ATLANTA – The sullen eyes and blank stares still haunt Mike Woodson, forever suspended in a psyche scarred five seasons ago. In his mind, those Atlanta Hawks are forever hunched over stools in that losing locker room. Here was an old Indiana Hoosier with his season on the brink, his reference for a coaching start straight out of his worst basketball nightmare.
"I'll never forget those 13 wins," Woodson says now, "because I can still see the players and the looks on their faces when we would walk out to the floor and they just couldn't win games."
He laughed a hollow laugh, and said, "I was coming from Detroit, a championship, and I didn't come into that season wanting to win 13 games."
Looking back, there was just one keeper in 2004-05: Josh Smith(notes). Just a kid out of high school with big shoulders, spry legs and free of true thought on playing the pro game. Every season, there came a fresh face with Smith. Joe Johnson(notes). Marvin Williams(notes). Al Horford(notes). Mike Bibby(notes).
There was a core created, losing turned to winning, and suddenly there was something rare and true for an NBA franchise: all together, all for one. They reached the playoffs. They took the Boston Celtics to seven games. Last season, they beat the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade(notes) to advance to the conference semifinals. All for one, all together, Woodson has watched these kids grow, watched a rare and true thing in the NBA: a terrific young core, all rising into their primes, all blossoming together.
With three starters 25 and younger, with Johnson a true star, the Hawks march into a Thanksgiving night meeting with the defending conference champion Orlando Magic with the best record in the East, 11-3, with a belief that perhaps the conference's big three powers are no longer impenetrable.
The Hawks have slowly, surely, been constructed into a conference contender. No bad contracts, no short-term fixes for a long-term vision. Yes, they could be a championship contender had deposed general manager Billy Knight drafted Chris Paul(notes) or Deron Williams(notes) over Marvin Williams, but so it goes.
"I've been around this thing a long time, and I've failed to ever see young teams win at a high level," Woodson said. "It doesn't happen. There were some growing pains. What's driven me is that I came up with the title runs with the Pistons and that's been my driving force. I wanted to take a team and build it."
To think there's a happily-ever-after for these Hawks is to be naive, for the franchise's biggest star, Johnson, appears destined to leave for free agency this summer. Sources close to him insist it's unlikely he'll stay with the Hawks, especially considering the possibility he could be the league's biggest star on the move. As long as Wade stays in Miami, Johnson could take a max contract to slide into the Bulls' backcourt with Derrick Rose(notes). What's more, sources say, the prospect of joining D-Wade has grown into a possibility. There's always New York, too.
"Hey," Woodson says with a laugh, "I'm on the last year of my contract, too. This could be my last year, too."
Which means just one thing: As much as there seems to be so much urgency with the time ticking way on the aging Celtics, the possibility of losing Johnson has forced Atlanta into a win-now mode. The Hawks' GM, Rick Sund, made a terrific trade for Jamal Crawford(notes) and prudent free-agent signings with Joe Smith(notes) and Maurice Evans(notes). "We definitely needed someone like Crawford," Sund said. "San Antonio has [Manu] Ginobili coming off the bench. Dallas has Jason Terry(notes). You need that guy."
This doesn't make the Hawks a favorite in the East, but their length and athleticism and explosiveness make them a nightmare for the establishment. The Celtics had been able to count upon Atlanta's inability to win on the road, all the way back to that seven-game series on Boston's way to the title two years ago. So, yes, Joe Smith, the 34-year-old locker-room sage, watched his teammates with a critical eye in the final moments of the Hawks' victory over the Celtics at the Garden this month. They had gone years without winning there, and this was a step for the franchise, an unmistakable message, and Smith found himself taking inventory on the reaction of his young teammates.
"A lot of young teams may have celebrated like they had won a championship, but we acted like it was something we were supposed to do," Smith said. "We were happy with the victory, and we understood it had been so long since we won up there. But it was subdued, like this was something we were supposed to do."
For these Hawks, it was one more step, one more threshold. They keep crossing them, keep coming. Six years later, Mike Woodson walks into the Hawks' locker room and everything has changed. He wishes they could be together for a long time, but Johnson can leave as a free agent and the coach is still waiting on a contract. They could have a remarkable tomorrow in Atlanta, but for now, there's just today, just perhaps a final season together where the Hawks hope they're faster and firmer than people would've ever imagined.
"You've got to deal with what's in front of you," Woodson said. "This is six years running for me, and I can't look at seven and eight. My job is right in front of me right now."
So is a different kind of season on the brink for an old Hoosier, so are the possibilities that the coach never would've imagined with 13 victories, with a run in Atlanta that started with a season out of his worst nightmare.