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Hawks enter uncertain off-season with nine free agents

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Associated Press
5/11/2012 2:57:50 PM
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ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Hawks on Friday entered a painfully early start to their off-season of uncertainty.

After advancing to the second round of the playoffs three straight years, the Hawks were eliminated in the first round with Thursday night's Game 6 loss at Boston.

Atlanta's players, bleary from lack of sleep, were told by coach Larry Drew in a final team meeting on Friday morning they should be proud of winning 40 regular-season games despite losing All-Star centre Al Horford for almost the full season.

The attempt to place a positive perspective on the 2011-12 season was accompanied by urgent questions about the team's future.

Drew and general manager Rick Sund are in the final years of their contracts. Nine players are free agents, leaving only the five starters and backup centre Zaza Pachulia signed for next season.

Drew said he doesn't know how Sund's uncertain status might affect his situation. The team could pick up its option year on Drew's contract, work out a new deal or seek out a new coach.

"I don't know. I've never been in this situation before," Drew said Friday. "I'm new at this."

Drew is 84-64 in two regular seasons and 8-10 in the playoffs.

Drew had to scramble as Horford missed 55 games after undergoing surgery for a torn left pectoral muscle. Pachulia missed the Celtics series with a chipped bone in his left foot, forcing third-stringer Jason Collins to start the first four games.

Horford returned as a backup in Game 4 and started the last two games.

"I just like how we had no quit in us," said forward Josh Smith. "We were resilient. Even when Al went out with his injury, we stayed positive and stayed confident."

Jeff Teague and other players said Friday they hope management keeps the team together.

"Hopefully everybody comes back," Teague said. "It's a great group. I think we all got along pretty well. We would like another crack at it."

Smith matched Joe Johnson for team-high honours with his 18.8 points per game in the regular season and tied for 12th in the league with 9.6 rebounds per game. Teague, in his first full season as the starting point guard, emerged to average 12.6 points while leading the team in assists and steals.

Smith can be a free agent after next season. He said Friday he plans to play out his contract "and see how it goes from there."

"All I know is I have one more year on my contract so I'll definitely be here," Smith said. "I'll be going into the off-season to better myself and do whatever I can to improve myself and help this team.

"Whatever happens in the off-season, hopefully it is beneficial to this team."

Among the team's free agents will be Collins, guard Kirk Hinrich, forward Ivan Johnson, and several veterans who were added last year and during the season: Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse, Vladimir Radmanovic, Willie Green, Jannero Pargo and Erick Dampier.

Sund attended Friday's team meeting but did not speak with reporters.

Drew said he complimented the players for remaining poised while losing Horford, Pachulia, Collins and others to injuries during the season. Despite the early exit in the playoffs, Drew called the season "great" and "phenomenal."

"It was a very tough season but we endured it and we dealt with that adversity in a very professional manner and had a great season," Drew said. "Unfortunately the playoffs didn't go quite the way we wanted them to but still I thought we had a phenomenal season and I told the guys how proud I was of them, the way they handled themselves, the way they dealt with all the situations.

"I've seen teams go the other way but our guys dealt with it in such a mature manner and really came out and played and didn't make excuses."

Drew insisted the Hawks are close to being ready to advance deeper into the playoffs.

"As I told the players, we're knocking at the door. We really are," he said.

Johnson said the loss in the first round of the playoffs did not mean the team had regressed.

"No, it didn't feel like a step back," Johnson said. "I thought everybody was pretty much giving what they had. It was tough. We played pretty much the whole season without Al. It was unfortunate but we somehow managed to give ourselves a chance."

Joe Johnson, Josh Smith (Photo: Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images)
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