The Atlanta Hawks' hiring of Larry Drew sent yet another disturbing distress signal that teams in the throes of economic turmoil are more interested in hiring babysitters to attend to their affairs than they are to checking in with the best person to run their teams.
Make no mistake, the Drew hire is and always will be about money, just as general manager Steve Kerr's decision to step down in Phoenix was because owner Robert Sarver asked him to take a pay cut even after the Suns advanced to the Western Conference Finals. Namely, how much Drew was willing to take at a time that the team is losing significant millions, is quietly for sale and will have to pay its coach next year during what will certainly be a lost lockout season.
Why this latest movement is so vexing is that it is effectively owners saying to anybody who will listen that it does not necessarily matter who is in charge. The secondary message is that either the results will be the same, or that the results don't matter.
If anything, what happened in Denver this season when George Karl left to fight his bout with cancer and the Nuggets disintegrated under stand-in Adrian Dantley should be a stark reminder that leadership does in fact matter greatly, and that the person making the decisions and managing different personalities is of utmost importance.
Do you think the Lakers would be where they are had not a coach with Phil Jackson's resume commanded the respect of the strong-willed Kobe Bryant? If only the roster mattered, wouldn't the Cavaliers have reached the Finals? Where would Boston have been without Doc Rivers' daring decision to rest his aging players over the last half of the regular season instead of trying for a higher seed?
These are the types of things that are not quantifiable until they become obvious through losing. Casting them aside in the same vein as, say, the importance of a video coordinator, is a dangerous precedent to set.
Sacramento's Paul Westphal set the standard for low marks last season, when he indicated to the financially strapped Kings that he was willing to accept $1.5 million to come out of his league-imposed retirement and get back into coaching.
That decision by Westphal sent tidal waves through the coaching community because at a time that salaries appeared to be on the rise, with Jackson's $12 million from the Lakers the standard by which all team leaders measured their own success, Westphal essentially told owners he'd take far less than the market bore to get back on the bench.
Nobody would say it publicly, of course. But there were tremors of grumbling among the tight-knit coaching community that Westphal had sold out his own.
Whether those are fair criticisms from a profession that has such a mercurial life span is up for debate. But that it set the stage for what took place in Atlanta last weekend left little doubt that more than a few of David Stern's exclusive membership group care less about winning and more about their bottom line -- and that usually never leads to good things.
In the end, Drew may wind up being a very solid coach, one who figures out the conundrum of Josh Smith and a group of teammates that was dealt the most lopsided loss in NBA postseason history, a four-game sweep by the Magic by an average of 25 points. At that point, the Hawks ownership group can congratulate itself for making a shrewd hire.
But if it happens, it will be because of dumb luck, Drew's hard work and little else.
Because, despite what the Hawks say after the fact, this hire of Drew was driven by the pocketbook. The Hawks interviewed Avery Johnson, Dwane Casey, Mark Jackson and Drew. Drew was the lead assistant to Mike Woodson, who was fired after the Hawks' uninspiring postseason performance that called into question Woodson's ability to handle a volatile roster.
With his credentials, Johnson should have been the front-runner. But his salary demands of more than $3 million scared away the Hornets, who were initially poised to offer him the job. New Jersey eventually offered Johnson its opening, in part because neophyte owner Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the league's wealthiest, has a desperate desire to impress. Thus, paying an additional taxation for a quality leader was not an issue.
For the Hawks, cost was a paramount concern, particularly since a second straight season of a trip to the second round did not net enough revenue to offset the team's financial woes.
If money were not the driving force, Casey would have been hired. He has NBA head coaching experience, is hard-working, diligent and maintains a solid reputation among his peers.
In fact, several high-ranking sources indicated the Hawks opened contract negotiations with Casey, only to change their minds when they realized they could sign Woodson's second-in-command for only 60 percent of what a bona fide NBA coach would cost.
Think about it: If Casey would get, say, $2 million -- two-thirds of what he was paid in Minnesota -- and Drew is getting $1 million this coming season and $1.5 million next season, with just 50 percent guaranteed during a lockout, as one source indicated, the Hawks would pay out less than half of what they would have paid either Johnson or Casey or even Jackson, the fourth candidate who is making more than $1 million a year as an analyst for ESPN.
Instead, Hawks owner Michael Gearon Jr. -- who declined several interview requests for this story -- bucked conventional wisdom and signed Drew despite the fact that he explicitly stated the Hawks wanted a new direction from Woodson's regime.
When Drew was asked in his introductory news conference about why Woodson had not taken more of Drew's advice on how to change the culture of the team in the six years that Drew served under Woodson, Drew said, "That's a tough question. Assistant coaches give the head coach as much information as they can. His job is to decide what to use. As a coaching staff, we did our job. Mike made a decision to use what he wanted to use."
Casey declined to comment about his interviews with the Hawks, but said, "I respect Atlanta's decision and wish Larry the best of luck in building on what he and Woody started there."
This is not meant to disparage Drew. He took advantage of an opportunity that was presented. Nobody can blame a man for that. But it is meant to suggest that winning is no longer the bottom line in this league. From the Atlanta situation to the Phoenix situation to Lakers owner Jerry Buss asking Jackson to take a pay cut to Karl finding himself in a protracted contract negotiation with Denver owner Stan Kroenke before Karl was diagnosed with cancer, now more than ever the bottom line is the bottom line.
That may be acceptable for some industries. But sports is different, based on the perhaps-misguided premise that a team is part of the fabric of a community and therefore has an inherent responsibility to try to win.
If that is not the case, then an organization has an obligation to its constituents to let it be known that other factors are at play. Don't trot out a sacrificial lamb like Drew under the guise that a franchise is doing all it can to achieve success when the message is clearly hollow.
Because, in reality, this decision sets up more people for failure than just Drew. If Hawks general manager Rick Sund really wanted Drew, he would have just promoted him soon after firing Woodson. That should have been readily apparent.
There is no way, after all, that Drew, whom the organization has known for six years, put on such a splendid display during his one last-minute interview, after Johnson had already agreed to terms with New Jersey, that he immediately unseated Casey or Jackson.
The thing that did impress is that Drew was willing to accept far less per year, with his third year the team's option, than either Casey or Jackson.
As such, this undoubtedly puts Sund in a difficult spot because if Drew's hiring does work out, then ownership can say that Sund recommended an option -- Casey, with whom Sund worked in Seattle -- that they did not choose.
And if Drew does not work out, they know that Sund always has the I'm-smarter-than-you hammer hanging over their heads, which no owner ever wants to hear.
Sund may be able to fall back on some shrewd personnel moves over the past few years to save his job. But the fact that ownership overruled his decision on whom to hire as coach will undoubtedly create a chasm that likely will never be completely bridged; now, one side can always cast blame for a lack of success.
These are, unfortunately, the economic realities of an NBA whose financial paradigm is admittedly broken and requires immediate fixing.
In the end, whether teams admit it or not, everybody suffers.