The Milwaukee Bucks announced Larry Drew as the team's new head coach on Friday, and his contract is reportedly guaranteed for three seasons with a team option for a fourth year. After a limp and nearly lifeless search, Bucks general manager John Hammond decided to hitch his star to the former assistant and head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. It's a decision that can't really generate a lot of criticism or backlash, but it's also a decision that can't really generate a lot of excitement or intrigue. Welcome to the 2013 Milwaukee Bucks offseason, I guess.
My first instinct was to abstain from writing anything about this move. Every Bucks fan is fed up with the mediocre results by now, and we've basically split into two clans: (a) the skeptical people who believe the organization is still caught in a pattern of bad decision making and who can't find any clear evidence to change their mind, and (b) the people who are optimistic that things will change this summer even without clear evidence that the fundamental approach of the organization has been materially altered.
The piece of string connecting the tin can telephones is under some stress, but fans on both sides are still willing to talk and to listen. It's a battle of "how could you possibly know things will change for the better when nothing has changed yet" vs. "things have to change to save the franchise, so they will, and everyone just needs to be wait for the great reveal." You know where you stand by now, and this hire isn't going to do anything to change your opinion.
Here are the four thoughts that went through my head when I learned about the hiring.
First Thought: It's Hard to Say the Hire is Bad
Head coaching matters a lot less than the quality of talent on the roster in the NBA, so it's hard to get worked up about someone like Larry Drew. The long journey from the lower ranks of coaching to the top spots in the association usually weeds out the truly unfit members of the coaching fraternity. It's also pretty obvious that Drew clears the mimum competency threshold. Jake covered the basics of Drew's resume on Friday:
Coaching the Atlanta Hawks to three playoff appearances in three seasons, Drew compiled a 128-102 record (.557), winning 44, 40 (in 66 games), and 44 games respectively, and a 10-14 (.417) record in the postseason. The Hawks finished as the fifth, sixth, and sixth seed over that span, and reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals once (2010-11).
Drew's teams averaged a 105.3 offensive rating and a 104.2 defensive rating from 2010-2013. For what it's worth, in the last three years, the Bucks averaged a 103.6 offensive rating and 104.3 defensive rating, and they did not feature a team built around Al Horford, Josh Smith, or Jeff Teague.
There's a blob of retread head coaches in the NBA that includes Scott Skiles, Lawrence Frank, Nate McMillan, Byron Scott et al. who are all capable of leading a team to moderate success. They aren't caretaker coaches for tanking teams. They aren't the top-notch difference makers like Tom Thibodeau and Gregg Popovich for contending teams, either. There are going to be people who believe Drew is 10-20 percent better than the blob and people who believe he is 10-20 worse than the blob. Odds are he's somewhere in the blob though. That's certainly what Hawks GM Danny Ferry thinks, which is what brings us to my second thought....
Second Thought: It's Hard to Say the Hire is Good
Danny Ferry watched Larry Drew lead Atlanta to a 46-win season, a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and a first-round exit from the playoffs, and his first move the offseason was to start looking for a new head coach. Ferry shopped around for a better option while he reportedly "reserved the remote option of revisiting contract extension talks with Drew" if the team couldn't sign someone better. It was a bold move by Atlanta.
Plenty of fans, bloggers and media members had vaguely nice things to say about Drew -- "he's a nice guy," "he's a solid coach," "he deserves another chance," etc. -- but those same people were also pretty excited about the decision to move on and sign Budenholzer. Ultimately, the facts are clear: the Atlanta Hawks didn't believe Larry Drew was good enough to lead their franchise any more.
There are a few ways you can try to deflect this reality. Danny Ferry inherited Drew when he assumed GM duties in June of 2012, and the broad narrative coming from Atlanta is that he wanted to make his own hire. However, here's the overriding goal for every GM: they want to build an excellent team.
If Drew was the best option available to the Hawks, I have a hard time believing Ferry would let him go just for the chance to put his stamp on things. Maybe he made a mistake by letting his former coach leave for the Milwaukee, but at this point Ferry and the Hawks undoubtedly have more information on Drew than Hammond and the Bucks. Atlanta looked at the big picture and didn't like what they saw.
