The Atlanta Hawks continue to be one the league's more interesting stories.
Consider it this way.
On your watch, your team has increased its success 361% over 5 years. That means you’ve navigated your team to an average annual gain of 38% per year.
If you were a corporate executive, they would be tripling your bonus, increasing your stock options, increasing your expense account, and naming a sandwich in the executive cafeteria in your honor. You’d have a lifetime free reserved parking space right up front in the company parking lot.
Atlanta head coach Mike Woodson has done just that and he doesn’t even know if he will have a job next season.
Add to that….the high flying Hawks are still trying to make believers out of skeptics.
But the Predatory Birds don’t give a hoot what everyone else thinks.
Joe Johnson on whether people think they are an elite team….
….we could care less what the media or anybody says about us. We believe in ourselves and that’s all we got right now is us. So everybody kind of looks out for the past previous years. And we made the playoffs. We did the unthinkable.
Now? We’re still flying under the radar. Which I really don’t think anybody cares on this team, ‘cause it only matters when you get out on the floor and playing between those lines. You know, on paper, it doesn’t matter so….
We’re just going to stay focused, stay as a unit, stay as a team, and we’ll come through.
And Mike Woodson won’t let his own unresolved situation distract his club from focusing on basketball. Woodson…
Hey I…I don’t really discuss my contract. You know I mean, I don’t really want to get into it because it’s what it is…and you know…as a coach you just try to do the best you can do each and every day. You come to work and that is what I’m going to continue to do as long as I’m the head coach of this team.
But have they given you any goals you need to meet for this team?
Has there been any talks at all during the season?
No. Not at all. And like I said, it’s what it is. And I’m going to continue to do my job as long as I’m the head coach here. And hopefully some positive things will come behind that.
And you know, at the end of the day, if everything takes care of itself, I’ll be rewarded with a contract. That is kind of how I look at it.
But ask the Hawk players and they, at least the five players I spoke to, agree that Woodson should get another extension. They are in unified agreement that Woodson is a big part of why they where they are. Some say it should have happened already.
Absolutely. He’s been a great coach for us young guys. I mean …if he’s not here….who knows what position we’d be in.
Will everyone say that?
Absolutely. I think you’re gonna get that answer from anybody around the room. We have a lot of faith in coach Woodson. You know, he really brought us along the way. We were 19 year old kids. We’re 24-25 now. We’re definitely playing some pretty good basketball. So, he’s a big credit to that.
Yes. He should have got one a while ago.
Even Josh Smith, who has had his differences with Woodson over the years…
Yeah….I mean, he’s proven himself. And…he’s a good coach. He’s a good coach. He’s a players’ coach. You know, he works hard just like we work hard. And anybody who’s bettered their record every year that he’s been a coach deserves a contract.
Joe Johnson, who is opting for free agency, and is unsure about where he will want to play next season, was asked if signing Woodson might affect his decision...
Uhhhhhm….maybe. You know, I don’t really know….honestly, at this point, what’s in store.
He discusses whether all the uncertainty for each of them is a distraction in this year, even as they raise their goals…
Not at all, man. I’ve been in this situation before. You know, I’ve played through contract situations, so it’s nothing new to me. I just have to stay focused and play my game. But I know that there’s no added pressure on Mike Woodson.
Me and him talk a lot. So…we’re just two guys, man, we’re playing this thing out. And we’re just looking forward to getting wins and making this team a better team as much as possible.
Even newly acquired veteran Joe Smith had some surprisingly good things to say about Mike Woodson and endorsed a new contract…
I’ve enjoyed playing under Coach Woodson since I’ve been here and he puts us in good situations to go out there and be successful as individuals and as a group. So, if they can get something done, I’m all for it.
Joe went on to reveal a hitherto unrevealed dimension of the Hawks head coach and agreed that that the feeling for re-upping Woodson was pretty much universal in the locker room…
Oh yeah. Yeah. I think so. Everybody likes and enjoys playing for him….He makes the game a lot of fun, even in practice. Pre game, before we take the floor, he kind of relaxes us a little bit.
