ATLANTA — After a stirring run through the playoffs, one that actually got the fans of Atlanta excited about their NBA team, the Hawks headed into the offseason Monday with one major issue hanging over the team: Will Mike Woodson return as coach now that his squad is actually showing signs of hope?
The Hawks pushed the heavily-favored Boston Celtics to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs before Atlanta’s season ended with a 34-point blowout in Beantown.
Still, for a team making its first playoff appearance in nine years, just getting that far was a major step forward. And there’s no doubt that beating the Celtics three times in Atlanta — all of them witnessed by raucous sellout crowds — provided a glimpse of what kind of support the Hawks could expect if they ever became a consistent winner.
"We are huge," Woodson said, relaxing in his Philips Arena office after conducting the last of his customary season-ending meetings with players and staff. "I couldn’t be more happy for our team and the city of Atlanta and the fans that came out to support us. That meant they liked what we do. That says a lot from a coaching standpoint."
If Woodson sounded like he was making a pitch for his job, well, he probably was. The team hasn’t told him if he’ll be back for his fifth season with the Hawks.
Working in Woodson’s favor: Atlanta has improved every season since he took over, culminating with a better-than-expected performance in the postseason. Working against the coach: His career record is a miserable 106-222 and some felt the team still underachieved this year with a 37-45 mark, the worst of any playoff team.
General manager Billy Knight actually met with the owners to discuss the possibility of replacing Woodson after making a deal for point guard Mike Bibby at the trade deadline. One of those owners, Michael Gearon Jr., insisted Monday that Knight never recommended that Woodson be fired, as has been portrayed in previous media reports.
"We had just gotten Bibby and the question was asked, ‘What else can be do to improve?"’ Gearon said. "We discussed, well, a change of coaches. But honestly, it was more of a debate. It was not a recommendation."
Several players, All-Star guard Joe Johnson among them, said they would like to see Woodson return. Gearon said the ownership group would take a few days to savor this season before it starts evaluating what would be best for next year.
"Let’s take a breath of fresh air, get away from it for a period of time and let the emotions settle down," he said. "But I think Mike Woodson has gotten a lot more criticism than he deserves. If you look at the roster up until the trade for Bibby, his point guards had always been career-long backup point guards."
Woodson wants to return.
"There’s no question about that," he said. "My staff and I wouldn’t have it any other way. In terms of all the work we’ve put in the last four years, we would love to be back. My staff and I have to just quietly wait and see what happens."
While Gearon is only one owner among eight — and that doesn’t even include Steve Belkin, who still has a stake in the team while going through a nasty court fight over attempts to buy him out — his opinion carries great influence within the group.
Judging from his public assessment of the coach, Gearon appears to be leaning toward keeping Woodson.
"I think he did an exceptional job once he had a competitive starting five," the owner said. "The biggest issue is can we learn to win on a consistent basis. One day, the light switch goes on and they get it. I feel like we’re closer to that."
The Hawks have a promising corps of young players led by the 26-year-old Johnson. He’s joined by Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress and rookie of the year runner-up Al Horford — none of them older than 24. Bibby turns 30 next week.
Johnson mentioned the need to balance out all the youth with some veterans, a concept that Woodson endorsed. The Celtics turned to players such as Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown off the bench, while the Hawks didn’t have anyone to pick up the slack when Smith forgot to show up for Game 7 against the Celtics.
Whatever happens there’s no doubt the Hawks have made major strides since that 13-69 debacle of four seasons ago, when the team made the decision to totally dismantle the roster and go with youth.
"We proved a lot of people wrong," Smith said. "We just weren’t able to get over that hump and shock the world. It’s OK, though. I think we shocked the world enough."