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Steve Aschbruner

Mike Woodson and the Hawks are likely bound for the playoffs for a third straight year.

Despite contract status, Woodson confident in Hawks' future

Posted Dec 22 2009 11:15AM

Mike Woodson is doing a lousy job of supporting his peers in the NBA head coaching profession, in terms of what's supposed to happen when a fellow is working on the final season of his contract. Such lame duck status is said to be blood in the water for any player looking to zig when the coach says zag, any malcontent whose individual agenda doesn't mesh with quaint notions about team sacrifice.

But Woodson doesn't have that problem. The Hawks' head coach is the only one among the league's 30 to have boosted his team's record in each of the past four seasons.


From a 13-victory slog upon his arrival for 2004-05 to 26 and 30 victories in subsequent seasons, from a taste of the playoffs in 2007-08 -- when the Hawks spooked the eventual champion Celtics in a grueling seven-game first round series -- to second-round status last spring, Woodson has made steady, if slow, progress.

As the Hawks -- at 19-7, they're off to their best start since 1986-87-- prepared for their game Tuesday at Minnesota, I spoke to Woodson about the growing-up process, the criticism he has taken in the past and the fact that leading scorer Joe Johnson isn't his team's only free-agent-to-be.

*** So compared to a few years ago, when people were calling for your termination, are you smarter now, luckier or just better-looking?

Mike Woodson: We're better. We've grown as a team. Once we got an opportunity to play playoff basketball and take the team that ended up winning the title to seven, it put our team in a different light in terms of how they view themselves. We had major, major goals coming into last season and we accomplished pretty much everything we set out to do. The guys were committed.

Coming back this year, the expectations were high -- I made 'em high -- and they're playing for something. That's nice to see, considering when we started the process with 18-, 19-year-old kids, it was frustrating. I knew taking the job, when Billy [Knight, former Hawks GM] called me in [in 2004], that we weren't going to win much. We had young players who had no idea what NBA basketball was about. So it's been a process and it's been well worth the wait. How hard was it to be patient, and to not question yourself, as you guys were taking on serious water? [Atlanta lost 69, 56 and 52 games in Woodson's first three seasons and his coaching mark was 153-257 at the start of this season.]

MW: Well, [patience was] the only thing I knew. A lot of people, the media people, didn't buy-in -- they were calling for my head every year. But I was persistent with my staff in trying to stay the course. I made it clear when I signed on six years ago, with a four-year contract, that if I wasn't able to get this team in the playoffs in four years, I didn't deserve to be the coach. The TV networks recently added Hawks' games to their national schedule, which is 180 degrees from what went on in the past -- when you were being ignored altogether. So people aren't sleeping on the Hawks anymore?

MW: I don't think so. When you take a team that wins the title to seven, when you come back the next year and host the first round in front of your fans, at home, and win that round, I don't think we're a fluke. There's not a team in this league that we can't beat if we're committed for 48 minutes. You talked about not deserving to be the coach if you didn't make the playoffs in four years. Don't you now deserve to be the coach here for a long time? Why no contract extension yet?

MW: I'm just going to continue to work. I've got another five, six, seven months on my contract to get it done. We all [Woodson's staff included] are all on our last years. There's nothing we can do about it. We're still under contract, we're employed by the Hawks and we're trying to make this thing go. Have there been any ill effects of being a lame duck?

MW: No. I really praise our players because they could have quit on me a long time ago. But every year they've gotten better, every year they've played harder and every year we've gotten better as a team. There's no quitting now. These guys are on a mission. They're trying to do something special this year. When things go well for teams in this league, coaches often wish they could jump right to April. Are you feeling that?

MW: Sure you do. My whole thing is to continue to avoid injuries. With a little luck, we'll be all right. I'm happy, because we're doing all the right things. I just charted our last seven games -- we're 6-1 and we're holding teams to 96 points during that stretch and scoring 106 a game. To me, that's pretty good. What is your team's biggest advantage over the field in the Eastern Conference?