Can you give an example of that?
Umm. He just jokes around with us a lot. I mean, you know, he kind of notices when we’re tense…and when things are tight in the locker room. So he kind of jokes or says a few jokes or will do something to certain individuals, or say something to certain individuals, where… it could lighten the mood a little bit.
But you can’t share any of those?
Go figure. Exuding an innate dignity, always respectful, Woody is going all Chris Rock on you, when he wants to. Who knew?
But Joe Smith’s been around long enough to see the harsh business side of this league to know nothing is certain and business decisions are different that basketball decisions sometimes….
When I look at it, this thing is….more of a business than anything. And it kind of takes the sport out of it a little bit….because you’re thinking so much with a business mind. Hopefully they’ll get something done. Because, like you said, there’s not too many coaches that have taken a team from when they first got here, 13-14 wins, to now, last year 47 wins. Now try to take it up another level.
And that is Woodson's challenge....taking it up yet another level. It just gets harder the closer you get to the top of the mountain. Can this Hawk team become an elite team and a true title contender?
Mike Bibby returned to this team with a big pay cut. A favorite player to boo in Boston, it is clear Bibby is a key player on the Hawks roster, bringing mental toughness, and is a team leader. It is also clear Mike Woodson is a big reason Bibby returned and explains why…
I love him and I’ve had a lot of coaches in my time. For some coaches I say I like, and got along with, and some coaches I didn’t. You know, I mean I love Coach Woodson. He’s relaxed. He has fun. I think that’s what you got to do.
I love coming to work here and…I can talk to him. I can give him my input on the team and stuff like that and not a lot of coaches let you do that.
I don’t think, right now, I could be in a better situation and actually that’s another reason why I came here, came back here.
Just how… being comfortable with the coaching staff and my teammates.
How do you rate him with all the other coaches you played for?
Adelman? That’s rich company.
I mean… you get a lot of different type of attitudes and personalities with coaches. You know, some coaches are "this is my way" and ‘this is how we’re going to do it’ and you have coaches like Woodson, I mean just…I tell the guys….we got it good (here).
A lot of coaches that you (the Hawks players) probably wouldn’t like playing for. I mean, we have got a good situation with coach Woodson. He definitely deserves an extension.
Perhaps such a statement was wafted in Josh Smith’s direction, the player with the unlimited potential but previously ongoing differences with Woodson.
Regarding those differences, I asked Josh point blank – Are they as bad as some have written or over blown?
J-Smoove’s recommendation for a Woodson extension would back that up that statement.
(Back To Mike Bibby)… So then you’re kind of good for Woodson in the locker room. Kind of an extension….
Yeah, like I mean…when I’m out there and I see something on the court, I’ll give my input, and he lets me go with it. He lets me go out in there in the game…for him to have that much confidence in me…for him to let me do that, that gives people confidence to play.
High praise, indeed. In truth, after friction with Ron Artest with a going-nowhere Sacramento team, Bibby's career has been resurrected in Atlanta.
Welcome to the ultra competitive NBA, an Atlanta team known for it’s frugality, an ownership group that has its own issues, a weak residual economy, an yet-to-determined new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the early stages of negotiations and it helps explain the situation. Are those the reasons why Woodson is coaching this crucial season without a net?
Or is it really as simple as something like… the team’s brain trust is unsure that Mike Woodson is the guy that can take this team to the next level?
They have only had five years of work to make that determination.
Six year Hornets’ coach, Byron Scott, was fired for a 3-6 record following a poor playoff showing the year before.
Seven year Nets’ coach, Lawrence Frank, was fired for working the Nets plan and far harder than his players did.
Mike Woodson’s done everything that has been asked of him for 5 straight years, yet had to survive one reported attempted firing from a GM (Billy Knight) who quit afterwards, and is being scrutinized by that GM’s replacement, Mr. Rick Sund.
To be fair, Sund believed enough to give Woodson a ‘show me more’ two year extension that ends at the end of this season.
