Waiting in the wings: What's next for the Atlanta Hawks

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In the blink of an eye the season was over. A three-point lead lost, along with a series. A blown call, a missed free throw, a stupid jump shot. It ended. Just like that. It was, in one way or another, what we all saw coming.

I would be remiss to say that better days are ahead, that this team is young, that it will take some time to gel, and that sure enough, they’ll figure it out. Because better days aren’t ahead, this team isn’t young, they haven’t gelled, and time has more or less expired for the Hawks to “figure it out.” Changes are coming in Atlanta, and although it’s hard to believe with this oblivious ownership, they are coming fast. People have been clamoring for the dissolving of this core since the season started. Those people are about to get their wish.

***

Al Horford tore his left pectoral muscle on January 11th when Roy Hibbert blocked his shot, and apparently his whole body, into the ground. Experts claimed the Hawks were a long shot to make the playoffs, that they would be lucky to get an eight seed, that Horford was the most important player on the team and survival would be either arduous or impossible without him.

That wasn’t the case.

Horford’s absence hurt the Hawks early on, but they found ways to cope. Josh Smith took on an expanded role as he rebounded at a rate we’ve never seen him rebound before. He blocked shots and, to everyone’s dismay, took more jumpers than ever. Despite his deficiencies, it was he more so than Joe Johnson that kept this team afloat all season long. It wasn’t just Smith filling the void, though; Zaza Pachulia stepped up and became surprisingly efficient, always playing physical defense and flaunting an underrated savvy around the hoop. Rookie Ivan Johnson, a blue-collar power forward, came in to relieve Smith and do some of the dirty work. Everyone was forced to step up, and while it was a different player every other game, it seemed like someone was always there.

That’s how we got to where we are now. The Hawks marched their way into the playoffs as a five seed with home court advantage against the ballyhooed Boston Celtics. Pachulia was injured just a week or so before the playoffs started and the post season buzz was minimal around the city. Atlanta shocked a majority of the nation when the Hawks dominated the Celtics for most of Game 1, but Games 2, 3, and 4 restored the basic order of things. In that span the Hawks got blown out by over 20 points, Paul Pierce tebowed, and Willie Green missed a game winner. The world was back in its rightful balance.

Then something changed. Al Horford, who played limited minutes in Game 4, came back with a vengeance in Game 5. He scored 19 points and reeled in 11 boards. He had three steals and three blocks and was the presence that the Hawks had been missing all series long. The Hawks basically played 4-on-5 as they lacked a competent center throughout the first three games (played Dampier and Collins most of the time), yet they were still able to keep their head above water . Things were different with Horford. You had to respect that 15-18 foot jump shot, you had to respect his postgame, and there were no more gimmees around the hoop. He guarded the pick-and-roll well and established a pretty nice p’n’r himself with Jeff Teague. He led the Hawks in his second game back and suddenly the entire tone of the series had shifted. This was a series. The Hawks would not fold. Al Horford was here.

Game 6 was as good a game as any non-biased basketball fan could have hoped for. It was a nail-biting defensive struggle, only so close because of that thumping thing inside Al Horford’s chest. He rallied the troops and gave Atlanta a three point lead before a Pierce layup and Garnett fadeaway ruined it. Before you knew it, Josh Smith fired a jumper, Ray Allen was fouled, and the season was pretty much lost.

Then there’s that last sequence: the Pierce block on Johnson, the Marquis Daniels foul and the blown call. Hawks fans have a legitimate gripe with the referees, but make no mistake about it, that call didn’t cost Atlanta the game. Josh Smith’s jumper cost them the game. Joe Johnson’s inefficiency cost them the game. Al Horford’s missed free throw cost them the game. The opportunities were there, the execution was not.

Except it was. The last play was drawn up beautifully for Horford, and the pass was right on target. Before that play he should have been awarded a single free throw, but the refs blew the call. It happens. While the game certainly seemed to be tilted in Boston’s favor at some junctures, the Hawks cost themselves the win. I was proud of this team regardless. That sinking feeling that ripped me apart after the loss also had an odd since of pride protruding from the angst. I was confused.

They lost. It sucked. But changes are coming.

***

According to ESPN, the Portland Trail Blazers are actively pursuing Rick Sund as their next General Manager. Even if he doesn’t sign with Portland, his contract with Atlanta expires on June 30 and it’s no lock he’ll return. He’s done an admirable job of rebuilding, but the contracts he’s dealt out have often been more than questionable. One can only hope his contract isn’t renewed, but if it is, worse things have happened, and worse GMs have roamed a front office.

Sund isn’t the only one who might not be back with Atlanta next year. Head Coach Larry Drew finished the final year of his contract with the loss to Boston on Thursday night, and it’s safe to say the majority of Hawks supporters don’t want him back. It’s nothing explicitly against Drew—he’s shown the ability to (occasionally) spark the lackadaisical players on this team along with implementing the “let Dwight beat the hell out of us but shut everyone else down” theory. While those have been both helpful and refreshing, as well as an improvement when compared to the former coach Mike Woodson, he still doesn’t show a real mastery of managing the game. His rotations are egregiously terrible and unpredictable, largely because he likes to flex his muscles with some younger players, such as Jeff Teague. He played Erick Dampier (he looks older than my grandpa) in the fourth quarter of a playoff elimination game. Let me repeat: He played. Erick Dampier. In the fourth quarter. Of a playoff elimination game. Drew finds a way to stymie most Hawk runs by taking out the hot hand and inexplicably leaving players producing at a poor rate in over players who have produced much better within the game itself. It’s frustrating and often leads to disastrous results.

