When I started this blog, I wrote about the Hawks as much as any of Atlanta’s teams. This made little sense when the team was 13-69 and seemingly headed to drafting Chris Paul. It made more sense as the team gradually improved. This fall, I’ve found it hard to get back into the Hawks, despite the fact that they are coming off of a 53-win season. There are a couple reasons for this. First, I was dispirited last year by the fact that this market didn’t respond to finally having a winner in the NBA. The Hawks finished 18th in attendance despite putting a quality product on the floor. After years of defending basketball fans in this city by saying that they would support a winner and fans who support a loser send the wrong message to ownership, it hurt to see plenty of empty seats when the Hawks finally produced a winner. (And yes, I see the contradiction in a post in which I complain about not feeling connected to the Hawks because other people don’t feel connected to the Hawks.) The lesson I took from last year is that this is a good basketball market and a good NBA market (the ratings for the NBA playoffs are consistently strong here), but it isn’t a good Hawks market. We’re like a town in Spain where all of the locals support Real Madrid or Barca instead of the local team.
The second source of my ennui is the Hawks’ performance in the playoffs last year. The performance against the Bucks was ugly. I can’t get the fourth quarter of game five out of my head, when the Hawks got clobbered by a short-handed Bucks team and seemingly pissed away the season. The team did fight back to win games six and seven, but the overriding question was why the Hawks were even in the position to have to fight against a Bucks team without Andrew Bogut. Then, the performance against the Magic was embarrassing. The Hawks had built for five years towards that series: a second-round tilt against one of the three favorites in the East. The team barely showed up. I went to game three and left at the end of the third quarter with a rancid taste in my mouth. That taste lasted for the entire offseason.
The third reason why I’m having a hard time getting back into the local pro basketball collective is that it doesn’t seem to have a future. The response of management to the embarrassing playoff exit was to re-sign Joe Johnson to a massive contract, thus cementing in place a nucleus that had just failed on the big stage. Maybe Atlanta Spirit and Rick Sund made the best of a collection of bad options, but it is hard to get excited knowing that we are going to see the same collection of players for the next several years after that collection reached a nadir against the Magic. Maybe the team will keep growing together, but there is an overriding feeling that we are set of for repeated disappointment with the team’s bete noire – the Magic – in the same division to deliver more punishment four times per year. The fact that the Heat assembled their mega-squad in the Southeast division is also a problem. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Hawks are condemned for eternity to third-place finishes (and that assumes that the John Wall-led Wizards don’t rise up).
The Michael from 2005 would have punched 2010 Michael in the face for being less than enthusiastic about a Hawks teams that has made the second round of the playoffs twice and had the #3 seed last spring. 2005 Michael was excited when Section 317 got free burritos because the team on the court was rarely competitive. Put another way, I feel a little guilty about my sense of ho-hum about these Hawks. Still, the pervading sense that the Hawks have no chance against the Magic and Heat is dispiriting. When the Hawks were good in the second half of the 80s, the town was excited by the team not only because Nique & company were fun to watch, but also because they had a chance of competing with the Celtics and Pistons. The ‘94 Hawks were less pleasing to watch, but they had a chance of winning the NBA title. The late 90s Hawks were never going to beat the Bulls, but there was always the hope that they would be in position to win the East after Jordan retired. (Hence the disappointment after the sweep at the hands of the Knicks in ‘99 and the resulting decision to blow the team up. That rebuilding process lasted until this current group of Hawks matured. Come to think of it, Atlanta Spirit’s decision to keep this team together makes sense if you use the last decade as a guide.) This team is as good as those three iterations of the Hawks, but the combination of the struggles against the Magic and the Heat putting a top team together is dispiriting because it removes the hope (illusion?) that this Hawks team can play into June.
So, here we are. The Hawks are 5-0. Their victims are collectively 5-12 in their games against the Hawks and it’s not as if the Hawks have been beating their opponents like drums. The next two games – at Minnesota and home against Phoenix – are both winnable. That would make the Hawks 7-0 for their first trip to Orlando. That game will be very important, at least for my level of interest in the team. I want to see this core show something that they haven’t shown before. A good performance against the Magic would qualify.