Mike Woodson's coaching has been long questioned. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
It’s been a hot topic in Hawks nation for the past few seasons, and prior to the past two wins, it was gaining full steam: should Mike Woodson be the coach of this team? In short, he shouldn’t be. While the Hawks have increased their win total from 13 wins per season on up, Woodson’s methods have to be questioned.
Old School Mentality: While Woodson’s coaching pedigree may be his greatest asset (he was schooled under Bob Knight in Indiana as a player and under Larry Brown as an assistant in Detroit), it’s also his greatest flaw. Woody prefers to rely on vets and its showing this year, as Woody has chosen to go with Flip Murray ahead of Acie Law. (If you were wondering whether Brown relies on vets, just look at the Bobcats last trade of Richardson for Bell and Diaw as evidence.)
During his early years, Woodson was forced to go with rookies such as Josh Childress, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams. He had no choice. But this year, he has been faced with the option of going with the veteran Murray or the younger, faster point guard in Law, who has the higher long term ceiling. Law has shown flashes of brilliance, driving to the basket at times with ease. His uncanny ability to attack the rim and finish with both hands should -in the long run- prove more valuable than the erratic Flip Murray, who can provide an inconsistent spark off the bench.
Yet Woodson has stuck with Murray and stunted Law’s growth. While Law has struggled with his shot, his penchant for driving and dishing and his sheer athleticism should alone be enough for him to earn minutes in the rotation. As of now, those qualities haven’t been enough. The same argument could be made with Randolph Morris, who hasn’t seen the light of day despite being highly regarded out of the University of Kentucky. While Morris is not as great an example, his potential should probably earn him a little bit more of playing time.
Bench Reliance: Woodson’s heavy reliance on his starters has shown the past two years, as he rarely has gone deep into his bench during either the regular season or the playoffs. Last season, he went only so far as playing Josh Childress and Zaza Pachulia down the stretch as the Hawks were gunning for a playoff spot. This year, it is more of the same. Woodson has essentially a three man rotation coming off the bench in the form of Evans, Murray and Pachulia.
What Woody fails to realize is that during an 82 game stretch, players get tired. Joe Johnson has been run into the ground the past three seasons, and his scoring output and overall efficiency have dropped significantly late in the season. While the addition of Mike Bibby at the trading deadline last year took some of the load off Johnson, Johnson still struggled at times due to fatigue.
Good coaching staffs recognize fatigue. Take Erik Spoelstra of Miami. He tries to limit Dwayne Wade’s minutes to between 34-38 minutes a game to maximize his efficiency. He studied Wade’s output over last season, and found out that Wade was much better when his minutes were managed. Who would have thought? Even if the Heat are down in a game (such as last Friday vs. the Hawks), Spoelstra will stick to this method of resting Wade.
Woodson, on the other hand, is like a flustered quarterback in the pocket. Instead of staying in the pocket and making an accurate throw, he rushes outside and throws the ball out of bounds. If the Hawks are in a close game, you can guarantee Woodson will press the panic button and put Johnson (and eventually Bibby and Horford) back in the game. It’s almost comical to see some of the box scores for this year’s games, where every starter has played over 35 minutes.
Johnson ranks fourth in the league in minutes at 39.3 minutes/game. Bibby is ranked thirteenth among point guards at 33.8 minutes/game. Marvin Williams is ranked twelfth among power forwards at 35.0 minutes/game. Horford is ranked eleventh among centers at 32.1 minutes/game. (I kept Josh Smith out of this discussion due to injuries which kept him out of a handful of games early in the season and his erratic play costing him playing time recently.)
In Woody’s defense, his bench is below average. But perhaps the head coach should take some of the blame for the bench’s inconsistencies. After all, it is Woody’s erratic handling of minutes played for bench players which have forced players such as Pachulia and Law to recalibrate their expectations of whether or not they will play in a game. (I’m not going to even touch Woody’s curious decision of benching Pachulia vs. the Wizards after he lit up the Raptors for 17 rebounds; I have already vented on that instance of Woody’s poor coaching.)
Vanilla Play-Calling: Woody’s inability to get creative on the play-calling end is a little curious given his tutelage by the aforementioned Knight and Brown. Yet I have seen this team repeatedly fail to execute out of time-outs where the sole purpose of the time-out was to draw up a play.
As much as I love Joe Johnson, the Bibby/Johnson pick and roll repeatedly down the stretch is either hit or miss. When it’s working, it can be unstoppable, and Johnson can absolutely take over a game (see last night’s game vs. Cleveland or Game 4 vs. Boston in last year’s playoffs). However, when it doesn’t work, the Johnson isolation play call can slow down the offense and leave the other four players on the court feeling like they are on an island on offense. There is no reason why this team shouldn’t run the offense down the stretch to keep the rhythm it was able to establish throughout the course of the game.
While Woody can somewhat justify the Johnson “iso” can he really justify the Flip Murray iso? Should there even be such a thing? When Murray comes into the game, it is almost a guarantee the ball will be in his hands on offense, typically resulting in the hoisting of some off balance shot. But what is more surprising than Murray’s early shooting barrage is the play that gets Murray to that point: an isolation play call where Murray goes 1 on 5 on his way to the hoop. Woodson needs to know that while the Bryant iso and the James iso work in LA and Cleveland, the Murray iso is a recipe for disaster.
Connecting With the Players: A good coach connects with players. A great coach connects with players and manages the locker room. Woodson does neither. While he may have the respect of Johnson, guys like Smith and Pachulia can only hide so much of their disdain for their head coach.
Smith and Woody have broken up and made up more than college kids doing a long distance relationship. While Smith is immature and a volatile personality, its Woody’s job to manage that personality so that it doesn’t destroy the foundation of the team. Woody has done a better job of this recently, benching Smith after dumb turnovers, mental lapses and technical fouls. But as some parents would tell you, it may be too late to discipline your child after you let it crap the bed for the past four years.
Pachulia – on the other hand – dislikes Woodson for his inconsistent playing time. I have to side with Zaza on this, although his fragile mental pscyhe leaves much to be desired. Woody needs to understand that Pachulia is a key cog in this line-up and can’t afford to “lose” that type of role player mentally. Yet Woody seems content keeping a distance from his big man, hoping that Pachulia will perhaps work up the inspiration to play for his head coach on his own.