- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
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As he prepared for training camp going into the last season of his own contract, Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew had a challenging sales pitch he had to deliver to some curious and unsure veteran players in the same position.
In a matter of a few days last summer, new Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, convinced the team couldn't afford to stay in the status quo, traded mainstays Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. It brought in six new players, but not a star was among them, as most of the new arrivals were selected for their favorable contracts.
Johnson had been a seven-time All-Star with the Hawks and Williams had been alongside the remaining core -- Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague -- for their entire careers. In one swoop, Ferry changed the long-term outlook of the franchise by clearing the books and giving the Hawks a remarkable amount of roster flexibility.
The Hawks aren't just a potential major player in the trade market -- they have a remarkable 12 players who have expiring contracts -- during this season but Ferry's moves put them in position to have as much as $40 million in salary-cap space next summer.
That's a situation that seemed far-fetched when Johnson signed a $120 million deal back in 2010. It's a long way off, but the Hawks could present themselves as an attractive alternate destination if stars such as Dwight Howard, an Atlanta native, or Chris Paul consider leaving Los Angeles.
But it was hard for some of the Hawks' veterans, who had made four straight playoff appearances after digging out of a laughing-stock run last decade, to see positives. With so many players unsure of their futures, Smith and Teague are both going to be free agents at season's end, it was hard to gauge how a team that ended up with nine new players would come together.
"I had to sit down with the guys and talk it out," Drew said. "Any time you make a trade like that it can affect your club.
"It wasn't up to us to question it. But, of course, that's easier said than done."
But a remarkable and perhaps under-the-radar thing has been happening thus far in Atlanta. The Hawks, who face the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night (ESPN, 8 ET), have been able to maintain their standing. Despite trading Johnson and Williams, their offense has remained steady. They have developed a top-five defense and become one of the NBA's best running teams.
At 9-5, the Hawks are just a game off last season's pace and have already scored a couple of impressive victories, including a win at Oklahoma City. With a balanced scoring attack and an aggressive defense, they are turning into one of the surprises of the young season.
"I'm a little surprised how fast we've been able to come together," said Horford, who is averaging 15.9 points and 9.5 rebounds on 54 percent shooting. "I was taken aback by the trades, I think we all were. But when we got a chance to meet Danny, we understood he was trying to do some things in a different way."
The Hawks have five players averaging double figures in scoring. They are third-best in the NBA at scoring off turnovers, at 20.1 points a game. Without Johnson, who famously was the centerpiece of an isolation offense that was dubbed "Iso-Joe," the Hawks are up to third in the league at 23.4 assists per game. Surprisingly, they also lead the league in fast-break points, averaging 16.9 a game.
This is the effect of Teague, who is having the best season of his career, averaging 13.6 points and 7.1 assists, up from 4.9 assists last season. Adding to the mix is Lou Williams, whom Ferry signed to a reasonable three-year, $15.6 million deal in July. He is a veteran of fast-paced offense from his days with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Smith is one of just five players in the league averaging 16 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. The others are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and David Lee. Smith is a versatile forward who has struggled a bit in the early going, perhaps as a result of feeling pressure to pick up the scoring slack for Johnson, but he has been more efficient of late.
Always targeted for his inconsistent jumper that he falls in love with from time to time, Smith has been trying to focus on scoring inside more. He averages 10.9 points in the paint per game, good for sixth in the league.
"I asked guys like Josh, Jeff and Al to take stronger roles because we were going in a different direction," Drew said. "The most important thing for us was not to dwell on what had happened. Sometimes change can be a positive thing and we had to look at it that way."
Another unexpected development is how quickly the new teammates bonded. There are more team outings, dinners and off-court time together than in previous seasons. New players Williams and Kyle Korver, who was picked up in a trade with the Chicago Bulls, quickly became vocal leaders in the locker room.
"This is as close of a group as I've ever been around," Horford said. "I think because we really have a veteran team and we have a lot of guys who have been on a lot of playoff teams there was a respect for one another. It's a positive sign."
There is no belief, at least right now, that the Hawks are a major threat in the East. There's a chance they could end up looking very different by February with so many options available to Ferry. Smith has been a popular figure in trade speculation for the past several seasons, though by all accounts the Hawks are not shopping him at the moment.
They also are an inconsistent team. They ran the Los Angeles Clippers off the floor last week and then saw their six-game win streak end when they lost concentration in a home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers a few days later.
But there's no doubt they are a team that is exceeding expectations, doing so with a style that has qualified as a pleasant surprise.
"We're going to play ugly sometimes and we're going to need a little luck to stay away from injuries," Drew said. "But I see a lot of positives with this team, I think when the smoke clears we have a chance to be near the top."
16mSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann