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WITH A lineup laden with lottery picks and a rising star in guard Joe Johnson, the Hawks were going to break out. Probably. At some point. But the NBA's fifth-youngest team would not be on track to host a playoff series without the one player on their roster who has a decade of NBA experience. "Words can't describe how good Mike Bibby has been for us," says coach Mike Woodson. "He is the guy we have been looking for."
Examples of the point guard's impact are everywhere. He has opened up the floor for Johnson with his long-range marksmanship: At week's end Bibby had connected on 86 three-pointers, second most in the league, on 44.1% shooting. He has been more than willing to take over at the end of games: Last Saturday against Houston, he buried a three with 1.5 seconds left to give the Hawks (22--11) a 103--100 victory. And he has been a steadying influence in the locker room. "It's about getting everyone focused on winning," says Bibby, who was averaging 16.3 points, 5.3 assists and a career-low 1.5 turnovers through Sunday. "I've been on bad teams. Numbers don't mean anything if you are not winning."
His savvy gives Atlanta a coach on the floor. "There are times when I'll pop up and he will look at me and tell me to sit my ass down," says Woodson. "He'll say, 'I got it.'"
The Hawks got a sense of Bibby's value after they acquired him from Sacramento last February for four players and a second-round pick, and he helped them grab their first postseason berth since 1999. While Bibby struggled in the first-round series against the Celtics, he gave cover to his new teammates: After a blowout loss in Game 1, Bibby mouthed off to reporters that Boston was a city of "bandwagon fans." The comments drew heavy criticism but they also took pressure off the younger Hawks, who rebounded to take the eventual champs to a seventh game. "If you don't think he did that on purpose, you are crazy," says one of Bibby's former coaches. "He knew exactly what he was doing."
The question now is how long the Hawks will keep him. Bibby is in the final year of a seven-year, $80.5 million contract, which makes him attractive to teams looking to clear cap space next season. But team sources say it is highly unlikely that Bibby will be dealt before the Feb. 19 trade deadline; Atlanta would much rather sign him to a long-term deal in the off-season. "I've always been a Mike Bibby fan," says G.M. Rick Sund, a 35-year NBA veteran who joined the Hawks in May 2008. "He has just always been on other teams."
But it may not be that simple, especially if the team's cost-conscious ownership group comes out on the losing end of a legal battle over former owner Steve Belkin's 30% stake. (The trial is set for February, and the verdict could cost the team tens of millions.) Atlanta also faces off-season decisions on restricted free-agent forward Marvin Williams and unrestricted free-agent center ZaZa Pachulia. Bibby, who will earn $15 million this season, will likely be seeking a five-year contract worth $45 to $50 million, the kind of numbers that may price him out of town.
His teammates' feelings about the point guard, however, are clear. When asked recently by a reporter how long he would like to play, Bibby said his goal has always been to play 20 years in the NBA, or through the 2018--19 season. The remark was overheard by the 24-year-old Pachulia.
"Twenty years?" asked Pachulia.
"You don't think I can make it?" said Bibby.
"I hope you do," said Pachulia. "I want to play the rest of my career with you. You're the best point guard I have ever played with."