a cloud hanging over him.
"I'm very happy that that part is over with," he said. "Certainly I'm very excited with the fact organization does believe in where we're going and what we've accomplished."
Drew was satisfied with the way he handled his business during the '11-12 season but knows his growing as a coach isn't over.
"I've always said I want to try to be and get better and better every year. My whole approach, everything I do, with preparation, with strategies, with adjustments, I just want to get better and better at that," he said. "Dealing with my players. That's something that I take a lot of pride in and something that I've spent a lot of time talking about and trying to work on. Player relationships are so important on this level. How you deal with your best player all the way down to the guy who may not even dress during games. I thought I did a good job with that. I thought my staff did a good job with that. The one thing we tried to control is that those guys, when they come to the gym, did they come out and play hard for you every single night? I felt we got that."
Drew will carry a .568 winning percentage (84-64) into his third full season behind the Hawks bench, and is excited about the possibilities regarding the team.
There are a lot of pieces in place — a healthy Horford coming back with a chip on his shoulder, Joe Johnson, who was selected to his sixth straight All-Star Game, Josh Smith, who showed a more versatile side of his game, and Jeff Teague, who made huge strides as the starting point and should continue to improve. The team got valuable contributions from established role players Willie Green, Jannero Pargo, and Vladimir Radmanovic as well as from Zaza Pachulia, until he hurt his foot, a key loss for the Celtics series, and Jason Collins and got found money in forward Ivan Johnson, who came out of nowhere to fortify the front line and supply energy, and Tracy McGrady, who showed he still has something left in the tank.
There are a lot of decisions to be made in determining just how the 2012-13 team will look. Six players, Johnson, Horford, Smith, Teague, Pachulia and Marvin Williams, are under contract for next season, while only Horford and Johnson are signed thereafter. Filling out the roster and other player moves, like re-signing Smith (they can't extend him because his current deal was the matching of a Memphis offer sheet) will be worked out over the coming months.
Of course, the first order of business is the fate of Sund, who has been in Atlanta for four seasons but whose contract expires on June 30th.
Drew can't control any of that. All he can do is continue to control what he can control.
No longer up in the air, he is eager to hit the ground running.
"It's back to work," he said. "We have to prepare for the Draft and free agency and make sure we go into this thing open-minded as far as who will be available and what players can come in and possibly give us some help."