*Sorry in advance for the long post, but I'm extremely pissed off right now. I hope you'll read it anyway and share your opinion in our comments section*
Five years ago, the Hawks hired a defensive-minded assistant from the World Champion Detroit Pistons to lead their team out of the basement of the NBA and into title discussion. In all honesty, I thought the Woodson hire was a good one. The team, at that time, had few gifted athletes that could outscore an opponent, and the idea of playing defensive ball seemed like a good one for a squad that could maybe steal some wins by being tenacious on-the-ball defenders and energetic, hustling, and harassing pains-in-the-ass of our opponents. That year (2004-2005), they did steal some wins...13 of them.
At that time, it was safe to say that very little could have gone worse than it did. The Hawks gave up 102.5 points per game in Woody's first season, and guys like Al Harrington and Antoine Walker were not able to adjust to his system. Defense first was not their motto, and it was clear that they had no intention of adopting that type of play. So the GM at the time, Billy Knight, decided to turn the team around through the draft - and he drafted 2 guys that gave the franchise hope and seemed poised to fit perfectly into Woodson's system - Josh Childress and Josh Smith. Was Childress, a career 6th man, a reach at the number 6 pick in the draft? No doubt. However, he was the kind of gritty, hard-nosed player that would work well in Mike Woodson's system.
The following offseason (Summer 2005), the Hawks signed Joe Johnson and drafted Marvin Williams with the second pick in the draft. Needing a point guard and a solid center, they got neither (although they did sign Zaza Pachulia that year). Assuming Woodson had input in Knight's offseason plans, it is unquestionable that Woodson made a strategic error - he began to get personnel that didn't fit his system. Joe Johnson is indeed a defensive stopper - he is one of the better defenders in the game. However, the team had no answer to defending a point guard nor an answer to defend an NBA center. For a strong defense in the NBA to succeed on an everyday basis, beyond the intensity and fire that naturally shows up for playoff games and rivalry games, they must have the personnel to stop a point guard and stop a center. The Hawks had neither, and won 26 games that season.
In the 2006-2007 season, the Hawks drafted Shelden Williams and added him to practically the same lineup as the previous season (albeit without Al Harrington). I'm guessing Knight and Woodson thought Williams could defend the bigger men in the league, but at 6' 9" they were foolish in that determination. Naturally, fans of the Hawks called for the firing of Knight - how could a GM possibly make such inept draft selections year-after-year and expect his team to grow and succeed? The goal in the NBA is to win championships, and it was clear that after 3 years the Hawks were no where near that point. To their credit, the Hawks did limit the opponents' points per game from 102 in the previous season to 98.4 - and they increased their win total by 4 to 30.
Their defense swayed last season, however. The team, after making their best draft in years, gave up 100 points per game. They drafted an interior defender in Al Horford who was too small to defend the elite bigs in the game (I love Al, but he just isn't big enough), and traded for a point guard (Mike Bibby) who was too slow to guard even an average NBA point guard. Still, they won 37 games, made the playoffs, and took Boston to 7 games. These were all signs that maybe the Hawks were turning a corner. For the first time all season, they showed intensity, fire, and a drive to prove their doubters wrong...and to some extent, they succeeded.
After many years of rebuilding, 6 under Knight, 4 under Woodson, the Hawks made the playoffs. However, that wasn't enough to quiet the growing outcry for Knight's demise as he stepped down following last season. After Knight's resignation, the Spirit hired Rick Sund to put together a roster that would lead the team to more victories, and eventually, compete for the NBA Championship. Sund evaluated the players and the coaches, and decided to keep Woodson for 2 more years.
So where are we? The Hawks are 33-24, winners of 5 of their last 10, and are currently 1-3 on their west-coast road trip. They are playing with even less passion and desire than they have over the past 5 years, which is truly saying something. They start games slowly, show no emotion, and seem to have no idea what they're doing on the offensive side of the ball. Whenever a player gets 2 fouls in the first half, he sits. Whenever the game is on the line, Joe gets the ball and everyone else watches. Whenever we play a good team, we get destroyed. Whenever we're on the road, we look listless. And still, the only times the team looks amped are when they play Boston, Cleveland, or Los Angeles (the latter two only at home).
While you may place blame on Knight or Sund for personel decisions, it is clear that Woodson, in addition to making bonehead in-game decisions like benching players after 2 fouls or deciding which version of "give Joe the ball" to run, is in charge of making the players feel excited to play basketball - a job he has clearly failed over the course of the past 5 years. That job is outside of the X's and O's. It is the responsibility of the head coach to make his players treat each game - all 82 of them - as critical games in the scheme of the season, and Mike Woodson has completely lost any ability to do that.
