Two months ago, the Hawks were coming off a loss in Charlotte that dropped them to 2-6 in a stretch and 13-18 since January. They were sliding. They had an enigmatic star (Josh Smith) and a combustible coach (Mike Woodson) who were having a very public feud.
Woodson, the aforementioned coach, took the brunt of the criticism. It happens. When a coach goes 106-222 in his first four seasons, he gets a lot of things thrown his way. One of them is not the benefit of the doubt.
It follows that when new general manager Rick Sund decided to bring Woodson back – albeit with a lukewarm two-year contract – the public response was mixed.
But Tuesday night, the Hawks are some place few figured they would be: In Cleveland. In the playoffs. Playing.
It doesn’t matter that the Hawks are massive underdogs against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. It doesn’t matter if this series goes four games, five or seven. They won a playoff round. That alone validates a 47-win season.
It also validates Mike Woodson as a head coach.
But if he’s bubbling over with I-told-you-so, well, he deserves to.
When asked Monday if he believed his coach felt vindicated, Josh Smith said: “Probably so. He probably deserves it just as much as we do. Of all the criticism he had to face during his career while being here, I know he feels relieved. He might not say it, but you can tell a big weight is lifted off his chest.”
“I can just tell by the way he’s walking around and acting. He’s interacting with everybody. He’s real excited. But he’s also determined to prove something this series as well.”
When the topic of vindication was broached Monday, Woodson reiterated what he said after Sunday’s clinching win over Miami. He thanked ownership for sticking with him, then added: “I think we’ve always been on schedule, regardless of what the media and everybody else says. When you build around a young team it takes time.”
Coaches and teams ultimately are judged by post-seasons. Had the Hawks lost to Miami, a 47-35 record would’ve been an afterthought. Woodson knows this.
Instead, the Hawks won a playoff series for the first time in 10 years, so Woodson’s accomplishments can be magnified. That’s the way it works in sports.
Despite injuries, the Hawks held onto the fourth seed in the East for the season’s last three months (which ultimately probably decided the Miami series). They didn’t become fragmented during when the Woodson-Smith feud boiled over with a benching during the aforementioned loss in Charlotte. They rebounded from a dreadful Game 6 against the Heat to win Game 7 easily.
All that is a reflection of the coach.
Sund prefers not to publicly evaluate players and coaches, particularly during the playoffs. But he credited “Woody and the coaching staff” for navigating the team through injuries and holding onto the fourth seed.
Since Woodson’s contract had expired, Sund effectively hired a man – incremental progress or not – coming off four straight losing seasons. He gave Woodson neither a slap (one-year contract) or a ringing endorsement (three years).
“I came here with a completely open mind,” Sund said.
One year later, Woodson’s resume just got better. Validation and leverage comes with that.