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Standing pat just fine with the Hawks

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

ATLANTA-- LeBron and Chris have joined D-Wade in Miami. Shaq's now in Boston, Amare's taken over New York and Carlos has moved to Chicago.

The Atlanta Hawks?

Pretty much the same ol' team.

That's not necessarily a bad thing -- after all, the Hawks finished third in the Eastern Conference last season behind Cleveland and Orlando -- but they'll have to step up their game if they want to stay ahead of all those improving teams around them.

"The East has definitely gotten a helluva lot better," Atlanta star Joe Johnson said. "It's going to be tough this year, especially if we want to take that next step."

The Hawks have made a tedious but persistent climb in the standings, adding a player or two a year until they had a solid starting unit.

If the names sound familiar, they should. Josh Smith has been around for six seasons, Johnson and Marvin Williams both have five years on their Atlanta resumes, Al Horford has put in three seasons with the Hawks, and Mike Bibby is at two-plus and counting.

Considering all the change around them, including division rival Miami signing both LeBron James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade, it might be tough for the Hawks to keep alive their streak of winning more games than the year before, currently at five in a row.

They seem content playing the hand they already have.

"If it ain't broke," Williams said, "why fix it?"

But the game has changed in the East -- big time. The Heat certainly are expected to surge past Atlanta with their mighty trio, and it's hard to see the Hawks wiping out the gap to Orlando, which blew them out in the second round with the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA playoff history.

Boston finished behind Atlanta during the regular season but made it all the way to the NBA finals. In a telling sign, Shaquille O'Neal was courted by the Hawks but decided to sign with the Celtics, believing they had a better chance to give him one more championship.

While Cleveland is likely to slip without James, the Hawks will be hard-pressed to hold off such up-and-coming teams as Chicago, which added Carlos Boozer to a roster already filled with plenty of potential (though Boozer is expected to miss two months recovering from a broken hand). The Knicks are looking to improve after signing Amare Stoudemire, and even the lowly Washington Wizards are feeling more hopeful with top overall draft pick John Wall to build around.

Which brings us to the Hawks, whose biggest acquisitions were backup big man Etan Thomas and late first-round pick Jordan Crawford. Hard to see them selling a whole lot of new season tickets with those moves.

Instead, Atlanta focused on re-signing Johnson, who got a maximum deal even though he had a miserable playoffs, and getting more out of what they already had. Coach Mike Woodson was fired after leading the team to a 53-29 record, its best mark in more than a decade.

In keeping with the Hawks way, the coaching change wasn't every dramatic, either. General manager Rick Sund passed on the chance to go for a more prominent name and handed Woodson's top assistant, Larry Drew, his first head coaching job.

"He's been here my whole career," Williams said. "It's been a real easy transition."

But things won't be entirely the same. Mindful that Woodson's teams were accused of standing around and basically running most of the offense through an isolated Johnson, Drew has been installing a high-tempo scheme that will take some of the load off the team's best player.

It's still a work in progress because of nagging injuries in the preseason, most noticeably to second-year point guard Jeff Teague, who figures to get a more prominent role than he had under Woodson.

"They're adapting. I'm seeing some positives," Drew said after practice Thursday. "But from a negative standpoint, we haven't had all the guys together."

Drew wanted to work Teague in with the starters during the exhibition games, but he's been slowed by a sprained ankle. No matter what, the youngster looks more suited to run a fast-paced offense than the 32-year-old Bibby, who is showing his age.

"We have a system to play out of now. We have some organization," Drew said. "It doesn't come overnight. I wish it did, but it takes time to recognize exactly how to read each situation and what to do out of it."

Drew has moved into the office that used to belong to Woodson. The new coach likes having more room; then he looked around at the mostly bare walls, which have been stripped of keepsakes from the previous regime.

"I need to get some stuff up there," Drew said.

Chances are, it won't look much different when the remodeling is done.

That's the Hawks way.