Al Horford is one of the few Hawks who knows he'll be back next season. Photo by Paul Abell/NBAE/Getty Images
By Jon Cooper
Endings can be hard, especially endings to a season.
The end can be as devastating to everyone from management to the coaching staff to the players, all of whom have invested so much time and energy.
For the 2012-13 Atlanta Hawks, an added sense of uncertainty can be factored in. On Friday morning, April 3, a roster stood 15 strong with Head Coach Larry Drew and his coaching staff all pulling in the same direction.
On Saturday morning, April 4, with the exception of center Al Horford, and guards Lou Williams and John Jenkins, everyone was headed in their own direction, none knowing for sure where and for whom they would next lace 'em up.
"We'd like to have advanced and continued playing. That part was disappointing, but I think we have to feel good that the group worked hard, was professional throughout the year," first year President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Danny Ferry said. "As an organization it was a significant year for us in taking the initial steps of building a championship program with more work to do. We have to now determine the next steps that we'll take going forward."
Players going in different directions was a first for this team, as the 2012-13 Hawks were unified from day one of Training Camp, despite having nine new faces, and stayed united until the final buzzer in Game 6 of the first round forced them to separate.
That unity resulted in a 44-38 record, a second-place finish in the Southeast Division and a sixth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, although they stayed in the running for home court advantage in the East until the season's final two weeks. That filled Drew with pride.
"This thing could have gone either way," Drew, 128-102 in three years at the helm in Atlanta, all resulting in playoff appearances, said. "It was a test to pull this together and try to keep it together. I thought both me and my staff did a good job of that."
Drew used 29 different starting lineups — the most in the League — and called on 15 different players to start.
Once thrown together, the Hawks stuck together and played together. They led the Eastern Conference and were second in the league, handing out 24.5 assists per game. They recorded at least 20 assists in 71 games and led the league by getting assists on 65.1 percent of their baskets. Atlanta topped 2,000 assists for the first time since 1993-94 and was fourth in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.65).
They also shot the basketball well, especially from three. Atlanta finished seventh in the League in three-point shooting (.371), hit double-digit three-pointers a franchise-best 27 times and had streaks of five, four and three straight games making double-digit threes.
"Given what our situation was, we stayed together, we played together, we didn't fragment," Drew said. "It was just one of those type seasons where we came up short, but I think if you look at what we went through this season, this team had just a phenomenal season. Some people say we over-achieved. I don't know if I want to use that term. Given what the situation was, this team didn't fold. They didn't hold their heads down. They didn't play the blame game, they didn't feel sorry for themselves. We had some guys that just stepped it up."
Tops on that list was Horford.
Coming off a season in which a pectoral injury limited him to 11 games, the Hawks center showed why he is the cornerstone of the franchise. He played in 74 games, averaging 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds, and had 43 double-doubles (sixth in the league). He became the first Hawk since Dikembe Mutombo 13 years ago to average a double-double for the season.
"I'm proud of the way that we handled our season this year," Horford said. "I feel like Danny has a certain vision of where he wants to go. Obviously, he has to evaluate a lot of things and figure things out, but I have a lot of confidence in him and what the Hawks are trying to accomplish. I feel okay with moving forward with everything that's going to come."
Williams also will play a key role in years to come. He was electrifying in his first season in Atlanta after signing as a free agent, scoring 22 points in his debut and never stopping. He averaged 14.1 points, while shooting 42.2 percent, 36.7 percent from three, with 3.6 assists until tearing the ACL in his right knee on Jan. 18 at Brooklyn.
Despite facing a difficult summer in rehabbing the first injury he's ever endured, Williams is optimistic about next season and the team's ability to bring in quality players.
"I think it's a great organization," Williams, who is signed through 2014, said. "I really enjoyed the work atmosphere that they created here, especially me coming from a situation where I was with one team for seven years and going to a new team. The working environment was very easy, very friendly and guys come to work every day. From the business side they don't really complicate things. They just want guys to be professional, work hard. You have to respect that if you're a pro in this league."
First-year pro John Jenkins completes the triumvirate that is sure to return. Jenkins showed he could handle the rigors of the NBA, connecting on 38.4 percent of his three-point attempts.