If there is in fact a new GM, there will likely be a new coach. With a full front office change, it’s safe to speculate that there will also be some player movement. The first candidate likely on the trading block is Josh Smith. He should have been an all star this year as he posted gaudy numbers and saved a franchise from sure destruction, but he reportedly requested a trade midseason and has been wanting one for quite sometime. Nevertheless, Smith has been a consummate professional in this matter, making his wishes known but still giving everything he has to the franchise by playing balls-to-the-wall every game. A new general manager would likely look to remove any potential enigma, and it’s quite realistic that Smoove will be in a different uniform next season. What could the Hawks get for him? Maybe another fringe all-star player, maybe a nice veteran and a mid-lottery pick. Either way, an attempt to make the team younger and make the pieces fit better would be largely beneficial.

Then there’s the real enigma. Joe Johnson. He’s one of the most overpaid players in the game and doesn’t play balls-to-the-wall every possession. He’s a take it easy, smooth and crafty kind of player (which of course prompted me to make the following wonderfully awful photoshop):

His tendency to kill shot clocks in Iso-Joe mode is one of the main reasons the Hawks were unable to compete with the Celtics late in games. He killed the offensive flow and ignored teammates, waiting 15 seconds until a double came only to dribble out of it for a horrible shot, or force an awful pass that put a teammate in a difficult position with time running low on the shot clock. He can take over games, but lately, he’s more likely to take you out of them.

A new front office could have the balls to tell Gearon and Levenson to amnesty Johnson, or they would at least hopefully have the sense to shop him and see if there are any takers. You can always count on Otis Smith to make a piss poor deal, possibly in a desperation attempt to appease Dwight Howard. Surely others would be willing to take on his contract if it cemented their status as contenders or at least moved them in that direction. He’s about as close to immovable as you get, but he’s not quite there. The Hawks could unload his contract, it would just take some clever management.

Basically, it boils down to this: any new management, if they’re sane, would look to unload Johnson and/or Smith and build around Al Horford, and temporarily, Jeff Teague. There is talent out there, talent the Hawks can get their hands on, talent that can make the Hawks competitors. It just takes the right concoction of management, coaching, and ownership to put everything together, harness all of that talent, and churn out a team of competitors. If past performance is any indication of future performance, the Hawks aren’t in the best of shape. Thankfully, with every new GM comes a renewed sense of hope.

Of course, all of this regime change babble could backfire. For all we know, the Hawks will re-sign Rick Sund and Larry Drew, likely cementing the further attempted cultivation of the current core. That in itself would make this entire argument moot, because neither Sund nor Drew is going to push this franchise in the right direction.

***

It’s too bad the Hawks lost Game 6. It was theirs for the taking, but they couldn’t finish a remarkable comeback. The Smith jump shot that followed KG’s go ahead bucket was the real black mark of the game, a perfect embodiment of the player and of the team.

In fact, Smith’s mere presence and style of play is the ultimate representation of the Hawks as a team. He’s often impossible to handle or defend, flexing his athletic ability on a supreme scale. Unfortunately, there’s the flipside. The inconsistency side. The side when he plays against his strengths, almost unknowingly, to his own detriment. His ability to overcome that is what makes him so special, but ultimately it’s what makes him the up-and-down dominant train wreck that he is.

The Hawks were undermanned all series long and still gave an incredibly valiant effort against a team no one gave them a shot against. Of all the major sporting websites, Chad Ford of ESPN was the only one who picked the Hawks to win the series, and he probably assumed that Pachulia would at least play a single game. After all, he’s been the primary Kevin Garnett defender for quite some time, dating back to 2008 when he literally butted heads with him. It was Garnett who dug the Hawks’ grave in Game 6, but regardless of his dominance I can’t help but be immensely proud of this team. We fought back. We trailed by nine points halfway through the fourth quarter. I was ready to turn the TV off, but Al Horford kept it on. He did everything he could to overcome an atrocious first three quarters and pump life into the Hawks with a pure shot of adrenaline.

Once the game ended I didn’t move for literally 10 minutes. I turned off the TV and stayed on my couch, staring at a black screen, wondering why the Celtics always play the role of big brother. Why can’t the Hawks ever beat them when it counts? The Hawks franchise fell to 1-10 in the all time playoff series against the Celtics, the only win coming in 1958 when the St. Louis Hawks beat a Bill Russell-less (injured) Boston team for the NBA Championship.

It sucks to have a rival continue to beat up on you every time you see them in the playoffs. It largely decreases a sense of hope and optimism. On that note, this wasn’t as epic as the 2008 Hawks-Celtics series and the fans weren’t as into it either. Don’t get me wrong—I loved hearing chants of “A-T-L” and “Paul Pierce Sucks!” in Philips, but the overall energy wasn’t the same. It couldn’t be matched. The fans in Atlanta have been around the block with this team. They’ve seen them enough to know what to expect, especially without Al Horford for three games, Josh Smith for a game, and Pachulia for the entire series. They thought the Hawks would wilt like a willow. That’s what I thought. I believed I had this team figured out, then two games from Al Horford made me re-evaluate my opinion. It hasn’t changed, but by the looks of things, there’s a chance it changes soon.

There’s also a chance it doesn’t.

 

Tags: Al Horford Atlanta Hawks Boston Celtics Bruce Levenson Chad Ford Dwight Howard Erick Dampier Jason Collins Jeff Teague Joe Johnson Josh Smith Kevin Garnett Larry Drew Marquis Daniels Michael Gearon Mike Woodson Otis Smith Paul Pierce Portland Trail Blazers Ray Allen Rick Sund Roy Hibbert Zaza Pachulia

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