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It's really not the kind of slogan you'd rush out and put on a T-shirt, a poster or the cover of a media guide. But after taking his team through its second practice of the season, coach Lenny Wilkens stood at midcourt and summed up his outlook for the 1998-99 season thusly: "I really don't think we're going to be as bad as people think we are."
It would be easy to believe the lack of hype, if only because the Hawks have made a point of disappointing. Last year they started with a team-record 11 straight wins before injuries, a stagnant offense and lack of depth pulled them down. Atlanta went 2-13 against the league's top five teams and lost to the Hornets in the first round of the playoffs. "We've got our work cut out for us this year," added Wilkens. "The guys who come in late will just have to catch up."
Fortunately for Wilkens, there were some late arrivals, and they will help immensely. Three days after the start of camp the Hawks re-signed power forward Alan Henderson to a seven-year, $45 million contract. Winner of the NBA's most improved player award last season, Henderson injects high energy into the Hawks' attack, which tends toward the soporific. Then on Jan. 30, Atlanta strengthened its small forward spot-long its weakest link-by signing 28-year-old LaPhonso Ellis to a two-year, $3.75 million deal. "We stole a player," says center Dikembe Mutombo of his former Nuggets teammate. "He's going to be a big, big help to our team."
In Mutombo, the NBA's only three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and point guard Mookie Blaylock, who has led the league in steals the last two seasons, the Hawks are well fortified on D. But even with the signing of Ellis, they need more offensive punch. Guard Steve Smith has carried the team at times, but his creaky knees limit his effectiveness over the long haul. "We just ran out of gas last year," the 29-year-old Smith says. "We need to fix that first and see what happens."
Smith will get some support from second-year guard Ed Gray, who reported to camp with more muscle and less attitude; he was suspended for three games and docked $50,000 in fines and lost pay last year for not following team rules. Gray also showed no lingering effects from the broken right foot he suffered in January 1998.
The Hawks should get an infusion of young talent next season when, as a result of making several deals in recent years, they could have as many as four first-round draft picks. At about the same time they plan to move into the new, 20,000-seat Atlanta Arena downtown. Don't think that Wilkens, though, will be content to sit back. "We'll do whatever it takes," he says. "You can count on that. I know we have some holes, but I am not one to say, 'Wait until next year.' "
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