The Hawks won their 10th game of the nascent season Wednesday night. In 2004-05, this franchise managed 13 victories over 82 games. A team once so far down it had to improve to get lousy is now, with the same coach and same power forward, tied with Phoenix for the NBA's best record. Said Mike Woodson, the coach in question: "I'll never forget those 13 wins. I'll never forget walking into the locker room and seeing those faces, knowing we couldn't win many games."
We knew the Hawks would improve. When you're 13-69, you can get no worse. But did anyone expect the Hawks to get better in quite this way?
Jamal Crawford didn't. A pro since 2000, he saw those Hawks firsthand. Did he foresee that woebegone bunch becoming the team that has become the league-wide talking point of the 2009-10 season? "I'd be lying if I said I did. You knew they'd get better. You just didn't know it would be that fast."
Five years sounds like a long time, and when you were losing at an epic rate it felt longer still. But think about this: It was only two seasons ago that these Hawks were still losing, but they've gone from 37-45 to 47-35 to 10-2 without changing a starter. They haven't traded for Shaq or signed LeBron. They've done it the hard way. They've done it the way no NBA team ever does it.
Crawford again: "They've grown. They've gotten better [as individuals] these last couple of years, and they've put some pretty good pieces around them."
Jamal Crawford is one such piece. He's a proven NBA scorer who has never played in a playoff game, and he came here because he believed this team could win big. (Think about that. A seasoned pro suddenly sees Atlanta as a stairway to heaven.) He's both sixth man and third-leading scorer, and if you've got that kind of guy playing in reserve you've got yourself a ballclub.
The Hawks have themselves a ballclub. With the national media descending on Philips Arena for Wednesday's game, the Hawks gave a demonstration of what they've become. Tied at 35 with 6 1/2 minutes left in the second quarter, they led 60-43 at the half. They scored outside, scored underneath, stole the ball and ran the floor and left a team graced by Dwyane Wade and Michael Beasley looking comparatively untalented.
Twelve times they've played, and 10 times they've won. And it isn't as if they've been playing dogs. Six victories have come against teams with winning record. Over the past six days they've beaten Boston (9-3), Portland (8-4) and now Miami (7-4). This 10-2 has been achieved on merit.
And it has been achieved via a commodity not valued highly in modern sports: persistence. The Hawks didn't always pick the right guy in the lottery, and they made their biggest acquisitions by landing the Phoenix Suns' fourth-best player (Joe Johnson, in case you've forgotten) and a point guard who seemed to have lost two steps (Mike Bibby). And somehow this starting lineup has become a thing of balanced beauty, and now there's a second unit to backstop it.
And the coach who was 116 games under .500 after four seasons has managed to turn into a mixmaster of the first rank. After so much shared losing, you'd figure Woodson and his men would have tuned each other out by now, but they're playing harder for him in 2009 than they did in 2006. Which almost never happens.
Much of what the Hawks are doing indeed beggars belief, but only in theory. When you see this team on the floor, you don't think, "I don't get how this team is 10-2." You think, "I understand completely." Because the team that was once so bad is just this good. Yes it is.
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