MILWAUKEE (AP) — Larry Drew could have sulked during his last season in Atlanta, complained to anyone who would listen about being a lame duck despite a winning record and three straight playoff appearances.
He never did.
“When you stay in this game as long as I have, the most important thing is you don’t take a negative situation and keep it negative,” Drew said. “I thought I would get something positive of it.”
That came Monday, as Drew was introduced as the new coach of the Milwaukee Bucks six days after his awkward tenure with the Atlanta Hawks ended with the hiring of his replacement. Drew has a three-year deal with the Bucks, and the team has an option for a fourth season.
“I am very, very excited about being here, I really am,” Drew said. “I’m going to do everything in my power to put this group together as fast as possible, to making us competitive, to making sure these guys are in tune with each other. If I do that, chances are we’re going to be a pretty good basketball team.”
If not, he’ll have to answer to his uncle.
Drew’s uncle, Norman Johnson, has lived in Milwaukee for 49 years, and he joined the coach, his wife and the couple’s two younger sons for Monday’s news conference.
“I’ve been a Bucks fan ever since the Bucks have been here,” Johnson said.
“I’m very proud of him,” Johnson added. “I hope he continues his good work. I think he will.”
Drew was 128-102 in Atlanta, and the Hawks reached the postseason in each of his three seasons. His first year, they upset Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic in the first round and then took the Chicago Bulls to six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. They reached the playoffs again last year despite having Al Horford for only 11 games.
And he did perhaps his finest job this season.
Despite knowing he would be out of a job at the end of the year as new general manager Danny Ferry remakes the team, losing All-Star Joe Johnson to an offseason trade and seeing Lou Williams and Zaza Pachulia go down with season-ending injuries, Drew led Atlanta to a 44-38 record. The Hawks took Indiana to six games before losing in the first round of the playoffs.
“I feel very good about who I am as a coach,” Drew said. “You give me some guys who are willing to play hard every night, who are committed to playing for one another, who are committed to playing for the city, I guarantee you I’ll give you a group you can be proud of.”
Drew repeatedly stressed the importance of building relationships with his players, a quality general manager John Hammond had made a priority after Milwaukee’s late-season collapse. The Bucks lost 12 of their last 16 games to finish with a losing record for a third straight season, then were swept by the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs, losing all four games by double digits.
Teaching Xs and Os is no longer enough, Drew said, and one of the things he was most proud of during his time in Atlanta was that his players always knew he had their backs. In fact, as Drew was flying to Milwaukee on Sunday, he got a congratulatory text message from Atlanta guard Kyle Korver.
“That’s not going to change. I’m going to do the exact same thing coming here to Milwaukee,” Drew said. “We’re going to become buddies. We’re going to become good friends.”
He plans to start reaching out to his new players immediately, starting with John Henson. The rookie had planned to be in Milwaukee later this week, but re-arranged his schedule so he could be here in time for Drew’s news conference.
“You get on the coach’s side right away,” Drew joked, drawing laughs.
“I think he’s going to be a real good fit,” Henson said. “He’s just what we need. He’s a player relationship guy and the players are going to know their roles.”
Drew said he’s not committed to a specific offensive style — “I’m not a big fan of predictability. Offensively, I think that’s very easy to defend.” — but Milwaukee’s two young big men, Henson and Larry Sanders, will have big roles.
Sanders made huge strides in his third season, more than doubling his scoring average (9.8 points) and grabbing more rebounds (672) than he had in his first two years combined. Henson, a rookie, showed his potential with a monster game April 10 in Orlando, flirting with a triple-double with 25 rebounds, 17 points and seven blocks.
“This team has really good young talent. Young talent that I’m excited about developing,” Drew said. “The big guys are going to be a big part of the future. Their development is going to be very important, but you can’t teach height, you can’t teach length.”
As strong as Milwaukee’s frontcourt is, its backcourt is just as unsettled.
Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, who led the Bucks in scoring, are both question marks to return next season. Jennings is a restricted free agent while Ellis has until June 20 to exercise an $11 million player option.
That kind of uncertainty doesn’t faze Drew, however.
“I wouldn’t call it a challenge,” he said. “I would just say there’s some uncertainty and that’s part of the NBA.”
Though Drew came to Milwaukee as a child to visit his uncle, it’s been a long time since he’s spent any time in the city. On most of his recent trips, all he’s seen is the airport, the hotel and the arena. But Hammond made it a point to show him around during the interview process, and Drew came away impressed.
That just makes his new job even better.
“It’s absolutely beautiful here. Absolutely beautiful,” Drew said. “I’m really excited about being here and being the new coach of this team.”