MW: We're young enough and we've got enough veterans who are not too old. Our athleticism really helps us in being able to get up and down the floor. I think our team is in pretty good shape -- guys came back in great shape to camp. When a team's best player is headed into free agency, it usually dominates the headlines all season and can become a major pain, if not distraction. That we don't hear as much about Joe Johnson, does that mean he's not as valuable here as LeBron, Kobe or Wade with their teams?

MW: He gets it. There were things said in Chicago a couple of nights ago, about them having money to spend. The bottom line with Joe is, he's going to play on somebody's basketball team and I hope it's here in Atlanta. And I hope I'm here with him to finish the job, because we're not far away. I don't think it's been a distraction. Joe's a tough-minded guy and he knows he's got a job to do. He knows he has to do it in grand style in terms of how people view him, ending this season as a free agent. I don't think there's pressure. He's just got to continue to work and I've got to continue to push his ass to do the right things on the floor to help us win. Is this team "his'' team?

MW: I never view our team as a one-man thing. I never wanted a team like that. I don't know how I would react if I had to coach LeBron or Wade. I look at our team as Joe and the supporting cast, because if Joe doesn't have these guys, he can't win it by himself. Everybody knows that Joe is our best player, but Marvin and Bibby and Smoove [Josh Smith] and Al, Jamal, all these guys play a major role. Pieces of the puzzle, is how I view our team. If Joe doesn't have it, maybe Marvin gets you. Or Jamal. Or Smoove. It's kind of like that Pistons team [that won the NBA title in 2004, where Woodson was an assistant to Larry Brown]. We didn't have big-time superstars. We just had individuals who worked, and you didn't know who was going to get you on a night in, night out basis. How did you and Josh Smith move on from some pretty heated and tense episodes in your past?

MW: Growth. He understands. I'm still firm today. I'm paid to coach, he's paid to play. From where we started... he's caught more hell than any player on this team because he's been with me the longest. But boy, he's grown. I look at his game now compared to six years ago, it's beautiful to watch. He's learning how to manage games better, understanding how to score in different situations. And he's doing things to help us win games. Al Horford gets praised often for being ``older'' than his years. Where did that come from?

MW: From Billy Donovan and winning those two back-to-back titles [at Florida]. I told Al as a rookie, ``I'm not going to treat you like a rookie.'' Because he was doing things on the floor, especially from a defensive standpoint, that you didn't have to teach. Very smart kid, picks up things fast. Now he's starting to develop some offensive skills. Adding Joe Smith and Jamal Crawford didn't exactly set tongues to wagging in NBA circles, in terms of impact players. Why have they fit well as pieces?

MW: My system's not that difficult. I don't get on guys a lot about offense, perhaps because I was an offensive player. But I ride 'em on defense and on rebounding the ball. Joe Smith has been a pretty good defender in his career, and he can make a shot, and I haven't had a pick-and-pop guy since Jason Collier died. So that's huge for me. Jamal's been knocked as a not-so-good defender, but he can score the ball. I'm just trying to ride him and teach him our system, make it as easy as I can for him. So he doesn't look so out of place when we're watching tapes. They're both easy-going guys who are not hard to coach. What's mightier: Crawford's streak of never making the playoffs or the Hawks' momentum of going back?

MW: I wouldn't wish 10 years on anybody of not making the playoffs. Atlanta had some terrific teams with Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis, Doc Rivers and other guys. Yet the franchise, in that city, hasn't broken through to the Finals. What would it mean to Hawks fans, to the team, to take it that far this year or next?

MW: It would be huge. That was my whole goal in coming to Atlanta. I could have stayed in Detroit, coming off a title there with Larry, and took the easy way out. But my experience there, seeing that parade and all those people, it was touching. It was moving. I'm thinking the same thing [when I accept this job]: If I could go to Atlanta and just build something, make Atlanta part of it, the fans, it would be huge.

You go back to Michael Vick, when he was playing and you'd go to the Dome next door, and he'd pack 80,000 in [for NFL Falcons games]. Hell, I couldn't get 8,000 in. I'd sit there and think, ``How can I get these people into our arena, man?'' Now they're starting to come. It's nice to see. Because it really is a good time -- I look at our team and we are exciting sometimes on the floor to watch. So if we could win in a major way for the city of Atlanta, it would be unbelievable.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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