Sunday, February 22, 2015

Are the Atlanta Hawks for Real?

It's the best squad the ATL has seen in ages, but it's still premature to crown them as NBA Champions.

The magic in Atlanta was unmistakable. With a new coach in town, the luckless Hawks were flying high, with a starting five that was shooting the lights out every game ... and they played just as well on the defensive side of the ball.

They locked up their division, and more or less coasted to the top-seed in the Eastern Conference (even if they did end up tying with the Knicks for best overall conference record.) With mile-high expectations, the Hawks pounded their way through the eighth-seeded Heat, and then ... they got bounced out in the second round by the Pacers.

The fate of the 1993-94 Hawks seems to have been forgotten by most Atlanta sports fans. While the 2014-15 team is unquestionably the best one to take the court in Atlanta in almost 20 years, the insane amount of  homer optimism/bandwagonism that's taken middle Georgia by storm -- some are already declaring them favorites to take home the gold hardware at season's end -- is likely to come crashing down much sooner than later.

That's not to say the current squad isn't talented. Kyle Korver is on track to have a statistic-shattering season, DeMarre Carroll is an absolute beast and the golden triangle of Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Al Hofford is certainly one of -- if not the -- best triple threats in the league. And that's not to leave out a talented bench that includes the likes of Elton Brand and John Jenkins.

The thing is, the '93-'94 Hawks roster was just as loaded, even after Dominique Wilkins was traded at the midpoint of the season. Augmon, Blaylock (who, as fate would have it, is now staring down some serious pokey time for vehicular homicide) Manning, Ehlo ... those dudes could definitely put some points on the board. As are the highly-touted '14-'15 Hawks, theirs was a team sans that one breakout player, instead focusing on defensive fundamentals and spreading the ball around.

Coach Bud has no doubt turned the Hawks into the San Antonio Spurs lite and the results speak for themselves. The problem -- and this is what I think really hampers the team heading into the playoffs -- is that they lack that one explosive, marquee player who can turn a game around and start raining buckets. The Hawks today don't have an MJ or a Kobe, that instant game-changer who can just drain threes and twos left-and-right and get the team up by double digits over the course of two minutes.

After that stellar 19-game win streak, the Hawks have since gone sub .500, with their first game after the all-star break being a 20-point pummeling at the hands of the Raptors, an offensive-heavy team that, earlier this season, it seemed like the Hawks had figured out. While it's probably a bit early to start thinking about a mid-season collapse, it's definitely indicative of the team's big weakness -- as good as the defense is, what happens when the rebounds and steals just aren't happening and the team falls behind by double digits?

While the 14-15 Hawks have had their share of close losses, a staggering number of their defeats have been rather surprising blowouts. And even in the games they win, the team has a tendency to let their opponents crawl back in despite sometimes leading by 20-plus points. Although the Hawks may have scored a huge victory at home over them, do not mistake this team for Stephen Curry's Warriors, whose points per game vs. points allowed per game differential is nearly twice that of the Hawks. The team may be a well-oiled one,but I am afraid the Highlight Factory isn't exactly manufacturing the soundest offensive product in the league.

Regular season streaks really don't mean anything. In 2008, the Rockets won 22 in a row and didn't even make it to the second round of the playoffs. Being a great 82-game team is one thing, but being a great postseason team requires something else entirely. Defensive fundamentals may have worked for the late 1980s Pistons and the 2003 Spurs, but more times than not, it's the team with the most dynamic, lights-out explosive offensive production that winds up with the rings. Lest we forget, while the Spurs may have bested Lebron and the Heat last year, Miami was able to outpace both the Spurs and the Thunder the two years prior. On top of that, how could we forget the three-point bonanza Mavs outscoring the all-star Heat in 2011? The old football maxim is inverted for pro basketball; defense wins games, but offense wins championships.

As far as the ultimate fate of this year's team, I think the Hawks will still wind up with the best record in the Eastern Conference ... failing any major injuries to the big five, obviously. First round upsets almost never happen in the NBA, so I see the Hawks easily besting the lukewarm Heat or the Bobcats or whatever bullshit team comes in as an eighth-seed. Assuming the Bulls, Wizards or Raptors wind up as a third seed -- which means a team like the Bucks or Nets would be their first round opponent -- I also see the Hawks getting by, albeit perhaps in a six or maybe even seven game series.

Alas, I just don't see the Hawks getting past the Eastern finals, and the team that will almost certainly be their last in-conference opponent  -- the Cavs. Yes, Lebron and company may be off to a slower-than-expected start, but they're arguably the most dangerous offensive threat in the conference. The Hawks can feasibly steal a game or two away from them, but when Cleveland gets off and running (don't forget, Irving and Love are  pretty bad mofos themselves) and the Hawks defense slips, I just see them falling into a funk they can't escape from. Pending they do somehow punch a ticket to the championship series, I think their chances are even worse ... I don't think ANY team is going to wrest four games away from the Warriors, and other contenders like Memphis, the Clippers and even the Spurs have defensive cores that would give Atlanta fits.

That's not to say the team doesn't have championship capabilities, though. Although I've never really been a huge Hawks fan (or a fan of any Atlanta-area team, for that matter), I'd probably hop on the bandwagon and cheer my lungs out heading down the stretch regardless. Win or lose, a seven game series against Lebron would be a sight to behold, and if it does come down to an Atlanta vs. Oakland or Atlanta vs. Memphis finals, I would be positively glued to my TV screen for two weeks. Or hey, what about the Hawks and the Clippers going toe-to-toe in the conference finals? I, for one, would be plum thrilled with the first ever "Racial Sensitivity Series."

Even if the Hawks do not win a championship this year, I still think they are a sound team destined for great things. I would certainly think the management would keep the core unit together -- Korver, Millsap, Teague and Horford -- but I think the upper brass will likely try to ship out DeMarre, and possibly Elton Brand, in the offseason for that one missing piece that could net them a championship in 2016. Having an Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins-type impact player could certainly make Atlanta a bona-fide title threat overnight, and even a Damiam Lillard or Jimmy Butler could shake things up enough to give the team a true, championship-caliber offense.

Just keep your fingers crossed that the Hawks won't be celebrating that inevitable championship in the Pacific northwest, Atlanta sports fans...


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