Furthermore, it is fair to say that Woodson has had a hand in the makeup of the team's roster. Just like a college coach recruits players for his system, Woodson should be directing the GM to make moves for players that fit his system. If Woodson has influenced some of the decisions to support his system, his system is idiotic. As a defensive oriented coach, he has gone 5 years without a defensive-stopper at point guard and a defensive-stopper at center. Allowing teams to penetrate at will and screen and roll to perfection is not the way to play defensive basketball. Sure, we have Josh Smith, who can (when he feels like it) block some shots and disrupt the middle...but he must leave the player he's guarding in order to do so. Regardless of who you blame for the clear disassociation between the strength of each player's game and the ideal set forth by Woodson, it is clear that some part of the equation isn't working.
In the NFL, a team would never hire a 4-3 coach if the players are better for a 3-4. Furthermore, the team would never hire a west-coast offense coach for a roster better suited for a pound-it-up-the-middle game. However, in almost all sports most coaches are given some time to get players that fit their system. For example, Bruce Webber, the basketball coach at the University of Illinois, went to the National Championship game in his second season with Bill Self's recruits. He then had a significant fall from grace while he recruited players that fit into his system. After 3 years, the Illini are back in the top 25 and seem poised to stay there for the next few seasons. Webber used his rebuilding years to get players that fit into his system. In his 5 years, Woodson has failed to complete this task.
In five years, and 2 GMs, the Hawks have yet to put together a roster that resembles a unit that can shut down its opponents on a nightly basis. Sure, they can begin the season with desire and emotion and win 5 or 6 in a row. And sure, they can play Boston to a last second shot. But what they have yet to do is sustain that intensity throughout any significant stretch of games. Let's get one thing straight - this is not a roster that can win defensively based on talent alone. They need the fire and intensity that they displayed at the beginning of the season in order to succeed playing that style of ball, and over the past 2 months or so they simply haven't showed it...any of it. So who is to blame for lack of intensity? Of course some blame goes to the players, but a lot must go to the coach - who seems to have lost any ability to inspire his squad.
Inspiration wouldn't be necessary if the Hawks had a roster that was naturally able to play the defensive-style that Woodson desires from his team, but they don't. Marvin is actually OK defensively, Bibby is slow, Joe is worn out, Josh is lost, and Horford is undersized. Rick Sund told us a few weeks ago at blogger night that Horford is an NBA center and that center is his natural position. To this, I agree - if he's in the right system. In fact, each of these players is at the right position, and if in the right system they could succeed.
Further proof of the necessity of inspiration can be found by looking at the Hawks' road record over Woody's tenure. While last year's playoff series taught the Hawks that they can play with anyone in the league at Philips Arena, their road record continues to be embarrassing. In Woody's first year, the team was 4-37 on the road. The next? 8-33. Then 2 straight years of 12-29 and now 13-18. The Hawks road record is the most telling sign that Woodson can't inspire the team. Needless to say, it's one thing to come out and win at your home arena, but when the fans are rooting for the other team the game becomes a whole different animal.
What we have here is a situation where the coach is too stubborn to try something new, and has an ego too large to admit that his method might not be the best one for this set of players.
The Washington Redskins had a similar problem over the past couple of years. After hiring Joe Gibbs back to coach their football team, they realized that Gibbs' method just wasn't going to mesh with their roster, and his strategies just didn't work anymore. Gibbs retired in 2008 and the Redskins found a new coach in Jim Zorn. Gibbs was known for his system, and his system didn't work for that squad.
The same can be said for Woodson. If Mike Woodson wants to be a defensive coach that is known for having his players always playing swarming, intense, fiery defense, he needs to motivate his players to play that way. If he wants to have gifted defenders that need no motivation, he needs to advise the general manager to put together teams that have these gifted defenders. In the event that he is unable to accomplish either of these resolutions, he needs to change his system. Granted, we've had 5 years of Mike Woodson at the helm, and the team has been able to incrementally increase its win total every season. What should not happen is a continuation, year after year, of the lackadaisical Hawks play that shows a clear deficiency in the Coach's ability to inspire his players to play his style.
It is time for Mike Woodson to give in or take a hike. If he wanted the swingmen on his team, he needs to let them loose. Marvin, Josh, Al, and Joe all have excellent fast break ability. They are young, motivated, and can run with just about anyone. If Woody continues to demand excellence on the defensive end, he is stunting their growth - both offensively and as all-around basketball players. Furthermore, if he continues to require that the players play to his style, they will continue to lose interest and desire to play for him...and the team will continue to barely beat the average teams in the NBA while getting smashed by the better teams in the league. So Woody is now stuck with three options - One, he can retool the roster (again) to try and create one that fits his style. Two, he can change his style to fit the players that are on the team. Finally, he can stick to his guns, and to his players, and have them continue on their current path.
I'm actually glad he's (apparently) already selected option three - one that will almost certainly cause him to lose his job. As a result, the question now is not if Mike Woodson will be fired, the question is when. The answer? Not soon enough. Woody, for his five years of disappointment, should add one more loss to his 138-236 coaching record - being fired would make him 138-237.