The Hawks have become that strangest of creatures — a team with a good record that almost nobody takes seriously. They’re on pace to win 51 games, down two from last season, but where that aggregation was seen (at least by some, this writer included) as a threat, this one isn’t regarded as even a nuisance. The reason being:
This team is essentially the same as last season’s, and we saw in Round 2 against Orlando how threatening those Hawks really were. They played four games, winning none, losing by an NBA-record aggregate of 101 points.
All that has changed is that Jason Collins, who can’t really play, plays a bit more, and Larry Drew is the coach, though to call him a new coach is to ignore his six seasons as Mike Woodson’s chief assistant. What we see is a team that has shown us its limits but has been kept together anyway.
To say these Hawks have been bad would be incorrect. They’re 33-20, and they awoke Sunday in fourth place in the East, a half-game ahead of the team that undressed them last spring. But Orlando made two massive-but-not-necessarily-smart trades in December because general manager Otis Smith believed his Magic as constituted could go no further.
The Hawks, on the other hand, haven’t dared to dare. Heck, they didn’t bother to go outside the organization to find a coach. They seem content with where they are, even if it’s their audience has begun to avert its eyes.
Through 26 home games the Hawks have averaged 14,613 patrons, which puts them 25th in a 30-team league. That’s down nearly 2,000 a game from last season. They won 53 games, claimed the No. 3 seed in the NBA East and kept their best player from leaving as a free agent … and they’re losing fans by the bushel? How does that work?
Like this: Folks got excited when the Hawks took Boston to a Game 7 in 2008, excited again when the team won its Round 1 series against Miami in 2009. That was progress. What happened against Orlando in 2010 was progress halted, and the ham-handed Atlanta Spirit punted its chance to import a coach capable of taking this team higher. In a summer where the Spirit spent $120 million to keep Joe Johnson, it still came off as cheap by settling for a career assistant. (Yep, that’s the Spirit.)
After Tuesday’s 34-point home loss to sub-.500 Philadelphia, Drew hinted at a lineup change, but his big move Saturday was to start Jason Collins at center, which this coach has already tried. Collins managed four points, one rebound and five fouls — and didn’t play in the fourth quarter. But even this tiny tweak had consequences.
Starting Collins meant moving Al Horford to power forward and Josh Smith to the perimeter, and here’s what happens when the league’s most dynamic 5-4 pairing is rendered a 4-3: Eighteen of the first 28 shots taken by Horford and Smith were standstill jumpers. (Horford didn’t shoot a free throw all game.) The Hawks led by 22 points in the second quarter because those shots were falling; they lost at the end because they’d stopped falling.
To be fair, the Hawks did seek to work the ball inside to Horford late — too late, alas. Thus was their 34-point loss to a 23-27 opponent followed by an at-the-buzzer loss against a 22-31 opponent. And now the Hawks take to the road for the next seven games.
“We’ll get it figured out,” Smith said afterward, but it’s fair to wonder how. Marvin Williams again seems lost. (He had two points and one rebound off the bench against Charlotte.) They’re getting nothing from Jeff Teague and Jordan Crawford, their past two No. 1 picks, and nothing from Josh Powell and Etan Thomas, their summer big-men acquisitions. They need to make a major move, but the only viable candidate to leave is Smith, the most gifted Hawk since Dominique Wilkins.
They are, in a word, stuck. The Hawks have proved they’re talented; they’ve also proved they’re not so talented as to be competitive beyond Round 1 of the playoffs. They’re last season’s team without last season’s promise.
By Mark Bradley