After three more seasons of decent regular season results and early playoff exits, the franchise finally decided it was tired of being the good-but-not-great Atlanta Hawks. They replaced an experienced blob-level coach with a first-time NBA head man (Mike Budenholzer) from an extremely successful franchise. That's a swing for the fences. Maybe the Bucks are hoping they can grab the baton from the Hawks and slide into the fifth seed for a few years. Who knows.
Third Thought: It's Easy to Say the Hire is Fine
Larry Drew is a solid X-and-O coach who did a good job working with talented big men on his roster. He revamped the iso-heavy offense installed by Mike Woodson and worked to incorporate more screens and motion into the Atlanta offense. He has a reputation for designing good plays coming out of timeouts, but the results have been a bit mixed. In 2012 the Hawks were a bottom-third team in points per possession for plays after a timeout, but they improved in 2013 thanks in large part to the addition of Kyle Korver and his 71.9 eFG% out of timeouts (stat via NBAWowy.com) and Drew also earned a solid review from Zach Lowe on Twitter.
He also added some nice wrinkles to Atlanta's offensive sets. The 4-5 (PF-C) pick-and-roll with Al Horford and Josh Smith led to some lovely lobs throughout the year. Drew also tapped into the shooting and passing talent of Horford and often used him as a creative outlet on pick-and-rolls and a floor-spacing shooter from mid-range. Horford is far more skilled on offense than Larry Sanders, especially as a passer and shooter, so it's hard to see some of these actions translating well to Milwaukee. You can check out a breakdown of the Atlanta offense at HoopChalk.com. The creativity of Drew's offense is still worth noting, but the conversation ultimately gets back to the talent deficit the Bucks have been dealing with for years.
The Bucks also don't have a physically dominant wing player like J-Smoove. Drew created mismatches by playing big lineups and creating opportunities for Smith to post up small forwards. The plan worked, as Smith used 20 percent of his possession in the post, according to MySynergySports.com, but he only scored 0.74 PPP in the post (121st-best in the NBA), so maybe the plan really didn't work.
In fact, it could be argued that Drew's work with Josh Smith wasn't very successful at all. Before the 2012-13 season, Prof. Kirk Goldsberry of CourtVisionAnalytics noted the terrible trend in Smith's shot selection since Drew assumed the head coaching duties in 2010-11:
[Josh Smith's] stats over the last 3 years show drastic shifts in shooting behavior, but the overall trajectory is not favorable. About 46% of Smith's field goal attempts last season occurred from beyond 16 feet. That is up a few percentage points from two years ago when it was 43%, but it is way up from the 2009-2010 season, where Smith only shot 23% of his shots from beyond 16 feet. That season, Smith shot 55% of his field goals at the rim, and the positive effects are undeniable: he set career bests in FG%, assists, and offensive rebounds; good things happen when he is near the basket.
Here's my version of the evolution in Josh Smith's game from the 2009-10 to 2012-13, using stats from Basketball-Reference.com's play-by-play database:
|%FG at rim||%FG Long 2||TS%||At rim FG%||Long 2 FG%|
If you want to make the connection between Drew's hiring and a potential run at free agent Josh Smith, maybe you should think twice. He's become less efficient and more dependent on long twos in recent seasons, so despite the cool coaching wrinkles described above things didn't get better for one of Atlanta's top players. That screams blob coach to me. Drew also struggled with rotations and lineups during the 2012-13 NBA playoffs and was critcized for his coaching decisions before the Hawks were eliminated by the Pacers. Meh, I guess it's fine.
Last Thought: Feel Free to Stick to Your Opinion About the Bucks
Larry Drew is middle-of-the-road enough to become the yellow line that separates inbound, optimistic Bucks fans from outbound, pessimistic ones. It's hard to have strong feelings about him right now, and the move isn't bold enough to change anyone's mind about the organization's fundamental approach. Buckle up for the offseason, stay in your lane (for now) and hopefully John Hammond won't drive us crazy this summer.