ATLANTA -- The Hawks are relaxed in their home locker room a little more than an hour before tip-off of a recent game against the Cavaliers. Lou Williams and Anthony Morrow fill the air with laughter. Devin Harris casually watches film of the opponent. Josh Smith slouches in a chair in front of his locker, fiddling with a pair of iPhones.
This cool and collected demeanor is also present on the court, where a team with a tremendous amount to play for has opened 9-5. Nine of Atlanta's 14 players are trying to make a good first impression after being acquired last offseason. Nearly two-thirds of the roster is playing on an expiring contract. And the franchise as a whole has reached the playoffs five consecutive years without making it out of the second round, leading to the dreaded good-but-not-great label that this team is so desperate to shed. Given the circumstances, no one would have faulted the Hawks for starting slowly, but instead they're impressively ahead of schedule.
After being hired as general manager in June, Danny Ferry went to work by unloading two players with burdensome contracts (Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams) and replacing them with players on cap-friendly deals out to prove they're not what skeptics around the league say they are.
Harris, an ex-All-Star and former centerpiece of a Jason Kidd trade, is looking to re-stablish his value as a pending free agent after struggling in Utah the last two seasons. Kyle Korver delivered daggers for Chicago as part of the "Bench Mob" the last two years, but he was traded to Atlanta for just cash and a trade exception in a cost-cutting move by the Bulls. Lou Williams wants to prove that Philadelphia made a mistake by letting him walk. And Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson are hungry to contribute to a winning team after wallowing in New Jersey last season.
But the most motivated Hawk of all might be the team's longest tenured, Smith. With a strong season, the eighth-year forward knows he can reel in a max contract thanks to his rare range of talents and the NBA's star-starved market. And because the Hawks elected not to extend him last summer, Smith is seeking to prove to the entire league that he's worth every penny.
"We've got a group of guys with chips on their shoulder and who have a lot to prove," Smith said. "We're out here every night with our hard hats on trying not to make excuses."
That approach has paid off early in the season. Before a disappointing, last-second home loss to Cleveland on Friday, the Hawks owned the league's longest active winning streak at six games.
Despite their early success, Hawks coach Larry Drew will be the first to tell you his team is very much a work in progress. During that streak, Atlanta "dodged some bullets," Drew admitted, including a one-point overtime victory against the then-winless Wizards and a three-point gut-check against the Bobcats, both at home. The streak also came against teams with a combined winning percentage of .458, and they defeated just one squad (the Clippers) with a winning record.
"We've been playing good basketball, but only for stretches and spurts," Drew said. "Maybe [Friday's loss to the Cavs] is something that we can look at and will give us a reality check and bring us back to earth."
Atlanta's hot start isn't all smoke and mirrors despite what Drew's humility suggests. Even with so many new faces and ulterior motives, Atlanta has played unselfishly on the court and been cohesive off it.
"It's all predicated on what we did off the court," Smith said. "We hung out [before the season], went to the movies together, went go-kart racing. It definitely brought us together."
The benefits of the assimilation have stood out. Everyone knew Atlanta's slew of shooters would generate points, but the defense has been surprisingly stout, much to Drew's credit. Smith is averaging his most blocks (2.4) in five years and the full-time return of center Al Horford, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, has given Atlanta the defensive anchor it sorely lacked in 2011-12. With the two standouts in the post, Atlanta ranks fourth in points allowed per possession and hasn't allowed an opponent to shoot 50 percent all season.
"We don't have quote-unquote great defenders at every position, but as a team we do a good enough job to get by and it's pointing in our advantage right now," Horford said.
Atlanta is also sharing the ball on offense more than last season, which might have to do with the departure of Johnson, he of "Iso Joe" fame, to the Nets. The Hawks are third in assists (23.4 per game), including an eye-popping 27.6 over their last five games. It's point of pride for Drew and one he preaches to his players as a sign of offensive success.
"We have so many guys who can put the ball in the hole, especially on the perimeter," said Smith, who has had four games with six assists or more and is averaging fewer field-goal attempts. "When guys are unselfish, you make the right plays and guys usually make the shots. When you share the ball, it rubs off and guys then want to help that person on the defensive end."
Without a traditional defensive makeup, Atlanta has been using its abundance of perimeter players to "create a ton of havoc," Harris said. The Hawks are forcing a league-high 18 turnovers and rank third in steals at 9.1.
The team's energy level has been key as well, boosted by newfound depth. Eleven players are averaging double-digit minutes, and Horford said Atlanta hasn't even tapped into the full potential of its reserves.
"We have so many guys that can score that some haven't even gotten a chance, and they can really play," Horford said. "We're in a good position because those guys are going to get a chance and people are going to see we're a deeper team than in years past."
But Horford, who won Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors in mid-November and is averaging 15.9 points and 9.5 rebounds, is the one who steadies the ship. The big man is the vocal leader and a
"We haven't hit our peak yet as a team," he said. "I'm looking forward to us figuring some things out, especially on the offensive end, because once we start clicking, we're going to be even better."
Drew knows this as well. While the streak-snapping loss stunned the Hawks and the Philips Arena crowd -- an air-balled three-pointer by the Cavs led to a game-winning putback -- it didn't draw blood. After all, what's the difference between a six-game winning streak and a seven-game winning streak at the end of November?
The coach, like his players, has plenty hanging in the balance this season. He too is on an expiring deal and has something to prove this year.
"Maybe we needed a game like this," Drew said of Friday's loss.
As a reality check? Sure. Extra motivation? Absolutely not.