It sounds like Woodson is a survivor. But he’s really been far more that. He’s been downright successful - anyway you want you to measure it. So the delay and non-negotiations until this year is finished are, on the surface, simply puzzling.
The thought occurred to me that if the Hawks didn’t continue to move forward this season, Mike Woodson could be on thin ice himself. They are, and he isn’t….or he could be…still.
I can’t remember when I have ever seen a situation like this.
Ex or Ex?
Is Mike Woodson headed for an ex-tension or the title – ex-coach? It will either be one of the league’s most astonishing ‘lack of management support’ moves and the title ex-coach…or vindication with a capital V and a big X as in contract extension?
No one knows until the season ends.
At least Mike Woodson doesn’t know. All negotiations are stopped until the season ends.
For anyone who follows the Celtics, this sounds somewhat familiar. Doc Rivers was forced to work the same way in his last contract year. All he had to do to guarantee a return was win the NBA title in 2008.
What will be the defining parameters for rewarding Mike Woodson’s hard work over 6 years developing a young core of lottery picks, one established star, and flotsam and jetsam along the way?
As with Doc Rivers, there are murmurings by some in the Hawk fan base that Woodson just isn’t that good of a coach. The offense is not very complicated, nor team oriented. Lots of player ‘isos’ followed by Joe Johnson Time.
Yet, through ownership turmoil and a change of general managers, the Atlanta Hawks have improved 5 straight years. Navigating that rise is head coach Mike Woodson.
Is there any truth to Woodson not being a good tactician?
So far this year, (it’s) been so good. Every night different teams are going to present us something different. I think he does a good job of watching enough film, him and his staff do a good job of watching that film and trying to put us in the best situation to be successful out there.
Might there even be a bit of similarity between Woodson and Rivers in the people skills department?
I haven’t played for Doc, but outside looking in, I can see the resemblance. And if I never played for Coach Woodson, I’d have never known that. So I really can’t speak on both sides but I know he brings a lot of light to our locker room.
Like the stock market, Mike’s team’s annual jumps have climbed a ‘wall of worry’. Or maybe it is a ‘wall of expectations’. From the youngest team in the league to a second round playoff team last season, they have moved forward every…single….year. But, just like the Cavaliers, and just like the Magic before them, they are not without their doubters.
Keeping score? It goes like this.... 13, 26, 30, 37, and 47 wins. This season, the beat goes on as the Hawks are currently 14-6 and two games off the EC lead to the Orlando Magic.
Yet, unbelievably, the man is coaching without knowing if he will even be back next season. Instead of a cushy long term extension, there is not even an unspoken agreement about coming back next season. He hasn’t been given a bench mark the team must meet to see the return of the man who coached the team back to respectability and a bona fide playoff contender.
But GM Rick Sund gives an indication of what would be expected in an interview with Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal Courier….
Now we’ve got to go from good to great, and that’s the really hard part in the NBA – going from good to great.
And that appears to be the outstanding and unanswered question: Can Mike Woodson takes this team to the rarified air of title contender?
For the first time in recent memory, the frugal Hawks have spent a few extra dollars for a real bench. They re-signed their capable back up center Zaza Pachulia when many thought he would go elsewhere. They added Joe Smith. They added Jamal Crawford. That makes for a solid player rotation and that is all you can expect from any team.
They are in no one’s conversations for title contender. That was the way it was with last season’s Orlando Magic. Are this year’s Hawks, last season’s Magic?
It is really up to those players who gave Woodson such a ringing endorsement to play up to their potential. They alone can save Woodson’s job. They have a solid eight man rotation. They are still $4 million below the penalty ($66 mil.). Their three top competitors in the east have all spent at least $14 million (plus penalty taxes) more. I’m not saying that money alone should determine the success of a team.
If the Hawks fail to advance to the Eastern Conference Title game, will Woodson be dumped for failing to meet expectations? What should be the determining factor for re-signing Mike Woodson?
By most reasonable expectations, it seems he should have gotten a new contract by now. Woodson's coaching with an EX upon his back. Ex-tension or....ex-coach? We won't know until this summer.