ATLANTA — Give the Atlanta Hawks their due. In the course of five seasons, they went from being an NBA laughingstock to a team that made the second round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
OK, so the rebuilding job was somewhat tedious at times. But let’s not forget, the Hawks have improved their win total every season since that 13-69 debacle of 2004-05. They’ve added key players (Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Al Horford, Mike Bibby) along the way. And now, still holding one of the youngest rosters in the league, they’ve reached perhaps the most critical stage in their development, the fork in the road that all up-and-coming teams must successfully navigate.
Pick the right path, and make a serious run at being one of the of the top teams in the league. Pick the wrong path, and slide back a lot quicker than it took to get here.
"We don’t want to go the other way, man," said coach Mike Woodson, not long after the season ended with a four-and-out loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. "I think this team is going in the right direction, They’ve earned that right, to keep moving. And we’ve got to help them get there."
Funny thing is, it might be tougher to add 10 more wins to this year’s mark of 47-35 than it was to go from 13 wins to 47. The Hawks have gotten a whiff of the peak occupied by teams such as Cleveland, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers, but they’re not quite there yet.
And, much like those last few tortuous steps in a climb up Everest, it really becomes a struggle at this altitude.
"Yes, we’re going to have to get better personnel-wise," Woodson acknowledged. "If you’re talking about trying to get to the level of the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Los Angeles Lakers, some of your top teams, we’re going to have to improve a little bit more."
On Tuesday, the Hawks cleaned out their lockers, had their final meetings with the coaching staff and dispersed for the summer. No one knows quite what this team will look like when it returns in the fall.
The most pressing issue facing Atlanta is point guard. Bibby was the one who pushed the Hawks from potential to playoffs, but he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent. The team must decide if it wants to dole out big money to its oldest starter (he turns 31 on Wednesday) and somewhat of a defensive liability, or try to lure in a younger player such as 25-year-old Jarrett Jack, a former Georgia Tech star who could wind up on the free agent market.
"I would love to come back," Bibby said. "I love the guys on this team. I love the city. I love the coaching staff. I think this is a good fit for me.’
Considering the Hawks’ shaky ownership situation — a protracted court battle over control of the team shows no signs of ending, and testimony in the case has revealed steep losses — this won’t be a team that can just throw money at whatever it needs.
General manager Rick Sund will have to make some prudent decisions, as he did last year when the Hawks decided not to match a lucrative offer from Greece for sixth man Josh Childress but made up for the loss by signing valuable bench players Maurice Evans and Flip Murray.
But those moves pale in comparison to the questions facing Sund this offseason. Forward Marvin Williams can become a restricted free agent, and the Hawks must decide if they want to make a long-term commitment to a former No. 2 overall pick. Williams’ fate will likely trickle down to Horford, an undersized center who might be better suited for forward, as well as what the Hawks do at point guard.
Murray and Zaza Pachulia, two key members of a thin bench, are also poised to become unrestricted free agents.
"I remember when I signed here, we had 13 wins," said Pachulia, who wants to return. "Look where we are now. You can see the progress."
He looked with hope toward the Cavaliers, who went from 45-37 last season — two wins less than the Hawks had this year — to 66-16, the best record in the league.
"They were in the same situation as us last year," Pachulia said. "Right now, they’re playing for the Eastern Conference championship. The most important thing is we’re going in the right direction. I hope we make no bad moves, no surprises. If we keep going forward, I’m sure this team could be one of the best in the league."
There’s still plenty of room for growth. Outside of Bibby, Johnson is the oldest starter at 27. The enigmatic Josh Smith is all of 23. Horford and Williams are only 22.
"We really had a blast this year," Horford said. "Now, we have some decisions to make. I just hope the GM and everyone else makes the right decisions."
While Woodson has endured plenty of criticism, he appears likely to return for his sixth season as coach. Like the players, he’s eager to see how far this team can climb.
"I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys than I am, because we made major steps this year," he said. "We’re trying to get to the top."