The Atlanta Hawks made significant improvement under Mike Woodson. They just wondered how much farther he could take them.
Woodson was let go as coach of the Hawks on Friday, just four days after the team was swept in the second round of the playoffs by the Orlando Magic.
General manager Rick Sund, after consulting with the ownership group, decided not to offer Woodson a new contract. So ended a six-year coaching tenure in which the Hawks won just 13 games in his first season, then improved their record every year since -- including three straight playoff appearances.
Atlanta won 53 games this season, the most since 1996-97, and captured the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. But that wasn't enough to save Woodson's job, especially when the Hawks were routed by the Magic in the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history.
Sund held a morning meeting with Woodson to inform him of the decision.
"In this case, Woody has been here six years and had basically been the only voice that many of these players had heard," the GM said. "The shelf life for coaches and management in the NBA is short, particularly for coaches, maybe two or three years. In Woody's case, he has gone six. The compelling thought for me was maybe it's right for a change."
Sund believes a new coach might be able to take the Hawks to even higher levels, even though he acknowledged it was a risk to dump a coach coming off a playoff appearance.
"Sometimes in professional sports, change is good -- not only for the individual, but for the organization," he said. "Hey, it was a tough decision any way you go. If it doesn't turn out, it's the wrong decision. If it turns out, maybe it was the right decision, I don't know."
Woodson declined to comment on his ouster when reached by The Associated Press.
"I'm just going to take some time and go away and clear my head," he said. "I just want to get away."
The firing of Woodson was the first move in a busy offseason for the Hawks. In addition to hiring a new coach, the team must deal with the possible loss of its best player, Joe Johnson, who will become a free agent this summer.
A four-time All-Star, Johnson didn't sound enthusiastic about returning to Atlanta after a dismal series against the Magic and a run-in with the fans over a 30-point home loss in Game 3.
If Johnson returns, the next coach of the Hawks will inherit plenty of talent. Two players (Johnson and Al Horford) were selected for the All-Star Game, Josh Smith is one of the league's best defensive players and Jamal Crawford won the NBA's Sixth Man Award.
Woodson felt he deserved a chance to return after the Hawks became just the seventh team in NBA history to win more games than the previous season for five straight years.
But it was clear that some players had tuned him out, especially in the playoffs. Atlanta struggled to beat a short-handed Milwaukee team in the opening round, rallying from a 3-2 deficit to win in seven games. Then came a total rout in the conference semifinals.
Orlando won the opening game by 43 points, then handed the Hawks the franchise's worst home playoff loss in Game 3, a 105-75 blowout. The Magic won the four games by a total of 101 points -- and average margin of 25.3.
Center Zaza Pachulia said Woodson deserved credit for the team's progress but eventually became a victim of the increased expectations.
"We grew up as a team and as players. He helped a lot of players get better," Pachulia told the AP. "But when you get better, you want even more. I think we're in the stage now where it's not about progress. It's about winning a championship."
If the Hawks seek an experienced coach, Avery Johnson and Byron Scott could be on their list of candidates. If they decide to go with an assistant, former Hawks player Tyrone Corbin might be considered; he works on the staff of highly respected Utah coach Jerry Sloan. Another possibility is TNT broadcaster and former coach Doug Collins.
Woodson has been mentioned as a potential candidate in Philadelphia should Larry Brown take control of the 76ers' front office. The 69-year-old Brown hasn't decided whether to return for a third season as coach of the Charlotte Bobcats.
Woodson worked as an assistant for Brown in Detroit before landing his first head coaching job with the Hawks. He came to Atlanta preaching hard-nosed defense, but some complained that he lacked imagination on the offensive end, even as the team kept adding talented players and improving every season.
There's still room to grow under the next coach. The Hawks had the lowest payroll of any playoff team, and were the only squad that reached the final eight without paying the luxury tax.
"Our goal is to be an elite team," co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. said. "We've got a great nucleus right now. And we've got respect, which is key."