ATLANTA — Now that he’s finally got his chance to be an NBA head coach, Larry Drew knows that his new job will be a lot easier if he still has Joe Johnson on the team.
Drew wasted no time making his pitch to the free-agent-to-be.
“I think my hiring should be a plus,” Drew said Monday, when he was formally introduced as the new coach of the Atlanta Hawks. “I’m a guy who’s already been in here, who already knows the players, who already has a feel for the team. The things I’m talking about putting in are going to enhance Joe’s game even more.”
Johnson has made it clear that he intends to test free agency this summer, and he was the only prominent Atlanta player who didn’t show for Drew’s first news conference, held on the practice court at Philips Arena.
But Drew, who spent six years as the top assistant to former coach Mike Woodson, said he’ll bring more creativity to the offence. The Hawks looked especially stagnant in the second round of the playoffs, when Atlanta was blown out by the Orlando Magic in the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history.
Johnson had a miserable post-season and ticked off the home fans with critical comments about their lack of support during the Orlando series. While he wouldn’t close the door on returning to the Hawks, he made it clear he wanted to be part of a glamorous free agent class that is likely to also include LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Toronto’s Chris Bosh.
Drew said he had an encouraging telephone conversation with Johnson before getting the head coaching job, but hasn’t had a chance to speak with him since the news broke Friday about Atlanta settling on Woodson’s successor.
Clearly hoping that Johnson would hear of his plans, Drew said he’ll install an offence that relies on more ball movement and doesn’t count on the team’s best scorer handling the ball so much.
That was the most persistent criticism of Woodson, whose offence relied heavily on isolation sets and one-on-one matchups.
“I want to take some of the wear and tear off” Johnson, Drew said. “That’s something we really have to look at. Playing night in and out with people homing in on you makes it tough. I want to make it easier on him.”
Drew was hired after a search that also included Dwane Casey and Avery Johnson, both of whom had previous head coaching experience.
“Certainly, this is a day I will long remember,” said Drew, who was accompanied by his wife — on their 24th wedding anniversary, no less — and the couple’s three sons, including North Carolina point guard Larry Drew II. “It has been a very long journey. I just thank God for my patience.”
Even though a more prominent coach surely would have made a bigger splash with the Hawks’ fickle fan base, general manager Rick Sund said it was clear that Drew was the right man to push Atlanta to the next level.
The team is coming off a 53-win season — its best since 1996-97. But the last two seasons have ended with sweeps in the second round of the playoffs.
“Obviously, he’s got a great read on the pulse of our team,” the GM said. “He’s got good familiarity with the pluses and minuses of our players.”
Those players who attended the news conference were clearly pleased about having Drew getting the head coaching job. For the last six years, he often served as a buffer between the gruff Woodson and the guys in uniform.
“I’m real excited. I know the team is real excited,” said Josh Smith, who had an up-and-down relationship with Woodson. “There’s definitely a comfort level there. He definitely knows the players. When anybody had problems on the court, we used to go to him for advice. He knows what everybody likes to do.”
But Drew’s hiring also raised the question: How is he going to make significant changes when he didn’t have that sort of impact sitting right beside Woodson?
“That’s a tough question. That’s a very tough question,” he said, squirming a bit in his seat. “When you’re the assistant coach, your job is to give the head coach as much information as you possibly can. His job is to go through it and decide what he wants to use. I think all the assistants did what they were supposed to do, and Mike used what he wanted to use. I don’t fault him for that.”
Indeed, Drew made a point several times to praise his former boss, who guided the Hawks to a steadily improving record after a 13-69 debacle in his first season. Atlanta has made the playoffs the last three years on the heels of a nearly decade-long post-season drought that began long before Woodson arrived.
But Drew said there are ways to climb higher. He vows to put more movement into the offence. He promises that Smith will be spending more time in the post, where he can take advantage of his bulk and athleticism. He plans to give last year’s first-round pick, Jeff Teague, more playing time at point guard.
Of course, all those plans hinge on having Joe Johnson leading the way.
“If he doesn’t come back, we’d be losing an all-star, we’d be losing 20 points a game,” Drew said. “Certainly, we would have to make up the difference. Hopefully, we don’t get to that point.”