"We've got the depth we need. We treat each possession as precious because we know we've got something good going here."
--Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks.
The Atlanta Hawks have improved their record to 10-2 with a win over the Miami Heat. They share the best record in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns. How have they improved and why?
Ownership: Brought Together by Adversity
Legal issues between owners have perhaps galvanized the organization and brought the entire enterprise together like nothing else could. This internal power struggle could have been deadly. However, despite the distractions, the owners also had a long-range plan and stuck with it. They allowed GM Rick Sund to build a strong organizational foundation and not panic. They didn't break up the pieces and start over when faced with adversity or criticism. When fans were clamoring for the firing of head coach Mike Woodson, ownership did not buckle. Now, Woodson is the longest tenured coach in the Eastern Conference.
Consistent and Incremental Improvement
The Hawks have gone from 37-45 in 2007 to 47-35 in 2008 to 10-2 in 2009 without changing a starter. To do this, the Hawks had patience and allowed existing players to continue developing confidence and chemistry amongst one another. They believed that they had a good mix of players that know their roles and play within a team concept.
Of course, the Hawks started by successfully selecting talent and valuing athleticism. For several years, the Hawks were consistantly described as an athletic team. Opposing teams saw the potential, understood the challenge, but did not fear the Hawks
Continuity, Stability, Patience and Persistence
Using the draft, free agency to pick up the right role players and maintaining the team's core. They stuck with their nucleus and built a resilient foundation.
Putting the Pieces Together
Inside players Al Horford, Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia are playing hard and going for every rebound.
All-around, Versatile Players with a Focus on Defense
The Hawks are forcing turnovers and taking advantage of opponents' mistakes. They are perfecting their transition game. In the win against the Heat, Josh Smith was all over the Philips Arena floor with 16 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks and two steals.
"We're a tough team to beat when he's playing like that," Joe Johnson said of his teammate. "When he's rebounding, playing defense and diving down in the paint for dunks and layups, it makes the defense collapse. That's leaving guys like me and Mike [Bibby] open for shots."
Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson continue to provide an all-around game for the Hawks. Johnson continues to be a NBA force as a one-on-one scorer. Johnson can score from anywhere. His total of 30 points against the Heat included 5-for-11 from 3-point range, a dunk of a follow-up, put-back and a couple of layups on the run — plus many forays through the paint against multiple defenders.
Johnson also has become a defensive stopper — holding the usually dynamic and reliable Dwayne Wade to 2-for-9 in the first half, a total of only 15 points on 6-for-18 shooting, and a mere two free throws. Johnson is a position defender, who relies on strength, anticipation and a thorough understanding of his opponent's strengths and weaknesses.
Jamal Crawford provides energy and scoring off the bench. A sixth-man of the year candidate, he brings electricity to the court. He can shoot from anywhere, moves well without the ball and can get off quick shots from a variety of unexpected release-points. Crawford also demonstrates his confidence when in a recent game, as soon as a 3-point shot left his hand, he turned and headed downcourt. And, of course, the shot hit nothing but net.
He has developed maturity by being more interested in moving the ball than he is in shooting it. His defense has improved significantly since coming to the Hawks. He can light up a scoreboard. As the season progresses and he gets more comfortable with his role — backup point and shooting guard — Crawford will undoubtedly become more consistent. For the moment, however, he provides explosive point-making off the bench.
The Hawks have built a deep bench, immunizing them against injuries and fatigue over a tough game or a long season. The Hawks starters don't have to play excessive minutes to win a game.
Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Jamal Crawford, Marvin Harrison, Mike Bibby, and Al Horford can all score and, on any given day, can lead the team in scoring.
Mike's Woodson Coaching: Fostering Chemistry and Teamwork
Woodson has been able to reach Josh Smith and get him to focus on his strengths and minimize the effects of his weaknesses. He helped to turned Pachulia into a super-sub who rebounds, passes and comes off the bench to raise the energy level of his teammates. He’s refusing this year to overuse Joe Johnson and understands the importance of keeping him fresh. He trusts Mike Bibby to run the team on the court and be the coach on the floor. Woodson has confidence in Bibby's leadership and clutch shooting. He is realiable and steady; great characteristics in a point guard.
Future Questions for the Hawks
This is the NBA. There are many great players. It is a long season and many things can happen. Other teams can get hot. Coaches can figure out how to adjust and effectively stop another team from doing what they do best.
Can the Hawks play consistently well when fans', players', and opponents' expectations rise?
Will the Hawks respond when they become favorites, when other teams shoot for them or when they get behind against an elite team like the Lakers?
Only time will tell, but the Hawks have built something strong and there is much to be learned from this metamorphasis.
“It’s just a lot of growth, man. Two, three, four years ago, we would have lost a game like this [against the Portland Trailblazers].” With the growth and maturity of guys like Marvin Williams and Josh Smith, I think we can be as good as we want to be.”
--Joe Johnson, Atlanta Hawks' scoring leader.
Smith, who surprisingly has not attempted a three-point field goal this season after averaging 1.3 per game a year ago, echoed that same attitude.
“We don’t have any give-ups in us,” Smith said after his 20-point, 16-rebound effort against the Blazers. “We stay fighting and persevere. I feel confident. The team is confident. We feel like we can beat any team in the league.”
Excerpts from AJC.com, ESPN.com, www.hawks.realgm.com and FoxSports.com (November 19, 2009).
For more on mental conditioning and performance psychology, click on The Handbook of Peak Performance.