The Hawks spent the past two seasons trying to get past Orlando, trying and failing. A check of the standings shows that Atlanta is again gazing up at the Magic, though the Magic team that will appear tonight at Philips Arena has been rendered unrecognizable. Because we saw over the weekend how much the Magic valued simply finishing ahead of the Hawks.
With two trades, the Magic dumped everyone of note except Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. Vince Carter, gone. Rashard Lewis, gone. Mickael Pietrus, gone. Marcin Gortat, gone. For those keeping score at home, that marks an offloading of two starters and two rotational subs.
The Magic wound up with Hedo Turkoglu, who used to play for Orlando but left as a free agent, plus Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark. That’s a major December overhaul for any team, especially one that holds fourth place in the NBA East. (The Hawks are fifth.) And there’s no guarantee it will work. But functionality isn’t the issue today; ambition is.
The Magic reached the NBA finals in 2009 and looked primed to do it again last season, but they were bounced in the Eastern Conference finals by Boston, which entered the playoffs as the East’s No. 4 seed. Orlando had just obliterated the No. 3 seed — your Atlanta Hawks — by the record aggregate of 101 points in four numbing Round 2 games.
Then LeBron James made his Decision and the NBA Southeast — heck, the whole NBA — changed. The Magic entered the season having chosen to combat the star-spangled Miami Heat with good ol’ continuity. That worked for a while: Orlando won 15 of its first 19 games. Then it hit a rough patch. (How rough? Well, the Magic lost at home to the Hawks.) Meanwhile, the Heat embarked on a winning streak that has reached 12 games and lifted LeBron’s crew to the top of the division.
And Orlando, depending on your slant, either recognized reality or panicked big-time. His team having lost four times in five games, Magic general manager Otis Smith deep-sixed a blueprint that won 59 games last season to bet on the likes of Arenas, who was suspended by NBA last season for celebrating Bring Your Firearm To Work Day, and Turkoglu, who isn’t as good now as he was when he left Orlando 18 months ago.
Which brings us, however circuitously, to the Hawks. They’ve had the same starting lineup since Mike Bibby arrived in February 2008. They’ve had success — taking the champs-to-be Celtics to Game 7 in 2008; winning a playoff series in 2009 and 2010; going 100-64 over the past two regular seasons — but they’ve exited the same way two springs running: Getting swept in Round 2. Yet these Hawks are essentially the same as last season’s, the only difference being the head coach.
The Hawks won their first six games under Larry Drew, who was promoted when management, such as it is, decided Mike Woodson’s longtime assistant was just the man to take them where Woodson could not. They’ve since gone 11-12, losing to every opponent of note save Orlando. Joe Johnson missed 2 1/2 weeks, which didn’t seem to matter one way or another, which doesn’t say much for the Hawks’ decision to keep him at the staggering cost of $120 million.
And now we ask: The Hawks have changed coaches and re-upped Johnson, and they’re on pace to win 48 games, down from the 53 of last season. They’ve done little to suggest they’d have a postseason prayer against the Celtics or the Heat — the Magic’s status is in definite flux — and by shedding Woodson the Hawks essentially said, “We want to do better.”
The Magic saw themselves as not being quite good enough and took a flier. Should the Hawks, who weren’t as good as the Magic, do the same? Should they break up their longstanding Core Four? If so, who’d leave? (By process of elimination, it would have to be Josh Smith. Al Horford’s too good, and nobody would take Johnson’s salary and nobody wants Marvin Williams.) Do they cut ties with Jamal Crawford, who’s seeking a new contract?
Or do they stay the course, even if the course isn’t apt to take them anywhere they haven’t already been? The Magic weren’t satisfied with what they’d done and what they had. Are the Hawks?
By Mark Bradley
About here, we move to the snappy discourse part of our program. I’m at the arena and will be happy to chat with one and all about the Hawks, the Magic and the world in general. And you should know that the Magic are starting a team — Turkoglu and J. Richardson are in the lineup — that hasn’t yet practiced. Said Stan Van Gundy, the Orlando coach: “The Hawks have been together six years; we haven’t been together six hours.”
Please join me for a fun-filled and frolicsome evening. To borrow from James Brown: Please, please, please. As ever, I thank you in advance.