The Curious Case of Mike Woodson

Thomas HalzackAnalyst IApril 15, 2009

BOSTON - APRIL 30:  Josh Smith #5 of the Atlanta Hawks gets advice from head coach Mike Woodson in the first quarter against the Boston Celtics during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on April 30, 2008 at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

I don't really understand it all. The Atlanta Hawks just clinched the fourth seed in the play-offs.

Yet, Mike Woodson continues to receive very little respect in the media.

After last year, how important is home court?

Coach Mike Woodson: "It's very important. I mean, it's tough. I've been in this league a long time. It's tough to steal a series.

"For us to push Boston to seven, that was a tough task last year, to do that. But they were the best team, clearly, in the league last year. And they proved it throughout the play-offs...I don't want to have to go through that again...if we can stay away from it.  

Coming into the stretch run, that was the goal for these Hawks, secure home court in the first round of the play-offs. Mission accomplished.

Yet, there is a murmur that Mike Woodson could be a "one and done" coach. If he doesn't make it out of the first round again, he's gone, they suggest.

And some seem to think that is a good idea and a fair decision.

But I'm not sure why. I'm confused. Why? Conflicting facts, I guess you could say.

Coach Woodson was asked recently, (before they clinched the fourth seed) if he thought his performance might be judged by the team's playoff performance.

His response was: "Well, it shouldn't be. I don't look at it like that. The bottom line is...this team hadn't been in the playoffs in.... I don't know how many years.

"Look it up. It's been a long time since this team has been in the playoffs. Last year, we made the run to get in the playoffs (12-6 high kick sprint to end the year).

"This year we're in a position to secure first round at home. So I think there's been progress. So this is not about me and my job. It's about me having an opportunity to build a team. and...when I look at our team, we're heading in the right direction. That, to me, is a positive.

Well said and fair enough.

Should Mike Woodson's job be judged by the team's playoff performance? It all depends on how good you think this Atlanta Hawk team should be. But this is what gets me.

I Called Them Woodson's Wonders

After shocking the Celtics and pushing last season's NBA Champs to seven games, expectations were high for this team, right? Wrong. There were zero pre-season believers among the pundits.

I get the feeling that many of those who think Woodson should be fired if he doesn't get the Hawks to the second round are the same pre-season pundits who said that this Hawks team would not improve on last year, with a tougher Eastern Conference this season. You can't have it both ways.

The Hawks were consensus picked by 25 ESPN writers for the same amount of wins as last season, which is 37.

They influenced my own thinking, and I moved my own prediction downward to just a minor improvement, when I really thought they would reach about 45 wins. I let the crowd influence me.

The Hawks are 46-34 with two games left. A nine game improvement is solid progress by anyone's standards.

How many here think Woodson should get Coach of the Year?......... crickets.

You won't hear a single voice raised in support of Woodson for Coach of the Year. Not a single one. But you will hear rumors of his impending doom. And you will get head nods. Why?

In all honesty, I'm not suggesting that Woodson be considered for COTY either. But his team has done well.

Maybe it is the 0-4 record against the Celtics this season. Maybe it is the team's continuing road ineptitude—they are 16-24, a passable four game improvement from last season. That is hardly COTY credentials, one would agree.

Curious Case of the (Highly Regarded) Jazz

"Highly regarded" Jerry Sloan's "highly regarded" Jazz, at 15-25 away from Utah, are road "worriers" and no better in that important category for judging a contending team.

Yet, Sloan's team, with two more wins, is considered a highly dangerous playoff match up. I find that to be a curious defect of the "highly talented" Jazz. Sloan's "highly regarded" career credentials will shield criticism.

Please understand, I'm not putting Woodson in Sloan's category. The resumes, styles, and career accomplishments simply don't compare. But neither can get their team to play well on the road.

New Executive Vice President and GM Rick Sund came in to replace the departed Billy King last season (King quit, it is said because the Hawks wouldn't fire Woodson).

Sund looked the situation over and decided that Woodson deserved a little more time, despite reputed friction with both Josh's.

Sund re-signed Mike Woodson to a two year renewal, hardly a ringing endorsement. The Sword of Damacles, you might say.

