I’ll admit it. I thought it, and I even wrote it. With Derrick Rose gone and with Chris Bosh hurting, the Hawks might have had a chance to make serious noise in these NBA playoffs — had they contrived to survive Round 1, which they didn’t. But now I’m watching the Heat and the Thunder have at one another in their made-for-the-Weather-Channel finals, and I’m thinking …
I know, I know. The Hawks managed to beat Oklahoma City in their one meeting this regular season, and they even beat Miami in Miami on the second day of the calendar year. But could anyone — and here I’m talking mostly to myself — have seriously seen the local NBA franchise giving either of these a real postseason run? With all parties at full strength, could the Hawks have taken even a game off the Heat or the Thunder?
I know, I know. Here you’re saying, “The Hawks aren’t as good as the teams playing for the NBA title — this is news?” Well, no. But I’m guessing we’ll be hearing very soon that the Hawks have decided to give it one more go with their Core Four, and I can’t see staying that course having much upside. As is, the Hawks aren’t quite talented enough or committed enough to matter.
The Heat and the Thunder are apt to be sorting out championships for a long while. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are 23 — as noted previously, that’s younger than the young Hawks hope Jeff Teague — and LeBron James is barely a year older than Josh Smith. Yes, the Hawks have collected a handful of gifted players, but none among them is a superstar. Miami and OKC have two superstars apiece, and that’s not counting Chris Bosh.
And it’s not just the players — it’s also the organizations. The Heat have Pat Riley as patriarch; the Thunder are run by the rising star Sam Presti. The Hawks … well, they may or may not be in the market for a new general manager. Rick Sund’s contract is due to lapse as month’s end, and nobody’s sure whether he’ll stay in place. If he doesn’t, are the Hawks apt to go hire a hot shot from some other organization?
Let’s ask ourselves this: What happened when this team last had a key opening? They hired Larry Drew, who’d been Mike Woodson’s assistant for six seasons, to replace the fired Woodson. Drew has been neither bust nor smash, which is the story of the Hawks. They’ve settled in as a plus-.500 team, and nothing about this crew suggests that an upward spike is at hand. Yes, they finished with the fourth-best record in the East with Horford gone for 55 games, but that’s also what the Hawks do: They offer hope only to snatch it away.
We saw in Round 1 the difference between the regular season and the playoffs. Doc Rivers didn’t worry about resting his aging Celtics, while Drew left his starters out too long as the lead began to dwindle in the pivotal Game 2. (That was the night Rajon Rondo didn’t play due to suspension.) By Game 4, the Hawks — even with Smith and Horford back from their respective injuries — were back to their wretched habit of getting blown out. They lost that night by 22 points after trailing by 37.
To their credit, the Hawks mustered stouter efforts in Games 5 and 6. But the lasting impression of the Hawks — under both Woodson and Drew — is of a team that never has fully believed it’s cut from championship cloth. It knows it has no LeBron, no Durant, no Dwyane Wade, no Westbrook. The Core Four, together since 2007, knows full well that it’s capable of going so far but no further, and it also knows that its management pales alongside Miami’s or OKC’s or San Antonio’s or Boston’s or Chicago’s or the Lakers’ or …
OK, you get the point. You get the point better than I do. Because there are some nights — like March 3, when the Hawks beat the Thunder without Horford and Joe Johnson — when I think, “You know, if this team played like that every night …”
But that’s the thing: This team doesn’t play like that every night, and as constituted it never will. And I can’t really see this front office, with Sund or without, making the bold moves needed to step up in class. I see only more of the Core, of which we’ve already seen too much.
By Mark Bradley