It’s danger time for the Hawks, and not as regards the 2010 playoffs. That’s a done deal. The danger lies beyond. The danger lies in overreaction.
With the exception of four well spaced games against Milwaukee in Round 1, the Hawks have been terrible this postseason. To watch them is to forget they won 53 games and are the East’s No. 3 seed. But that’s the point: We can’t forget, or we shouldn’t.
At the moment, the temptation is great to say the Hawks need to start over. Of all people in all cities, we should know better. Because we in Atlanta suffered through a wretched half-decade of what starting over means. (Mike Woodson gave a one word-description Sunday: “Hell.”) It means going 13-69. It means depending on the ping-pong balls to bounce your way and depending on your GM not to pick a guy named Williams.
The Hawks are going to lose in Round 2 for the second consecutive season. Last year they were hurt and had no chance; this time they’ve given themselves no chance. They have issues regarding mesh and direction, and it’s possible some of that could be corrected by importing a new coach.
But let’s say you bring in Doug Collins or Avery Johnson or Bryon Scott (or, more likely, Dwane Casey). The best coach cannot win without players. Let’s note that Pat Riley, who has five NBA titles, went 15-67 with the Miami Heat in 2007-2008 when Dwyane Wade got hurt and Shaquille O’Neal got traded.
Which brings us to Joe Johnson. He has averaged 12.3 points against Orlando, missing 71.4 percent of his shots. Off this performance, you wouldn’t re-sign him at 18 cents per season, let alone $18 million. But Johnson just was named third team all-NBA, which by definition makes him one of the league’s 15 best players. If he leaves, which of the other 14 takes his place? And if none does (and none would), haven’t you weakened your team to the extent it might not be in the playoffs next spring?
The Hawks have ceased meshing. Both Johnson and Al Horford admitted as much after practice Sunday. Said Horford: “The chemistry is OK at times … At times it’s not so good. At times we mesh, but sometimes when things don’t go our way we crawl in our own little hole.”
About chemistry: The Bucks had it, and they rode it to a 3-2 series lead over these Hawks. Then Milwaukee lost Games 6 and 7 by an aggregate 35 points for the simple reason its mesh couldn’t override a lack of talent. This is the NBA. It’s a players’ league. You can have the happiest locker room in the world, but if there aren’t enough big-timers in it you won’t win anything.
This doesn’t excuse the performances the Hawks have offered this postseason. Said Horford: “The last thing we should worry about is effort. That should be a given.”
Said Woodson: “I’m not here to coach effort.”
And there’s your disconnect. Too many guys in this locker room have tuned out this coach, who for many of them is the only pro coach they’ve known. It’s not clear if Red Auerbach reincarnate could guide these Hawks past Orlando, but when you’ve lost three games by an average of 29 points it is clear someone’s message isn’t taking hold.
Woodson again: “At the end of the day, this team is still headed in the right direction. I sure hope they don’t go back the other way and bust it up.”
To break apart this roster now would be tantamount to surrender, and we know too well what that’s like. But to expect these players to respond more positively to this coach in his seventh season on the job is likewise folly. We Atlantans saw the same thing happen more than two decades ago when a good young team grew up around Mike Fratello but eventually stopped listening.
Now as then, it comes down to one question: Is it easier to change the team or change the coach? And the answer, now as then, is that the Hawks can conceivably find an upgrade on Mike Woodson. They might not find another Joe Johnson. This summer isn’t the time to subtract talent. It’s the time to do as the elite teams do and add, add, add.