But first, the playoffs.
The Hawks, who will face the Pacers in an opening-round series that begins Sunday in Indianapolis, know they will likely look a lot different by the time next season rolls around.
Only three players are definitely under contract beyond this summer. Coach Larry Drew is in the final year of his deal, as well.
To have any success in the postseason, the team must put aside any thoughts of what’s going to happen after that final game.
“It is difficult with all the uncertainty going on, there’s no question about it,” said center Al Horford, one of the few players who knows he has a long-term future in Atlanta. “The guys have to be able to tune that out and focus on the task at hand. We all have a job to do here. We need to do it and perform at a high level.”
The Hawks certainly didn’t perform at a high level down the stretch, losing 15 of the last 26 games to squander any chance of home-court advantage in the first round. In the final week, especially, Drew was more concerned about his team being rested and healthy for the playoffs.
Now, it’s time to turn it back on again. As if driving that point home, the coach put his players through wind sprints at the end of practice, from one side of the court to the other — something that wouldn’t be unusual in training camp, but looked totally out of place after 82 games.
“I’m just going do whatever they tell us to do,” forward Josh Smith said, smiling. “I guess they felt like we needed it.”
Much of tenuous state of this franchise is focused on Smith, who can become an unrestricted free agent after the season. There’s been little sign of the only NBA team he’s ever played for — his hometown team, no less — making a serious effort to bring him back.
But he insists there’s no distraction heading into the playoffs.
“A lot of players don’t get an opportunity during their careers to even play in the postseason,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to relish the opportunity we have, just focus on getting wins and not focusing on free agency. That’s how you do it.”
The Hawks already went through major changes last summer, dealing star guard Joe Johnson to Brooklyn and forward Marvin Williams to Utah. But those moves, engineered by first-year general manager Danny Ferry, were clearly designed to lead to an even more drastic overhaul this year. Most of the players he acquired came with expiring contracts, clearing out plenty of salary cap space for the next round of free agency.
Drew has led the team to the playoffs all three seasons as coach, but his status appears tenuous at best. He’s a lame duck coach working for a GM who didn’t hire him.
In public at least, Drew is keeping his focus on the playoffs.
“My situation and some of the other guys’ situations, that’s the least of our concerns,” he insisted. “We’re really trying to focus on what we have to do to beat Indiana. Indiana is a really good basketball team. Their record speaks for itself. Where we end up at the end of the year, that’s not a concern right now.”
Easy to say, much tougher to actually pull off. Horford, for one, knows the Hawks must be fully engaged if they’re going to have a chance to advance to the second round for the fourth time in five years.
“It’s one of those things that we have to make sure everybody is engaged and everybody cares for the team,” he said.
Outside of the defending champion Miami Heat, Drew believes the rest of the Eastern Conference is fairly evenly matched. Plus, the Hawks are on the side of the playoff bracket where they wouldn’t have to face LeBron James & Co. until the conference finals.
Of course, that would require Atlanta winning two playoff series, something they’ve never done since moving from St. Louis in 1968. Certainly over the last month, they’ve shown few signs of being the team that finally breaks through.
But Drew figures the Hawks already have exceeded expectations by getting this far. Many prognosticators didn’t even expect them to make the playoffs after trading Johnson.
“My job as a coach is to make sure these guys are ready from a mental standpoint,” Drew said. “We can’t listen to what other people think and what people say about us. ... If we go out and play the way we’re capable of playing, we can win games.”