When queried, one Woodson skeptic, fellow CelticsStuffLive host Jon Duke, said it is Woodson's inability to get the most out of Josh Smith that lowers the grade on the Atlanta coach's report card.

My guess is that besides Woodson's professional, but humble persona (his pre and post game press conferences are the most unpretentious and casual I've experienced), his ongoing drama with Josh Smith does have something to do with it. It throws a negative spin Woodson's way. Shouldn't that spin go the other way, as well?

I have spoken with both player and coach and both come across as articulate and respectful people. But I don't have to coach or be coached by either. Smith missed 12 games with a sprained left ankle, and has played hurt this season.

But there was a public blow up between Smith and Woodson this season. Friction has existed between them for five years, as has been reported. Again, is that Woodson's fault?

The same people who find fault with Woodson have to agree that Josh Smith's game lacks discipline. Josh could be more team oriented and could play smarter.

Smith is an athletic freak and a very talented player. But, why is he still shooting three point shots with a 26.9% career average (29% this year)?

When Smith first signed that contract with Memphis, the Hawks' fan boards were completely mixed on Smith. I was surprised how many thought it was good riddance to a not very smart, selfish player.

If Woodson is to be faulted, it is for not being tough enough on Smith.

Smith has a bit of Zach Randolph, or perhaps Rasheed Wallace in him and thinks he is a distance shooter. End that experiment. Get him playing around the blocks more.

He is averaging 7.4 rebounds and could easily be around nine or more boards a game. Horford needs the help. The injuries may be affecting his numbers this season, in fairness to Smith.

Other Injuries and Obstacles

Out-of-position center Al Horford missed 14 games to injury (bone bruise/right knee).

SF Marvin Williams missed 16 straight games (lower back) and 20 overall. Point guard Mike Bibby has no true backup to spell him.

Woodson: "It's been tough, but hey, everybody's banged up this time of year, so its not a reason for us to sit here and complain. I mean, it's what it is and we just got to continue to play.

"You know guys have stepped up this year. We've had injuries all year. Al was out. Josh was out. We just had guys step up and play to help us win. That's what we have to do these last games."

The Hawks bolted out of the gate with six straight wins only to get their first loss at the hands of the Celtics. Then they went into a bit of a funk and lost four in a row. They pulled out of it and are closing in on a solid season by anyone's standards.

High Profile Offseason

The Hawks had a "media rich" offseason, losing consummate role player Josh Childress to a generous contract ($20 million over three years—tax free) from Greece (Olympiacos), no less.

Contrary to every agent's greed-induced raving that this will change negotiating permanently, no other American born player followed.

The Hawks recovered nicely by signing Maurice Evans, and Flip Murray to try to replace what Childress brought to the table.

Some said that Atlanta couldn't draw free agents. But frankly, those two players do not replace Josh Childress, who was one of the best sixth men in the league.

So, doesn't that mean that Mike Woodson has done a solid job of improving a team that has theoretically lost important, make that critical, talent? And hasn't he done it with three somewhat lengthy injuries to three different starters?

With negotiations at a standstill between Josh Smith and the Hawks, Memphis signed Smith to a $58 million, five year contract.

The Hawks learned their lesson from Childress and immediately matched, sending what they thought was a strong message that they wanted Smith to stay.

It seemed to confuse Josh, as it was reported that he wondered why they didn't make that offer right away, if they really wanted him. It was said he wanted to play for another coach.

Does Josh does need another coach? One who is tougher on him? How about listening to the one he has.

After spending valuable time as an assistant coach with Larry Brown's NBA champion Pistons, this is Mike Woodson's first head coaching job. His team has improved its record for the fourth straight year.

As he would say, they are "heading in the right direction. That's a positive." So why is he not getting more respect and praise?

Unfairly or not, in the end, the media will judge Mike Woodson by the team's playoff performance. A first round exit will further convince many that another coach might be in order.

The bigger question is; will Atlanta GM Rick Sund feel that way? And is his ability or inability to elevate $58 million dollar man Josh Smith's game viewed as a key piece in that decision?

Tom's article first appeared at CelticsCentral at the Connecticut Post.  Tom also writes for CelticStufflive at Comcast Sports Net New England.


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