Larry Drew, then just eight games into his tenure as Hawks head coach, chose his words with purpose.
The Hawks had just lost to the Magic, 93-89, on Nov. 8, 2010. The four-point defeat in Orlando came against the team that had swept the Hawks from the playoffs the previous spring by an average margin of victory of 25 points.
Drew’s message was simple: That is the team by which we will be measured.
The Hawks won the remaining three regular-season games with the Magic and then bounced them from the first round of the playoffs in six games. That began a run of three straight postseason appearances under Drew, each with vastly different rosters. His is hardly a loser’s resume.
Now at the end of a three-year contract, Drew anxiously awaits the decision about his future in Atlanta. General manager Danny Ferry said he will take some time following the season-ending playoff series loss to the Pacers to make the first of many offseason moves that lie ahead.
The Hawks’ playoff appearance this season was unexpected by many around the NBA, the roster filled with expiring contracts. Drew said he is proud of the team’s most recent performance but conceded that this was easily his most trying season.
“This thing could have gone either way, it really could have,” Drew said Saturday, the day after being eliminated. “You bring in that many guys who are on one-year deals and certainly they are thinking about their futures. They have families. Everybody wants to play and play well so they have something down the road. And players come in here and know what my situation is. It was a test to pull this together and try to keep it together. I thought me and my staff did a good job with that.
“Some people say that we overachieved. I don’t know if that is the right word but given the situation, this team did not fold.”
There is a case to be made for Drew. He has a 128-102 regular-season record and became the second-fastest coach to 100 wins in Hawks history (173 games). Only Lenny Wilkens (166) reached the mark in fewer games. He ranks seventh on the franchise’s win list.
In his first season, Drew inherited a roster with a core group including perennial All-Star Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, Jamal Crawford and Zaza Pachulia. The team would lose to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals after ousting the Magic.
Last season, Horford was lost for most of the season after tearing his left pectoral muscle. Crawford and his scoring punch off the bench was also gone. While the rest of the core remained, the bench was completely revamped, adding Tracy McGrady, Willie Green, Kirk Hinrich, Vladimir Radmanovic and Jerry Stackhouse. The Hawks made the playoffs but lost to the Celtics in six games.
This season, the first under Ferry as general manager, the Hawks took a giant leap in rebuilding for the future. Johnson was traded to the Nets for a group of expiring contracts. Williams was traded to the Jazz for Devin Harris and his expiring contract. Kyle Korver and his expiring contract were obtained from the Bulls. In all, 10 players are set to become free agents, unrestricted or restricted, including leading scorer Smith. In addition three players have non-guaranteed contracts.
“I had heard in speaking with other coaches who had been in this situation before what their struggles were,” Drew said. “I wanted to know. I wanted to know exactly what it was that I was up against. Certainly, they didn’t paint a pretty picture. To me, it was a challenge before me and I don’t shy away from it.”
A 20-10 start, which earned Drew the NBA’s coach of the month honors for November, helped with a roster that could have fragmented. The Mavericks, in a similar situation, struggled early in the season and failed to make the playoffs.
Then there were the injuries. Lou Williams, the team’s top free agent acquisition, and Pachulia were lost with season-ending injuries. Drew used 29 different starting lineups to navigate the season.
The Hawks had the contractual status of Smith as a potential distraction. The forward was almost traded to the Rockets and Bucks at the trade deadline. The roster had such defensive deficiencies that Drew employed a team concept to overcome individual matchups.
Johnson, an All-Star since 2006, last year had accounted for 18 percent of their points, 15.7 percent of their assists and 8.1 percent of their rebounds. Without him as a go-to scorer, the Hawks installed a team-oriented, up-tempo offense that finished second in the NBA in assists.
The Hawks beat four playoff teams — the Thunder, Grizzlies, Lakers and Pacers — without Smith. They finished the season with 44 wins and were the No. 6 seed before losing to the Pacers in six games.
“I just want to say that Larry did a great coaching job all season long,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They had some devastating injuries to Pachulia and Lou Williams. To win 44 games and to really give us all we could handle in this series is a true testament to how good a coach he really is.”
Ferry used the word “good” in describing the performance of Drew and the Hawks this season. Drew is aware that despite the job he did during his tenure, Ferry may want to bring in his own coach.
Should he move on, Drew said he would be interested in another head coaching position. Currently the Nets, 76ers, Bobcats, Pistons and Bucks have vacancies.
Mike Brown was recently re-hired to coach the Cavaliers. Ferry resigned his general manager position with the Cavaliers after Brown was fired in 2010. It was speculated that Brown could be a candidate in Atlanta after he was fired by the Lakers early in the season.
After 30 years in the NBA as a player, assistant and head coach, Drew is hardly ready to leave the profession.
“I love what I do,” Drew said. “I enjoy what I do. This is what I do.”