The Thrashers fired their coach, changed their general manager, imported a goodly roster chunk from the Stanley Cup champions … and will miss the playoffs yet again. They finished 10th in the Eastern Conference last season; with four games remaining, they’re 11th now. And should we be upset?
Nah. They’re the Thrashers.
As for the Thrashers’ corporate brethren: That’s different. The Hawks have made the playoffs three seasons running and have won a series the past two years. They didn’t opt for change over the offseason. They chose continuity, albeit with a twist. They fired their coach but promoted his assistant. (Message: “We’ve changed, but not really.”)
The Hawks won 53 games last season and finished third in the East. The best they can do this time is 49 victories, and they’re all but certain to be the No. 5 seed. In no way can this be seen as progress — the only reason to fire a coach while keeping his players is because you believe they’re capable of more — but there’s still a chance to get it right. The NBA playoffs, at least the Eastern half thereof, are where goofy happens: Only once since 2002 has the East’s No. 1 seed reached the finals.
A nice playoff run — one that carries into the Eastern finals, where the Atlanta Hawks have never ever been — would allow them to wag their fingers at all us doubters and say, “See? We knew what we were doing.” And there’s no reason they can’t, even without the homecourt edge, beat Orlando in Round 1. (The Magic isn’t half the team it was, which can happen when you trade away half your team in December.)
For discussion purposes, let’s say the Hawks upset Orlando and lose routinely to Chicago in the conference semis. Even the easily satisfied Atlanta Spirit would have trouble framing that as progress. How could you give Larry Drew rave reviews if his team falls at the same hurdle as Mike Woodson’s? And if dissimilar-in-demeanor coaches wind up with the same result, is it even the coach at all?
Since taking ownership in 2004, the easily addled Spirit has been consistent in its willingness to be patient with “the growing young core” of its basketball team. But here it is 2011, and three of the Core Four — Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson — have been in place for nearly six years, and Al Horford arrived in 2007. Over time, the Hawks have gone from wretched (13-69 in 2004-2005) to rather good (53-29 last season). But now the graph, at least the regular-season part of it, shows its first dip since the inglorious days of Terry Stotts and Chris Crawford.
The loose definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If the Hawks fall in Round 2 again, the only logical tack would be to try something else, and this doesn’t mean promoting a different assistant. Given that their No. 1 pick was sent to Washington for Kirk Hinrich, we can expect no help from the draft. Even worse, last year’s No. 1 pick — Jordan Crawford, also shipped to D.C. – has scored 20-plus points the past four games. Heck, he even had a triple double. (And the Hawks’ record with Hinrich? It’s 10-9.)
There’s a chance Jamal Crawford, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent, could be packaged in a sign-and-trade, but the greater issue is the Core Four. If this season yields nothing better (or even as good as) the past two, why stay the course? Which brings us to names:
Johnson can’t be traded because nobody wants to pay his massive salary through 2016. Horford can’t be traded because this franchise would collapse without him. Williams can’t be traded for anyone of significance because every NBA team already has a Marvin Williams. By process of elimination, that leaves …
It would be tough saying goodbye to someone this talented, tougher still watching him become an All-Star — which he surely would — wearing a different uniform. But if this spring becomes another fizzle, what choice would the Spirit have?
(Well, it could sell the team and leave such decisions to someone else. That could happen, too. Never a dull moment, huh?)
By Mark Bradley