A stipulation: The Hawks are having a sunny season and have a chance to play deeper into the playoffs than they have in 40 years. “We’ve closed the gap on the top three [teams in the East],” Mike Woodson said last week, and they’ve gained so much ground they’ve become the fourth in a Big Four. That said …
When you step up in class, even the tiniest flaw can become major. And here, as they go forward, are five warning signs for these Hawks:
1. The bench is basically two guys plus Mo. Remember when we thought the Hawks actually had a second unit? That lasted about 10 days. Jason Collins has worked 17 minutes this season. Joe Smith averages 9.2 minutes per game, Jeff Teague 9.7. (Not-so-fun fact: The rookie Teague, whom Mike Woodson claims to like, averages nearly six fewer minutes than did Acie Law, whom Woodson didn’t much like, in his rookie season.) Mo Evans worked 23 minutes a game last season; he’s down to 15.3 this.
The bench is essentially Jamal Crawford, who has been great, and Zaza Pachulia. We saw the peril in that when both were out against Miami last week. The other subs managed a total of eight points.
2. Turns out continuity has its limits. It seemed a major victory when Rick Sund managed to retain Pachulia, Marvin Williams and Mike Bibby over the offseason. Alas, not one of them has taken his new contract and run with it. Pachulia averaged 6.2 points and 5.7 rebounds last season; he’s averaging 4.4 and 3.4 now. Bibby’s scoring average has dropped six whole points and his shooting percentage has plunged from 43.5 to 40.6. Williams is having his worst season since he was a rookie, which was back in 2005-2006.
3. Those re-upped contracts and the impending Joe Johnson negotiations tied Sund’s hands. The Hawks have all but conceded they’re not interested in making a deal — the deadline is Thursday — but the colder truth is that they can’t. Williams and Bibby fit the definition of expendable, but nobody wants them because their performance has dipped and they’re saddled with long-term contracts to boot. And the Hawks couldn’t take on a big salary were they so inclined; it will take $17 million a year to keep Johnson. (He declined their offer of $15 million last fall.)
4. Speaking of Joe … he’s shooting it more, passing it less. He’s averaging 18.4 shots per game, up from 18 last season, against 4.6 assists, down from 5.8. Given that the Hawks have other capable scorers — Al Horford made the All-Star team, and Crawford and Josh Smith coulda/shoulda — this isn’t a promising development. Johnson and Crawford don’t work as well together as Johnson and Bibby did, and Bibby is on the floor less than Crawford.
Still, Woodson seems determined to stick with Iso-Joe as an endgame strategy. Against the Thunder on MLK Day, Johnson took eight of the Hawks’ 23 fourth-quarter shots; he missed five and the Hawks lost. Against the Celtics on Jan. 29, he took nine of the Hawks’ 19 fourth-quarter shots; he made seven and the Hawks won. It’s fine when it works, but shouldn’t a team with more options have … more options?
5. The Hawks have owned one of the other Big Four, but only one. Good news: The Hawks are 4-0 against Boston. Bad news: They’re 0-5 against Cleveland and Orlando, with the average margin of defeat being 15.4 points. Worse news: They’re more apt to play the Cavs or the Magic in Round 2 than they are the Celtics.