There was a time when the Hawks were coming off a 13-win season, but that was in 2005. These Hawks are coming off 53-29, which represents the third-best mark since the team moved here from St. Louis. So why does it feel as if last season was an epic dud?
Because the season ended with a playoff series that was an epic dud, and the summer was worse. The Hawks underspent for a coach and overspent to keep their best player, and their solution to the annual plaint of we-need-a-real-big-man was to sign the journeymen Josh Powell and Etan Thomas.
Getting swept by Orlando by an average of 25.3 points set the Hawks, who’d been clambering ever upward since the 13-69 nadir of Mike Woodson’s first season, back years in the eyes of its constituency, and the double move of promoting Larry Drew and making Joe Johnson the highest-paid free agent simply underscored the long-held notion that this club doesn’t know what it’s doing. (Never mind that losing Joe Johnson would have issued a similar message.)
The result: The team that finished third in the NBA East will open its season next Wednesday, and there’s no buzz of anticipation. There’s only a rumble of discontent.
“I’m not oblivious to what people are saying and feeling,” said Jamal Crawford, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and the happiest story of what should have been a happy season. But Crawford contributed to the fractious summer by demanding that the Hawks sign him to a new contract or trade him, neither of which has happened.
“Everyone has an opinion [as to how these Hawks will fare],” Crawford said, speaking after Wednesday’s practice. “It remains to be seen. We’ve got a whole new offense, a whole new system. I hope we’ll be able to take the next step. But you never know.”
Note the contrast. This time a year ago Crawford was as happy to be a Hawk as a 5-year-old running loose in Toys R Us. And now? “You never know.”
Exhibition games don’t mean much in any sport, but it’s worth noting that the Hawks have lost four of five, the most recent being another ritual drubbing by Orlando. On Thursday LeBron James will bring his talents to Philips Arena, and that could get messy, too. Indeed, this whole operation has the capacity to go really bad really fast.
Five of the first eight regular-season games are on the road. Said Drew, speaking of his retooled offense: “I see guys starting to pick it up. I was aware it was going to take some time. But the guys have bought into it, and what’s more important is that the main guy, Joe Johnson, buys into it.”
The proof of this purported buying-in, however, won’t be found in any preseason game. It will come in the final two of minutes of the games that count. Only then will we see if Johnson, who’d grown accustomed to taking nearly every key shot under Woodson, will be willing to defer to Crawford and Josh Smith and Al Horford. Only then will we see if Drew is up to the task.
Woodson was never popular with Hawks fans, and replacing him with just about anybody should have yielded a PR boost. Instead the Hawks replaced him not just with a man who hadn’t been a head coach but one who had been Woodson’s aide-de-camp for six years. (And who, not incidentally, came cheap.)
It was clear the Hawks had gone as far as they could under Woodson. Unclear is whether a guy who has been around this team — the starting five of which has remained unchanged since February 2008 — all along can be an agent of change. It’s possible Drew could represent an upgrade; it’s also possible he could be to Woodson as Ron Jirsa was to Tubby Smith at Georgia.
I take no pleasure in being so downbeat so soon, and I’d love to tell you I’m expecting nothing but great things from these Hawks. But I’d be lying through my teeth if I did.