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The Atlanta Hawks will soon be a playoff lock

Mar 25, 2011, 10:30 PM EDT

Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Atlanta Hawks AP

With a win tonight, the Atlanta Hawks have a chance to lock up a spot in the playoffs. As we know, merely making an appearance in the postseason cures all ills; no malady can withstand the tide of good feelings that comes from playing in bonus basketball games, and the Hawks will be reborn again as Phoenixes once Game 82 is in the books. Right?

Cue Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Normally [securing a playoff spot] would be a footnote considering that a postseason berth has been a formality for a while. But with the way things are going for the Hawks, making it official would give them something to feel good about. “For the psyche, it would be great,” coach Larry Drew said Friday, “having gone through what we have gone through this month.”

It actually has been longer than that: Starting with a 117-83 loss to Philadelphia on Feb. 8, the Hawks have lost 14 of 21 games. They are 4-8 this month despite playing 10 home games. That loss to Philadelphia is one of three at home by at least 30 points this season. If the Hawks (40-32) earn 42 victories they would become the only winning team in NBA history to suffer that many lopsided home losses, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

…After an initial improvement in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) following the trade for guard Kirk Hinrich last month, the Hawks are struggling to slow opponents. Four of their past five opponents have scored more than 100 points, including middling offensive teams Chicago and Philadelphia. The Hawks’ offense has regressed, too. Last season the Hawks were No. 3 in the NBA in offensive efficiency. After ranking in the top third of the 30-team league for most of this season, they’ve slipped to 20th.

As bad as the numbers look, the Hawks’ intangibles have been worse. Drew said the team is “fragile” and gives in to adversity. Forward Josh Smith said the Hawks don’t back up each other. Horford said they need to be mentally tougher. Guard Joe Johnson has seemed most despondent, lamenting after the past two losses that all the players’ talk hasn’t resulted in action.

Playing the playoffs is, in itself, an accomplishment. But for a team as troubled as this year’s Hawks, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. Securing a postseason berth not only fails to solve those items in Cunningham’s laundry list in his final paragraph, but it also won’t repair Atlanta’s broken rotations, magically put the ball in Al Horford‘s hands, or prevent the Hawks from settling into poor isolation possessions. This is a playoff team and nothing more, and considering the same could be said of the Hawks of the last three seasons, it seems safe to say that the franchise has settled into a comfortable mediocrity.

The Hawks need work. From Larry Drew’s rotation to Josh Smith’s body language, this team is in need of change in a big way, and that’s not going to come overnight or even over a few weeks. It will require superficial adjustments, sure, but also substantive ones; a subtle re-allocation of shots or minutes won’t solve the Hawks’ problems or make them contenders. It’s going to take creative financing and actual player movement for Atlanta to make any kind of legitimate step forward, and unfortunately for Drew, it might possibly require a new head coach. It’s not Drew’s fault that his perimeter defenders can’t stay in front of their defensive assignments, but it’s on him that some of Atlanta’s more effective players stay glued to the bench while regulars do things I can only hope he didn’t ask them to do. There’s no system of accountability in Atlanta, and that’s a damning problem.

The Hawks may make the playoffs today, but as Cunningham noted, it should only be a formality. Atlanta’s entire campaign is something of a formality these days, and the same will be said of every subsequent one until this roster undergoes significant changes.

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