By John Hollinger
There was a certain irony to the postgame eulogies after the Orlando Magic put the Hawks out of their misery Monday night.
On the one hand, you had Joe Johnson, knowing the team wanted him to stay but hinting that he was probably gone, slipping into the past tense to talk about his time with the Hawks before returning to the dreaded it's-a-business-speak that precedes all free-agent departures.
And on the other, you had Mike Woodson, who wanted to stay but knew he was a goner. He weirdly declined to come to the podium and gave his final interview as coach of the Hawks from the comfort of his office, where he said he'd love to come back and gave one final defense of his track record as Hawks' coach.
Obviously, Woodson knew the feeling wasn't mutual, and today we learned the Hawks have let him go after six years. We can't say "fired" because Woodson's contract expires on Monday and he's technically becoming a free agent, but in effect it was the same thing -- if Atlanta was interested in having Woodson continue to coach, he'd still be there.
Woodson's tenure was one of paradoxes. His team improved its record in five straight seasons, yet ended his sixth, and theoretically most successful, year leaving the home court to a chorus of boos and with probably his most unhappy locker room.
On the court, the oddities were apparent too. He was an old-school guy who patterned his coaching style after Larry Brown, yet his teams were never particularly good defensively. He had players who were devastating in transition, yet his instincts were to slow the game to a crawl. He was criticized heavily for his team's offense, yet that was the one thing that consistently worked; in fact scouts say he was among the best designing plays out of timeouts.
On balance, it's easy to see why he lasted six years, and just as easy to see why it was time for a change. Woodson maintained a remarkably even keel and, although he had some incidents with Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia, his team played hard for him until the final few weeks.
At the beginning, this took the patience of Job -- Atlanta went 13-69 his first season. In the early years the running joke was that his young, inexperienced team was unscoutable, because regardless of what play he drew up two players would run the wrong way.
He kept things relatively simple and kept the star player (Johnson) in his corner with heavy doses of minutes and shots, and by and large that formula worked. The Hawks made progress every year, and to Woodson's credit so did the talented but volatile Smith. Woodson wasn't afraid to play the young guys, but never before they'd earned it (this is why the criticism of his not playing Jeff Teague more rings so hollow -- Atlanta had two point guards who were better).
With all that said, it was time to go -- the Hawks had reached their ceiling with this general. His iso-heavy offense was too easily defensed in the playoffs, his other players were too restricted by the heavy diet of Johnson isos, and for a team that accumulated a ton of defensive talent they remained shockingly average at that end of the floor.
Don't cry too hard for Woodson, who will land on his feet. He'll be a contender for many future job openings and, at worst, figures to reclaim a seat next to Brown in Charlotte (or Philadelphia, or Chicago ...).
Meanwhile, Atlanta will look in the discount bin for his replacement, with Dallas assistant Dwane Casey a likely suspect based on his previous relationship with Hawks GM Rick Sund and his solid record in a previous stint in Minnesota.
Whoever takes over, it's likely that he'll be encouraged to increase the tempo, run more elaborate offensive sets, and emphasize defense more than the previous regime. Johnson's likely departure seems to open the door for Josh Childress' return, and Teague may very well usurp Mike Bibby at the point.
Regardless of what moves they make, the Hawks will be hard-pressed to win 53 games again, even if Johnson stays. And if 2009-10 goes down as the high-water mark, it will only bolster Woodson's resume in the future. While the Hawks hit enough bumps that one can't argue the decision to change drivers, there's also no doubt that he left the Hawks in a much better place than where they started.