Jon Cooper - The Big 5 - 0 - April 12, 2010

The Big 5 - 0
Getting to 50 wins is a special milestone for a
special group.
By Jon Cooper

50 wins.

The Hawks reached that mark Friday night with their 107-101 win over the Toronto Raptors at Philips Arena.

It's an achievement that may have been somewhat overlooked with the focus on playoff positioning, but is significant.

"It means a lot. I haven't seen 50 [wins] since I left Detroit," said Head Coach Mike Woodson, referring to his days as an assistant coach with the Pistons under Larry Brown. "Prior to that, I hadn't seen 50 since I was a rookie in the League in New York (during the 1980-81 season). Fifty is a wonderful number but at the end of the day it's about positioning yourself for the best possible position you can put yourself in and start Playoff basketball. But it looks good on paper, I guess."

It looks especially good on Atlanta Hawks stationery, as 50 wins had been accomplished only eight times previously and not at all since 1997-98.

The number looked good enough to make the team's regular-season wish list. It was the next step for a team that over five seasons under Woodson had won 13, 26, 30, 37 and 47 games.

"When we first started out the goal was to win 50-plus games," said Josh Smith, who was a rookie in 2004-05, when Atlanta went 13-69. "Some people laughed but we knew we had the talent to make 50-plus wins."

What's that they say about he who laughs last?

These days it's the Hawks that are doing the laughing, and they've earned the right.

"I knew we'd see [50 wins] one day," said Marvin Williams, whose first season, 2005-06, saw the team double its previous season's total, but still manage only 26. "I remember when we had 50 losses. We had to work so hard to get to 50 wins. It's a huge accomplsihment for us. It was one of our goals, we still have a few games left to add on to it."

They needed less than 24 hours to do that, winning 105-95 in Washington and still have two games remaining to potentially finish with 53 wins, the most in a season since the 1996-97 Hawks won 56 games.

Having gotten to this point is especially rewarding for those in the organization who had been so far down.

"We've definitely been through rough times," said Smith. "You really appreciate winning more when you started from the bottom. I'm happy to be a part of something special being from Atlanta. People coming out supporting us, that's really turned this organization around within three or four years."

The early part of those three or four years were hard and saw plenty of second-guessing everything from acquired personnel — remember the squawk following the trade for Joe Johnson? — to the fitness of Woodson to mold this young group into a winner. But with patience has come the reward.

"Any basketball person knows you're not going to win 50 games with 18- and 19-year-old kids," Woodson said. "Those guys had to develop into players and that's what has happened. There's not a day that goes by that I'm not grateful for being able to sit here for six years and coach this team.

"I think it goes both ways," he continued. "Me and my staff have done our job and the players have gotten better and we've won. We still have a ways to go. It's not done by any means."

The team's commitment to keeping the core of the team in tact and allowing the group to grow together has been a key factor in the turnaround.

"That's big," said Zaza Pachulia, who first signed with Atlanta as a free agent during the summer of 2005, then re-signed last summer. "Besides being teammates we became good friends off the court because we've been together for five years already. We're very close so we know each other. That helps a lot to play together on the court. We know each other's personalities and nobody's a stranger."

"When organizations give players a chance to play together they can do special things," added Williams, who re-signed less than a month after Pachulia. "They gave us a chance to grow together and I think we're really doing a special thing right now. Guys are really excited."

That excitement will be ratcheted up this weekend, when the Hawks host a first-round playoff series for the second straight season and the first time since the 1988 and '89 Playoffs.

While the focus has shifted to getting the best possible position for the sprint to 16 postseason wins — the Hawks need one more win (or a Boston loss) to clinch third in the East then will host either the Miami Heat in a rematch of last year's seven-game, first-round series or the Milwaukee Bucks, who they visit on Tuesday — no one in the locker room is selling short what has been done in the 82-game marathon.

"That's a big deal," said Al Horford, whose rookie season of 2007-08 saw the Hawks team snap a nine-year playoff appearance drought. "I'm excited about it. It's my first 50-win season in the NBA."

"I'm happy not only for myself but for my teammates and the organization because we've come so far from when I got here," said Joe Johnson. "Every year we've improved. That's what it's about. Now that we've reached 50 wins, our next goal, our ultimate goal is winning a championship."

Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.