For the past half decade, the Atlanta Hawks were slowly building a team worthy of challenging the NBA's elite. They made incremental improvements every season, mostly because they committed to their core and fine-tuned their style. But after a second straight second-round playoff defeat, it looks like the Hawks may have finally plateaued.
At least it looks like that right now.
It certainly didn't look like that at times last season. The Hawks raced off to a fast start, challenging for the top spot in the Eastern Conference for the first half of the season. A four-game sweep of the Boston Celtics seemed like a symbol of a changing of the guard in the Eastern Conference. Young star Josh Smith, an enigma for much of his NBA career, finally blossomed, and his emergence seemed to validate the Hawks' general strategy of maintaining continuity. The one new piece the team integrated, Jamal Crawford, had his best year on his way to being named the NBA's top sixth man. Atlanta slumped a bit to end the season, but with 53 wins, it looked like they would be a serious threat in the Eastern Conference.
Then, the playoffs rolled around, and Atlanta struggled. They needed seven games to dispatch a Milwaukee Bucks team playing without Andrew Bogut, even going down 3-2 before rallying. Then, they were dismantled by the Orlando Magic, losing four straight games by an average margin of 25.3 points, the most in NBA history for a four-game series. Considering the sweep comes one year after the Hawks were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the 2009 playoffs, it seemed like as good a time as any for sweeping changes.
Instead, the Hawks reaffirmed their commitment in their status quo, in a big way. They gave free-agent all-star guard Joe Johnson a six-year, $127 million contract, a staggering figure to a 29-year old player who has logged a ton of minutes over the past few years. All the key players return, and the front office didn't do much to upgrade the roster. It's essentially the same team that's flamed out in the second round over the past couple years.
Well, sort of, at least. The Hawks did make one major move, firing coach Mike Woodson and replacing him with his lead assistant, Larry Drew. Drew is promising to change the Hawks' style into one that emphasizes ball movement, hoping to eliminate the isolation-heavy offense that broke down in the playoffs. He's also hoping to change the defensive gameplan from one that relies heavily on switching screens to one that's more conventional.
SB Nation's Hawks blog Peachtree Hoops writes that Drew has at least said the right things.
Typically I would say that when a fresh direction is desired then it is not wise to replace an outgoing head coach with an assistant from his own staff. With that said, Drew has sounded like the polar opposite of Mike Woodson this off season. He has said all the right things in promising less iso sets and more movement on offense, scrapping switching every screen on defense, and more playing time with an opportunity to win a starting job for Jeff Teague. The challenge will be in getting the players to buy into his new fresh schemes and having that talk translate to happening on the court.
If Drew is successful at getting his players to change, it will fix two things that's caused the playoff flameouts of the last couple of years. However, it could also open up other weaknesses, as Peachtree Hoops notes:
Well, the biggest two [weaknesses] (iso-offense and switch-a-roo defense) are supposedly going to be revised by Drew, but as those holes are patched, will any other open up? The Hawks have been strong in turnover rate the past few seasons, but will that change with a more ball moving offense?
The good news for Hawks fans is that, regardless of style, a core of Johnson, Smith and Al Horford is pretty good, at least in the short term. There's also a good chance the Hawks start fast for the third straight year, since other teams will need time to work in key new pieces. That could lead to a season that ends up a lot like last year in terms of wins, but could work out better in the playoffs, when it matters.
But there's also the dangerous downside, which involves the players bristling at Drew's suggestions and generally growing tired of each other. Drew has earned the head coaching position with many years on the sidelines as an assistant, but he still is a first-time head coach trying to get a bunch of well-compensated players to play much differently than the way that made them successful over the past few years. The guy that needs to change his style most is Johnson, and he's the one that just signed an $127 million contract largely based on how he previously played. This is one concern Peachtree Hoops raised in its preview.
With all the discussion about Joe's big deal and the Larry Drew hire based on the significant changes promised on offense and defense, I wonder about putting the two issues together. After all, if the Hawks aren't immediately successful in a new motion offense, will Joe Johnson-buoyed by the power in his contract---decide to take matters, and the offense, into his own hands if he's not comfortable or satisfied?
Worse, the future is also cloudy for the Hawks. NBA teams that stick together too long without any championship-level success often grow tired of each other even in the best of times, and this is certainly not the best of times for the Hawks. Two key players -- Horford and Crawford -- are free agents after this season, and neither has received a contract extension. Crawford is already griping about his situation, while Horford could very easily get away from doing the little things that's helped the Hawks so much over the years if he's to play for a new contract. Throw it all together, and there are a lot of red flags.
The two Peachtree Hoops writers are optimistic the Hawks will continue to be a good team, predicting 50-32 and 52-30 records, respectively. I'm much more pessimistic. I'll say the Hawks dip to 45-37, and I'm starting to wonder if even that's optimistic.