by Lang Whitaker

(For the rest of our season previews, go here.)

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to discuss the Atlanta Hawks. And I never in my wildest dreams thought I would write this sentence in relation to the Atlanta Hawks, but the Hawks preview is running late because we are saving the best for last.

That’s right, kiddos, the Hawks finished their NBA preseason campaign with the best record in the NBA, going 7-1. Can you believe it? I can’t. And I’m a little bit afraid to talk about it. I’d feel wa more comfortable if the Hawks had gone 2-5 and had three of their starters injured. That is the Atlanta Hawks franchise I know and love, not these guys running around out there, doing the fundamentals and, gasp!, winning games.

I should point out here that last season, the Spurs and Cavs went a combined 3-9 in the preseason. So maybe we shouldn’t put too much stock in preseason numbers, right?

At the same time, this is what I’ve been given to go on, and I’m not about to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear. I needed this. I needed a flash of hope, a spark of life, even if our starters were logging nearly 40 minutes a game in the preseason. We wanted wins and we got them.

And if we can’t win a championship like the Red Sox, through steroids and vast amounts of cash, the Hawks will have to do it the old fashioned way: By praying the other 29 teams simultaneously implode. That’s unlikely, however, so my goals are lower this season. Title? Nah. Playoffs? Well…

According to a friend of mine who dabbles in these things, I was told the over/under on Hawks wins this season is 38 games, set by the gambling masters in Vegas (or perhaps some dudes on a small island in the Caribbean). And I think that number is dead-on for the Hawks this year. We may swing a few wins in either direction, but I’m expecting about 38 wins. That would be a significant improvement on last season’s 30 wins, and really, improvement is all I’m looking for.

38 wins? Last season, Orlando made the Playoffs as an eighth seed with 40 wins. And if Atlanta’s going to sneak into the postseason, one of last year’s teams has to drop out. And if Boston and New York are going to make it as well, that means three teams can’t return to the Playoffs. But Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Miami, Chicago, Jersey, Washington and Orlando all look pretty good to me.

So how do the Hawks make the Playoffs? Luck. We need someone to screw up. Maybe Gilbert Arenas injures his wrist while blogging, or maybe Shaq accidentally eats Dwyane Wade. Someone has to get hurt or fall apart for Atlanta to sneak in there. All 29 other teams might not implode, but a few of them will, for sure.

Plus, it’s not all about other teams screwing up. Maybe, just maybe, the Hawks will be good enough to beat other teams this season. Last year, the only team the Atlanta Hawks were consistently good enough to beat were the Atlanta Hawks. It was always something — a missed jumper, a late unforced turnover — that had me rolling my eyes, exasperated night after night. I was so stressed that I almost starting eating as much as Sekou Smith — almost. I’m hoping that age and seasoning will correct some of the Hawks errors this year.

I’m also hoping Acie Law and Al Horford will correct some of those errors. Acie Law is the coolest-named point guard we’ve had since Speedy Claxton, who is still on the team and still having knee problems. (How did Claxton pass a physical last summer? Who was the team doctor who approved Claxton, Dr. Kervorkian?) And Horford is not only a big body, but he’s actually won two championships in college, so he knows that winning one-third of your games isn’t acceptable.

Joe Johnson will continue to put up numbers in every category, and I’m hopeful that a lot of Hawks possessions this season won’t end with Josh Smith bricking a jumper from the wing. It would also be nice if Zaza Pachulia starts dunking the ball, considering he’s 6-11 and a center and everything.

But I think the Hawks biggest contribution this season doesn’t need to come from anyone actually wearing a Hawks uniform. This year we need a yeoman effort from head coach Mike Woodson. A couple of weeks ago I was working on an Al Horford story for the OJ Mayo issue of SLAM, so I called Woody on his cell. He asked me to call him back a little later because he was busy…walking his dog. If you can’t walk your dog and talk about your team at the same time, that doesn’t bode so well.

I like a lot of things about Woody, from his Steve Harvey suits to his Teddy Pendergrass beard to his Tone Loc voice. But thus far, I haven’t been overly impressed with his coaching. He’s worn Joe Johnson to a pulp, been outfoxed by more than one opposing coach and doesn’t seem to understand that there are ways to utilize players who maybe aren’t all that talented as long as you don’t put them in situations where they’re destined to fail.

The Hawks have talked a lot this fall about how they are going to be a running team this season, which confuses me a little bit. They’re going to use the same coaches and the same players as they had last year but just be a different team? GM Billy Knight has said over and over in the past that the Hawks were always looking for guys who would fit into their “system.” So now they’re just switching systems? It just so happens that the old system and this new system and completely compatible?

I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem likely, does it?

I could keep rambling all night about the Hawks, but at the end of Billy Knight’s afro, only one thing matters this season: Playoffs. I say we get there.

But what do I know?