WITH A lineupladen with lottery picks and a rising star in guard Joe Johnson, the Hawks weregoing to break out. Probably. At some point. But the NBA's fifth-youngest teamwould not be on track to host a playoff series without the one player on theirroster who has a decade of NBA experience. "Words can't describe how goodMike Bibby has been for us," says coach Mike Woodson. "He is the guy wehave been looking for."
Examples of thepoint guard's impact are everywhere. He has opened up the floor for Johnsonwith his long-range marksmanship: At week's end Bibby had connected on 86three-pointers, second most in the league, on 44.1% shooting. He has been morethan willing to take over at the end of games: Last Saturday against Houston,he buried a three with 1.5 seconds left to give the Hawks (22--11) a 103--100victory. And he has been a steadying influence in the locker room. "It'sabout getting everyone focused on winning," says Bibby, who was averaging16.3 points, 5.3 assists and a career-low 1.5 turnovers through Sunday."I've been on bad teams. Numbers don't mean anything if you are notwinning."
His savvy givesAtlanta a coach on the floor. "There are times when I'll pop up and he willlook at me and tell me to sit my ass down," says Woodson. "He'll say,'I got it.'"
The Hawks got asense of Bibby's value after they acquired him from Sacramento last Februaryfor four players and a second-round pick, and he helped them grab their firstpostseason berth since 1999. While Bibby struggled in the first-round seriesagainst the Celtics, he gave cover to his new teammates: After a blowout lossin Game 1, Bibby mouthed off to reporters that Boston was a city of"bandwagon fans." The comments drew heavy criticism but they also tookpressure off the younger Hawks, who rebounded to take the eventual champs to aseventh game. "If you don't think he did that on purpose, you arecrazy," says one of Bibby's former coaches. "He knew exactly what hewas doing."
The question nowis how long the Hawks will keep him. Bibby is in the final year of aseven-year, $80.5 million contract, which makes him attractive to teams lookingto clear cap space next season. But team sources say it is highly unlikely thatBibby will be dealt before the Feb. 19 trade deadline; Atlanta would muchrather sign him to a long-term deal in the off-season. "I've always been aMike Bibby fan," says G.M. Rick Sund, a 35-year NBA veteran who joined theHawks in May 2008. "He has just always been on other teams."
But it may not bethat simple, especially if the team's cost-conscious ownership group comes outon the losing end of a legal battle over former owner Steve Belkin's 30% stake.(The trial is set for February, and the verdict could cost the team tens ofmillions.) Atlanta also faces off-season decisions on restricted free-agentforward Marvin Williams and unrestricted free-agent center ZaZa Pachulia.Bibby, who will earn $15 million this season, will likely be seeking afive-year contract worth $45 to $50 million, the kind of numbers that may pricehim out of town.
His teammates'feelings about the point guard, however, are clear. When asked recently by areporter how long he would like to play, Bibby said his goal has always been toplay 20 years in the NBA, or through the 2018--19 season. The remark wasoverheard by the 24-year-old Pachulia.
"Twentyyears?" asked Pachulia.
"You don'tthink I can make it?" said Bibby.
"I hope youdo," said Pachulia. "I want to play the rest of my career with you.You're the best point guard I have ever played with."
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On 6'8" Boris Diaw, who at week's end had averaged15.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.0 assists for the Bobcats since being acquiredfrom the Suns on Dec. 10:
The last couple of years Phoenix was playing him outof position—he's not a center, and he shouldn't be guarding centers. He'sprobably best as a small forward, but Charlotte has been playing him at powerforward, and he has been effective. He's quick enough to take bigger playersoff the dribble and strong enough to score in the post. He's passing well,facilitating the offense and showing a nice touch, especially from three-pointrange. And he rebounds. He's one of the few big men in the league who goesafter the ball on every possession.
BILL FRAKES (BIBBY)
VET WORTH When players make missteps Bibby tells Woodson (below), "I got it."
SCOTT CUNNINGHAM/NBAE VIA GETTY IMAGES (WOODSON)
[See caption above]
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES (DIAW)