ATLANTA — When the storm had passed, Larry Drew hopped on a plane.
The Atlanta Hawks’ head coach was searching for an answer. He was hoping he could find it in Israel.
David Blatt, an American-born Israeli citizen best known for coaching the Russian national team, represents an odd array of basketball experience — a Princeton graduate earning his basketball doctorate overseas — but Drew knew his experience would be useful. Blatt’s coaching successes span the European continent — leading clubs from Israel to Italy to Greece — culminating in Russia’s 2007 European Championship title. He is known for his atypical behavior, and as a micro-manager. Former Princeton teammate and President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, once likened him to Phil Jackson.
Atlanta’s roster features eight new additions for the 2012-13 season, therefore coaching changes had to be made. But Drew needed help. He struggled all summer with the the intricacies of coaching smaller lineups. So he made an international call and was invited to be the guest of honor for Israel’s powerhouse franchise, Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“As the summer went on, we got closer and closer into September and I didn’t know if I would be able to make it. But I spoke to [Blatt], and he said, ‘Yeah, come on over,'” Drew said. “And I was able to sit down and talk Xs and Os with Coach Blatt and watch his practices and even watch one exhibition game. So I picked up quite a few things over there.”
In a whirlwind of trades, draft picks and free-agent signings by new general manager Danny Ferry, Drew’s top scorer, Joe Johnson, was traded to the Brooklyn Nets during the offseason. Starting forward Marvin Williams was traded to Utah. In their wake, a group of guards and wings — Devin Harris, Lou Williams, Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow, John Jenkins and DeShawn Stevenson — bring quickness and outside shooting to the team.
With three jet-quick guards, led by starting point guard Jeff Teague, the Hawks will play a more up-and-down style of basketball this season, which did not always suit the isolation-oriented Johnson. Points are expected in bunches, especially with All-Star-caliber players Josh Smith and Al Horford still providing the team’s foundation. But the firestorm of moves also yielded an entirely new team construct: shorter guards and wings that serve as reference points to the term “small ball.”
Drew said quicker lineups fit his style as a player, but that he told Ferry before the moves were made he had zero experience coaching them.
So he spent four days overseas.
“I had to really sit down and look at some of the things that we’ve done in the past, and it kinda had to be the process of elimination with some of the stuff that I ran last year. And I had to add some things that had to fit these guys,” said Drew, who is 84-64 in two seasons as the Hawks’ coach. “It seems I was just never satisfied with certain things, so therefore I kept searching and searching and searching. … I just wanted to see what they were doing.”
Drew specifically wanted to pick Blatt’s brain on ways to prevent the Hawks’ new style of play from affecting its performance on defense.
“I really want to make sure that these guys understand that because I’m talking about us playing more of an open-court basketball game, that’s not going to be an excuse to be a bad defensive team,” he said. “Our focus and our emphasis still, as it has been the last two years with me being the head coach here, our emphasis is defense.
Coaches are not the only ones to share this concern. It is no secret that smaller lineups create mismatches on both ends of the court, and that too much running can leave big men fatigued and out of position.
Players understand this as well.
“Playing uptempo is always fun, you just have to remember the main thing: That’s don’t forget to play defense. You gotta play defense first,” Smith said. “In order for us to be an uptempo team, you gotta get stops.”
For this reason, Atlanta spent the majority of its first training camp session working on that side of the court. The team briefly discussed offense, but Drew’s coaching adjustments — influenced by Blatt — were primarily focused on preventing points. That will likely be his modus operandi all season.
The Hawks lineup does feature some added versatility, which Drew will spend a good portion of training camp figuring out how to utilize. Teague, Williams and Harris should each be able to run the high-octane offense, with more of an emphasis on pick-and-roll plays, rather than one-on-one matchups, in halfcourt sets. The outside threats of Korver, Morrow and Jenkins will also give Horford and Smith more room to operate inside.
But how will all of these pieces fit together in such short time? Atlanta’s first preseason game is against the Miami Heat on Sunday.
“I’ve been on teams with a lot of turnover. I’ve seen it go super successful and I’ve seen it go other ways as well. Only time will tell what will happen,” Harris said. “With the [Dallas Mavericks] we had a lot of turnover every year — six, seven, eight guys coming every year. So it’s something that’s been done before.”
As of right now, defensively sound or not, the entire roster is rejuvenated. Different faces bring new challenges, new expectations. The quick guards speak in excited tones about playing fast. The big men, to a slightly lesser degree, look forward to a high-scoring system. But there’s a lot of work left to be done, a lot of questions left unanswered.
“I think in the past, we were all kind of used to each other. Now it’s totally different for us,” Horford said. “For me, it’s like my rookie year again, coming in here not knowing what to expect.”
There is no longer a sense of inactivity within the Hawks’ franchise, of swimming in Eastern Conference quicksand. There is now a sense of motion. Whether that movement is upward or downward remains unknown.