ATLANTA — The widely held assumption was the Hawks would take a step back this season after first-year general manager Danny Ferry cleared salary space for the future by trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams.
With one quarter of the season gone, the Hawks rank as one of the NBA's biggest surprises.
Atlanta has won 11 of 13 games to move into a first-place tie with defending NBA champion Miami in the Southeast Division.
Al Horford said he isn't about to rebuke those who predicted the team would wilt without Johnson, a six-time All-Star. The Hawks' center said even Atlanta players had concerns a streak of five straight playoff seasons would be in jeopardy.
"That was one of the questions that even people in here, we were questioning ourselves," Horford said, looking around the Hawks' locker room. "What was it going to be like? We didn't know what was going to happen."
Coach Larry Drew's undersized Hawks are winning with defense and improved passing.
Undersized? Devin Harris, acquired for Marvin Williams, and free-agent signee Lou Williams joined point guard Jeff Teague in the backcourt.
Instead of having the 6-foot-7 Johnson at shooting guard and 6-foot-9 Marvin Williams at small forward, the Hawks often have two or even three players on the perimeter who are 6-foot-2 or shorter.
Charlotte coach Mike Dunlap noted the three guards give Drew's Hawks unusually strong direction and ball movement.
"He's loaded with quarterbacks," Dunlap said. "And now he can play them at the wings. So that ball's going to move because they know how to move it and they know how to play the pick and roll.
"Their personnel department made a decision to go in and get some really good quarterbacks and that's rare in this league. You need two to back each other up at (point guard). But he's using them in a diverse way, so that's what makes it hard to play Atlanta."
Ferry said he's not surprised to see three small point guards working together so well.
"I felt like it would work, that part of it, that offensively we would be able to do things off the dribble and spread the ball around because of having those three guys," Ferry said. "Defensively, collectively the group has done a good job and that obviously has given us a better chance of getting off to the kind of start we've had. Now we have to sustain it and we have to keep getting better."
Atlanta ranks fifth in the league with 22.8 assists and third with 9.3 steals per game. Defense is another strength as the Hawks rank fifth with 93.1 points allowed per game.
"We feel very excited where we're at as a team right now," Horford said. "I think we've come together faster than we all expected. I just think there's an understanding we have a lot of work ahead and we can still get better."
The Hawks beat Dunlap's Bobcats 113-90 on Thursday night as Harris scored a season-high 20 points. Lou Williams ranks third on the team with 13.8 points per game. Teague is averaging 13.3 points and a team-leading 6.3 assists.
Horford and Josh Smith are the new scoring leaders. Smith leads the team with 17.3 points. Horford is averaging a double-double with 16.3 points and 10 rebounds.
"I think we complement each other real well," Horford said. "I think Josh is an unselfish player. I'm an unselfish player as well. I think we just want to win. I really want to win in the worst way and we're making it work with the team."
Smith can be a free agent after the season. Ferry would not say if he hoped to negotiate with Smith before the end of the season.
"As I've said, we value Josh," Ferry said. "Having players in your program like Josh is a positive thing. I'm not going to talk about negotiations."
Johnson had four years and $90 million remaining on his contract when he was traded to the Nets for five players — none with long-term contracts — and a draft pick in July. Ferry then traded Marvin Williams to the Jazz for Harris, freeing another $15.7 million over two years.
Ferry also acquired 3-point specialist Kyle Korver from the Chicago Bulls for a trade exception and cash.
Atlanta waived two of the players it received for Johnson — forward Jordan Williams and Jordan Farmar— before training camp. The Hawks also obtained guards Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson and center Johan Petro, who has played only 11 minutes, in the trade.
Stevenson, 31, has started 11 games. At 6-5, he provides needed size and has been one of team's best 3-point shooters.
"Wins and losses, I'm very happy with where we are," Drew said. "I thought this first quarter of the season we came together pretty well."