"It was an up-and-down season, but for the most part I thought it was pretty good," he said. "As a team, I learned a lot from all the veterans, and I am thankful for that. I had the opportunity to show what I had, and I think I made the best out of it, me and [fellow rookie] Mike [Scott]. "I'm just trying to perform at the best level. Whatever happens, happens."
The Hawks believe they can make things happen this summer, as they'll have four draft picks (Nos. 17 and 18 in the first round and Nos. 47 and 50 in the second) and $33.1 million dollars of salary cap room.
"As far as organizational direction, there are a lot of different paths that we can take," Ferry said. "I'm encouraged that we do have money to spend and flexibility to make decisions going forward and that we have the draft picks in front of us to build a roster and to build up our program to be a championship-caliber program."
Some of the talent out there includes players that were Hawks in 2012-13.
There is forward Josh Smith, who has played his entire career in Atlanta but will be an unrestricted free agent. Smith reached 10,000 points, 5,000 rebounds, 2,000 assists, and 4,000 field goals made in '12-13 and joined LeBron James and Kevin Durant as the only players in the league to rank in the top 40 in per-game averages for points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. His 1,440 career blocks and 2.13 bpg rank 10th and fourth among active players, and he's second all-time in blocks in Hawks history.
Point guard Jeff Teague, a restricted free agent, continued to grow, finishing third, behind Smith and Horford, in scoring (14.6 ppg) while putting up career-best averages in points, assists (7.2, 12th in the League), and three-point shooting (.359). He had 10 20-point/10-assist games, third most in a season in team history.
There is no shortage of players who played on this year's Hawks team who would relish being part of next year's team.
Among them were sharpshooter Kyle Korver, whose 45.7 three-point shooting percentage ranked second in the league and was the second-best season of his career.
"I think, especially with the injuries we dealt with, guys came together. We outperformed what people thought we would do," Korver, who carries a streak of 73 straight games with at least one three-pointer made (the longest run in Hawks' history and the fourth-longest streak in NBA history), said. "I really enjoyed my year here in Atlanta. I enjoyed the team, I enjoyed the organization."
Korver feels there will be a lot to enjoy in the future.
"I believe Danny Ferry is going to do some great things here," he said. "There's a great opportunity to bring in guys that are going to play fun basketball. You kind of know the vision that he has, the kind of basketball that he likes to watch, and I think he's going to bring in those types of guys. I like the same basketball that he likes. So I'm very hopeful to come back here."
Center Zaza Pachulia agrees. Pachulia, also an unrestricted free agent, was his usual tough, energetic presence, moving up to seventh in franchise history in offensive rebounding. He even set a record with seven offensive rebounds in the second quarter at Milwaukee on Feb. 23. He missed the final 24 games and the entire playoffs with a sore right Achillies. It's not how he wants to go out.
"I'm a Hawk. I've been here for eight years and call Atlanta home," Pachulia, who has spent eight of his 10 NBA seasons in Atlanta, said. "You know the relationship between me and the fans. I would love to be back again but we all understand that it's a business. We'll see when July comes."
Guard Devin Harris keyed Atlanta's fast break, which scored 17.7 points per game — tops in the East and third in the league — while playing through a badly injured toe on his left foot. He liked what transpired in his first season with the Hawks and includes himself amongst those that would like to be back.
"We proved a lot of people wrong with how we could play together, especially guys on the last year of contracts," he said. "I thought the team fit together really well. We played well as a group, guys got along. I really enjoyed it. As far as next year, I could see myself coming back."
For his part, Drew won't look ahead but has plenty of good things upon which to look back.
"I can wake up every morning, look in the mirror and say I gave it my all," he said. "Whether I'm back here or not I don't know, but the one thing that I will say is I've had a great run here."
Whether that run continues will be Ferry's decision. He knows what his ultimate goal is.
"We want to be one of those teams that is still playing and ultimately the last one standing," he said. "Good things will continue to happen here. We've been to the playoffs six straight years, and I think good things can very much be on the horizon here in Atlanta."
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
Second photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images