The Last Word with Lang Whitaker - Hawks Could Do Something Special

Lang Whitaker is many things - executive editor of Slam Magazine, a contributor for NBA TV, a book author, and most importantly, a die-hard Hawks fan. After starting 2-for-2 in pushing the Hawks into the postseason, he's back for his third season in 2009-10 to share his thoughts on the team exclusively for Hawks.com. Check back every Thursday throughout the season to read his latest musings, and read him every day at www.SLAMonline.com

These Hawks 'Could' Do Something Special
by Lang Whitaker

This past weekend the Atlanta Hawks were up here in New York City, and I had a chance to catch up with Coach Mike Woodson. Eventually the topic swung around to expectations. A few months ago, I wrote a story in SLAM about what it was like to spend 48 hours up-close and personal with the Hawks, and at one point when Woodson was speaking to the team, he told them that they had a chance to really do something special, noting that this was the first time he'd been able to say that to a Hawks team since he'd been in Atlanta. Those words have bounced around in my head since December, and so earlier this week, I asked him if he felt it was still true.

"There's not a team in this league we can't beat if we come committed for 48 minutes," said Woodson. "We've been pretty good this year at finishing basketball games, but when we go through the motions, you lose games. So absolutely, we've still got an opportunity to do something special."

The first time I heard Woody pronounce this, it was all I could do not to stand up and start cheering. (Which would've been pretty funny, since all the players and coaches in the room would've stared at me like I was crazy.) Upon further reflection, however, I realized the key sentiment there was the word "could." These Hawks "could" do something special. But I guess theoretically the Hawks players "could" also win the Georgia Lottery and split it 13 ways -- it's just that it's not going to be a simple road getting there.

The other thing I'd been thinking about was that I wondered if it was fair to compare these Hawks to the 2004 Detroit Pistons team with which Woody was an assistant coach. That Pistons team won just over 50 games and finished seven games out of first in their division, but come Playoff time they totally clamped down and forced their way to an NBA title. Detroit had veteran guards who could shoot from the perimeter (Billups and Hamilton), a defensive post presence (Ben Wallace), an offensive post presence (Rasheed Wallace), a swingman with versatility (Tayshaun Prince)...basically, a lot of parts that are similar -- not identical, granted, but similar -- to these Hawks.

"Well, that Detroit team was a veteran team," Woody pointed out. "Our team here, these are still relatively young players. People say, `The Hawks made the Playoffs the last two years, they've improved their record every year.' But still we have fairly young guys still learning how to win at a high level. That Pistons team that won it had back-to-back 50 win seasons. We came in and won 54, took them to the Finals and won a Championship. You had veteran guys that were big-time battle tested. Our guys just made the second round last year."

I hate it when reality comes barging in on things. I know it's fun to dream a little dream sometimes, but Coach Woodson's reminder hit home with me. As good as the Hawks have been this season, and as fun as they've been to follow and watch all year, and as hopeful as I allow myself get become from time to time, I'm forcing myself to remember that this Hawks team is still a young one. And we've still got a ways to go.

MAILING IT IN...
This week we hear from reader Jeff, who writes...
Hey Lang, I am season ticket holder getting ready to renew for next year. I would like to see us with some offensive strategy at the end of games and hey, why not during? Defense is huge but I don't think we (Woodson) take offense seriously enough. Woody is the only coach who wants to double D-Howard. I would let him score 100 but shut down the threes. We HAVE TO RUN! We look so comfortable doing so and we are so athletic. I know Woody can coach but as a LIFETIME fan I also know we have talent. Sorry to vent to you just thought I would bend the ear of another die hard Hawks fan. Have not missed a home game this year and that's not always easy. Lang, thank you for your great articles and frankly for being a Hawk.

Thanks, Jeff. I love your passion in this letter, but let me also submit that you've asked for the Hawks to simultaneously improve their offense, defense and fastbreaks. I hear you, but I'd be satisfied if they could improve just one of those three things as the Playoffs approach. If they can crank up two of those, I'd be thrilled. And if all three come together? Well, then, that's when I'd start thinking we have a real shot at pulling off a trip to the Finals...

Ah, I'm getting ahead of myself. Sorry.

Maybe I need to re-read this column from the top again.

Lang Whitaker is the executive editor of SLAM magazine and writes throughout the week at SLAMonline.com. Follow him on twitter at @langwhitaker. Also, catch Lang every Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. on NBA TV's "The Beat." He can be reached at lang@harris-pub.com.

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