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Hawks eager to build on last season's success

POSTED: October 3, 2008 5:01 a.m.

ATLANTA — Joe Johnson swaggered onto the practice court at Philips Arena, looked around at the supporting cast and was reminded of his former team.

He was there when the Phoenix Suns went from 29 wins to 62 in a single season.

He believes the Hawks are on the verge of a similar breakthrough.

"We've got a great nucleus here," Johnson said. "With the additions we made this summer, we're definitely going to be a pretty good team."

Coming off their first postseason appearance in nine years, the Hawks reported for training camp Monday with a new sense of optimism.

They can stick out their chests a bit after taking the NBA champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs. They certainly appear to be the best pro team in Atlanta, quite a change for a franchise that played in the shadow of the Braves and Falcons for so long.

"This city deserves a consistent, winning team," Atlanta native Josh Smith said. "We feel like we can be that team everyone brags on."

Before everyone gets carried away, though, let's remember this is largely the same group that went 37-45 a year ago, one of the worst records ever for a playoff team.

Also, a few troubling signs cropped up during the offseason, ruining some of the good feelings that came out of the spirited effort against the Celtics.

General manager Billy Knight abruptly resigned, apparently after losing a power struggle over the future of coach Mike Woodson (who returned with a new contract). Josh Childress, the team's valuable sixth man, shocked the Hawks by taking an offer to play in Greece. The only major free-agent signings were role players Maurice Evans and Flip Murray.

There's also lingering concerns that ownership — a large, unwieldy group embroiled in a nasty court fight with a former partner — is running this team on the cheap, unwilling to dole out the sort of big dollars needed to take the Hawks to the next level.

Al Horford, who had a brilliant rookie season, was caught off guard by Childress' departure.

"That was real tough," Horford said. "At first, I was a little upset about it. But once I saw some of the guys we got, I feel pretty good about it now. We added some things we needed."

Evans, a 6-foot-5 swingman, took Childress' uniform number (1) and is being counted on to fill the role of first man off the bench. Murray is a combo guard who can spell both Johnson and Mike Bibby.

Both add valuable experience to the Hawks' roster, but this hardly compares to the signing Phoenix made after its dismal 2003-04 season. The Suns lured All-Star guard Steve Nash away from Dallas; he won the MVP after leading one of the biggest turnarounds in NBA history.

Evans wasn't even drafted out of college, and the Hawks are his sixth team in six well-traveled seasons (not counting a stint in Europe). Murray was waived last season by Detroit and joins his sixth team in seven years.

"They talked to me about being one of the veteran leaders on the team," the 29-year-old Murray said. "They want me to work with the younger guys, teach 'em the game, teach 'em the things they need to do to win."

Indeed, Atlanta had the youngest starting unit in the league a year ago, and the signs of that inexperience were easy to spot. Some nights, the Hawks looked like future champions. Other nights, they would've struggled to beat an AAU team.

Things began to turn after Bibby was acquired from Sacramento to stabilize the point guard position. He's joined in the backcourt by Johnson, the team's top scoring threat and its only major free-agent signing in recent years.

The front line was assembled solely through the draft, and the Hawks had to dole out some big bucks to keep it together after Smith signed an offer sheet with the Memphis Grizzlies. They could be in the same position after this season with Marvin Williams, who's eligible to become a restricted free agent.

Then there's Horford, who often finds himself matched against bigger, stronger centers but makes up for it with grit and passion. He was the Hawks' emotional leader during the playoffs, not backing down to anyone and even trading barbs with Celtics star Paul Pierce.

Woodson said his main goal heading into training camp is improving the defense. The Hawks had no trouble running-and-gunning with other teams, but they also surrendered 100 points a game.

"We were a better team when Bibby came over as far as passing the ball and scoring points," the coach said. "But we also gave up a lot of points. You can't give up a ton of points and win consistently."

Atlanta put plenty of focus on conditioning during the offseason, looking to follow through on Woodson's goal of having a roster capable of playing hard at both ends of the court.

"I really admire Boston and what they did last season," he said. "They set the tone right from the jump and carried it all the way through the regular season and the playoffs. Yeah, they had three all-stars who can score with the ball. But their team defense was tremendous."

The Hawks are eager to see if they can reach that level.

"People thought we were a fluke last year," Smith said. "We've got to prove ourselves all over again."



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