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No time like the present

Woodson needs to deliver now with talented Hawks

Posted: Wednesday November 7, 2007 3:13PM; Updated: Wednesday November 7, 2007 4:10PM
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Mike Woodson will try to guide the Hawks to their first playoff berth since 1998-99.
Mike Woodson will try to guide the Hawks to their first playoff berth since 1998-99.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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The media vultures, circling overhead with our hot-seat lists, are already waiting for Mike Woodson to succumb to the certain doom that awaits him. But the Hawks' coach may have a little more Clint Eastwood in him than we expect.

"I'm not worried about it; why should you be?" Woodson said in a telephone interview this week, before Atlanta's loss to the Nets on Tuesday. "My job is to teach these guys to rebound and play defense and learn to win. I can't think about speculation."

But most others have. From the writers who annually place Woodson on their "Coaches on the Hot Seat" lists, to Hawks fans who provided the fifth-worst attendance figures in the league last season, to a front office that hasn't offered its coach a contract beyond this season, Woodson, by all looks, is in a fight for his job. A 69-177 record in three seasons will do that.

So will circumstance, Woodson is quick to add.

"I took over a team that was in tatters," he said. "And anybody who thought we should have made the playoffs two years ago just wasn't being realistic. Last year I thought we should have made the playoffs, but we were hit hard by injuries."

Backing up Woodson's arguments is a résumé that has shown three straight years of improvement -- from 13 to 26 to 30 wins -- and 163 player-games missed because of injury last season, a fact of life that prompted the Hawks to play 21 different starting lineups.

Now in his fourth season, Woodson has seen some positive early signs. After their home-opening victory against the Mavericks, the Hawks took the Pistons to the wire in Detroit and nearly completed a fourth-quarter comeback at New Jersey.

"We needed to get players," said Woodson, who also cautions that is only part of the equation. "We drafted Marvin Williams [but he had] only one year of [college] experience. We drafted Josh Smith out of high school and we took Josh Childress. That was our core. Then you add Joe Johnson and Tyronn Lue, but those are the only guys with playoff experience."

Learning to parlay potential into production is rarely easy, especially on a team that hasn't posted a winning season or reached the playoffs since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign. But when the players' average age is barely 25, that process takes time.

"They're so young and so talented that it's taken Woodson time to teach them how to play winning basketball, rather than just being freak athletes," an NBA scout said. "The overall depth of their team and the growth of their team could make them scary. They've got more depth at the point-guard position, [and] they have a versatility to them because of their athleticism."

Though general manager Billy Knight has been roundly criticized for drafting swingmen by the bushel instead of shoring up an unsettled point-guard position -- most notably in 2005 when the Hawks took Williams ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams -- Woodson is trying to use those decisions to his team's advantage this season.

"We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things, which allows us to have multiple people bring up the ball, not just a point guard, and that lets us get into our offense faster," Woodson said.

"But the key has been our defense and rebounding," he added, channeling the diktats of his college coach, Bobby Knight, for whom Woodson played for four years. Through three games, the message seems to be sinking in: The Hawks are fifth in the league in points allowed and 10th in rebounding differential.

"When you go through that much losing and still have the attention of your players, you're doing something right," the scout said.

As last year's 4-1 start to a 30-win campaign demonstrated, though, good beginnings don't always make for good endings. And this is a team desperate for the good ending only found in the playoffs.

A postseason run might not only save Woodson's job, but also offer some much-needed validation for an ownership group that has been fighting to keep the team since the acquisition of Joe Johnson in 2005. That move prompted former co-owner Steve Belkin to split from the group and mount an effort to buy the team himself.

For his part, Woodson said the ownership "situation has to be dealt with upstairs." Downstairs on the court, though, Woodson is a bit more direct: "If we play well and keep defending, we should be in the mix for a [playoff] spot."

That could keep that pink slip at bay for now.

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