Deep in the heart of the south, in a place marked by crisscrossing highways and oppressive heat; an NBA franchise and its fans live in dull, apathetic pain. The strange ownership saga that began back in 2005 when the Atlanta Spirit group purchased the team is finally over, but the 2011 team, like its predecessors dating back to the Dominique Wilkins days seem destined to forever be a potential playoff spoiler and nothing more. Where Nique’s Hawks were at least entertaining, this bunch has become plodding and predictable (they ranked 27th out of 30 teams in pace last year).
The Hawks’ current path can be traced back to July 8th, 2010 when they made the decision to re-sign a then 29-year-old Joe Johnson to a six-year, $119million deal that will wind up paying him just under $25million in 2016, when he’s 35. This is the same Joe Johnson who’s made just one All NBA team (and it was an All NBA Third team) in his ten-year career. The same Joe Johnson who completed the 2010-11 season with his least productive numbers since 2006 and he’s going to be eating up nearly half of Atlanta’s cap space for the foreseeable future.
Then there’s Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague who provide at least a glimmer beyond the dull glow of an annual second round playoff defeat. I’m trying to find something to get excited about with this team, but I’ve seen them play, there’s just not much to look forward to. At least last year Jamal Crawford had the imagination to occasionally captivate the audience. Now there’s just Jeff Teague; a 23-year-old point guard entering his third year enveloped in hopeful curiosity after his performance as a fill-in for the injured Kirk Hinrich in the playoffs. Teague could be what the Hawks have previously resisted (I won’t revisit the painful details of the 2005 draft): a pace-pushing starting point guard. The eight-game audition last spring isn’t enough to start pulling back flips and actually buying tickets to Hawks’ games, but at least it’s a departure from what’s become routine from Joe, Horford and Josh Smith (stop shooting those threes!).
With $65million committed to just nine players they have under contract, don’t expect many recognizable free agents heading to Atlanta. And since they had just one pick in the 2011 draft (Keith Benson from Oakland University), we’ll see the same crew they trotted out last year—minus Crawford and with Teague seeing more of a featured role early in the season while Hinrich recovers from shoulder surgery.
It’s not all bad though. With Boston’s big three getting older and losing some of that bark (looking at you, KG) and Orlando being distracted by new trade rumors every day, there’s an opportunity for the Hawks to be the third best team in the conference. It seems like the front office is content in that three-to-five range where they’re guaranteed to make the playoffs and, so their logic seems, at least have a chance to win it all. I blame these low expectations directly on the 2008 playoffs when the upstart eight-seed Hawks captivated the basketball world by taking the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the first round. It was at that time that someone in Atlanta’s front office came to the conclusion that the underdog can win in the NBA and the teams they’ve built over the past three seasons have reflected that flawed rationale.
I’m sure the good marketing people in Atlanta are cooking up some compelling reasons to support the Hawks, but until this team redesigns its aesthetic and commitment to winning, I’d be hard pressed to spend money watching this them and based on last year’s attendance numbers, the residents of the Peach State agree.