The Hawks thought getting to the playoffs was the hard part.They had no idea the hard part would come in the days, weeks and months after their stirring playoff series against the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics.
Now they have to figure out how to do it again. Can they deliver an encore?
"We have to do it again," Josh Smith said. "We have to do it for our city, for our fans, for ourselves and for all our haters in the past, now and in the future."
The future of this team was far from certain after that playoff series. Both Smith and Josh Childress were free agents, as was head coach Mike Woodson and his entire staff.
When former general manager Billy Knight resigned two days after the Celtics' series, it looked like he might start an exodus. But Childress was the only other casualty of the regime change -- new GM Rick Sund gave Woodson a new two-year contract and the Hawks matched a $58 million offer sheet Memphis made to Smith.
The additions of veterans Mo Evans and Flip Murray softened the blow of Childress bolting for a three-year, $20 million deal in Greece and Woodson was back on the job by draft night (where the Hawks had no picks courtesy of the Joe Johnson deal).
"I said when I took the job that I couldn't do it in two years or even three years, even though deep down I really thought we could do it in three," Woodson said. "But I got to that fourth year and I made it clear that if I didn't get this team to the playoffs in four years I didn't deserve to be the coach here. And we were able to get into the playoffs, make a good showing once we got in and that's something to build on.
"Now people can flip it and always use the negative and say we only won 37 games and we shouldn't have been in the playoffs. There are a lot of ways you can spin it. But the bottom line is these guys worked their tails off and did everything we asked them to do down the stretch to put themselves into a position to make the playoffs. And last time I checked, nobody has ever said you have to win a certain amount of games to get in the playoffs."
There's that word again. It comes up all the time with the Hawks now. After turning over the entire roster -- save for Smith -- since Woodson was first hired, it's hard to believe the Hawks were able to reach this stage of the game without acquiring an established All-Star player during that span.
"It really is nuts when you look back and realize how many people, players and coaches and everything else, that have come and gone in the past four years," Smith said. "I can't lie and tell you I would have predicted that I'd be the only player still here. But something must have gone right if (Woodson) is still here."
This season shapes up as more of a referendum on Woodson's fate than last season did, as if the pressure of a coach, his staff and half the roster playing out the final year of their respective deals wasn't enough drama. Woodson does have 10 returnees to work with, including his entire starting five and all but Childress from the limited bench rotation he used most of last season and during the playoffs.
Now that he has a legitimate roster littered with seasoned pros and as balanced as it's been during his time here, the true measure of what Woodson brings as a coach should be on full display. Just how much tweaking and tinkering he'll do with this group, though, remains to be seen.
"Sure, that's up to me in terms of stretching my lineup and playing nine, 10 or 11 guys. It's also about how the players perform, who is playing with passion and who is giving effort out on the floor.
"I know people expect so much and I know now that we've made the playoffs we've put people in a different light here in Atlanta. And that's good. That's what you want. And hopefully you keep them in that good light and they keep coming out and supporting us. It's going to take me and my staff and the players to make this thing work. Because we came full circle last season from where we started. Now it's up to us to extend this circle."
COACHING STAFF: Head Coach -- Mike Woodson, 5th year overall, 4th with Hawks (106-222). Assistants -- Larry Drew, Bob Bender, Jim Todd, Tyrone Hill.
LAST SEASON, REMEMBERED: 37-45 (3rd in Southeast), took top-seed and eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics to seven games in first round of the playoffs.
THIS SEASON, PREDICTED: 45-37 (2nd in Southeast), No. 7 seed in Eastern Conference playoff field will fall in the first round.
POSSIBLE CHANGES, PREDICTED: Now that Woodson has that two-year extension, he would appear to be safe. But if things go awry early and the Hawks seem to have regressed, Woodson will be the first man overboard. Mike Bibby is the only person in any real danger of needing a moving truck. But that would require Acie Law IV to be ready to take over the point guard job and he's just not there yet.