Mediocrity is a term that unfortunately comes to mind when thinking back to the Atlanta Hawks’ record in the NBA. 1958 marks the only Championship winning season in their history, when previously situated in St. Louis. Despite hall of famers including Pete Maravich, Moses Malone and most notably Dominique Wilkins donning the famous red jersey, middling playoff finishes are the best that they’ve managed to muster.
One can’t seem to pinpoint the reason as to why Atlanta has underachieved so often. Whether it’s the quality of basketball, a weak brand, or just a simple sense of ordinariness, there is no doubt that the Hawks cannot seem to find a solution. There are common stretches in their last three to four decades where a run of playoff appearances is instantly followed by a wretched sequence. This was evident from the 99-00 season where they couldn’t finish above the eleventh seed for eight straight years.
Recently, the lack of answers has been purely down to LeBron James’ sheer dominance in the game, having been swept twice by the four-time MVP and his Cleveland cohorts. However, the Hawks have only faced a team led by James thrice in their history, signalling a far deeper issue at hand.
The image of Atlanta and its basketball team is arguably one concern that the city hasn’t been able to shake off. Free agents have clearly never seen the capital of Georgia as an attractive move, visible from a lack of big name players to grace the city. It is true that the Hawks have somehow managed more Hall of Famers than the Chicago Bulls, but this means nothing when comparing the levels of success between the two teams. When put into context, arguably just Maravich and Wilkins can be regarded as the only high profile players that spent their primes in Atlanta.
Some point to where the organisation lies on the map. Cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles will always have the advantage of being able to sell the magic of their locations. In comparison to such huge markets, Atlanta have done relatively well in keeping relevant, particularly amongst other teams that are in a similar situation. Staying competitive and making the playoffs for nine straight seasons since 2007 is a position some teams dream of.
With unpredictable organisations such as the Knicks running wild in absurd bids to construct winning teams, the Hawks have remained stable, pursuing a sensible build revolving around promising draft picks including Jeff Teague and Al Horford. But perhaps this is the issue itself. Perhaps a reputation for being safe and inevitably unexciting is the reason that many are turned off. There never seems to be much expectation surrounding the Hawks and even when they reach the Eastern Conference finals, the reaction to a limp defeat is simply ‘they did well’.
Coach Mike Budenholzer is regarded as a safe pair of hands, but he was undoubtedly also a clever appointment. A disciple of the Gregg Popovich system, Budenholzer spent seventeen years as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, reportedly playing a major part in winning five NBA titles. Upon his departure from the Spurs, Pop commented “his knowledge of the game as well as his ability to teach and develop relationships with players are all special”. This is unquestionably high praise from a man considered by most as one of the greatest coaches of all time.
Therefore, having a coach who is familiar with a successful system is only a positive that many other teams desperately crave. The 2014-15 season demonstrated exactly this as the Hawks charged to an exceptional 60-22 record and finished first in the regular season, before falling to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals. Although the team was talented, its ceiling was seemingly in view and this was no fault of Budenholzer. Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Al Horford are talents that have made the All-Star team in their careers, but the potential of this group had been all but achieved before the board made the decision to make a fresh start this summer.
This started with Jeff Teague being traded to the Pacers in order for the young German Dennis Schröder to break out as the team’s leading point guard. Schröder impressed in his last two seasons as Teague’s back-up, at times usurping him in the line-up in the latter stages of games. Whether this change at the point will work is completely unknown at this stage, but a gamble is precisely what was needed in Atlanta. Al Horford also chose to flee to Boston, in search of a much needed new beginning. In response, the Hawks took another punt by signing (former) Superman, the one and only Dwight Howard.
Howard is an enigma. Drafted by the Orlando Magic in 2004 with the number one overall pick, he developed into one of the best centers in the league, winning Defensive Player of the Year three times in a row. However since his days at Orlando, his career path has gone astray. Frustrated at a lack of success in Orlando, Howard left for the Los Angeles Lakers in hope that teaming up with Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash to form the latest ‘big three’ would result in instant progress. It didn’t. Instead, friction and disunity plagued Howard’s stint in LA and similar problems continued after he bolted to Houston. The assumption that he’d be the first option proved to be his downfall, as the frustration of playing second fiddle behind Bryant and subsequently James Harden reached boiling point. This was only aggravated further once the media latched onto the story, in turn transforming it into a circus.
Though this is where things get interesting for the former Rocket. Howard needs a new opportunity to flourish, and the Hawks were in search of a top centre and a big name in the wake of Horford’s farewell. Theoretically he should benefit from a pass-first point guard in Schröder and the lack of big egos could pave the way for Dwight to reclaim his superhero status.
His desire has been criticised for a number of years but the fact that he is essentially performing a LeBron by returning to his hometown could change this. Other teams opted against taking a chance on him, especially when taking his financial demands into account. This is telling, as the Howard of Orlando would’ve received a max-contract from every team at the bat of an eyelid, which says a lot about his reputation in today’s game. “Why do you think people don’t like you?” was the blunt question recently put to Howard by Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, as he sought to understand why Howard’s presence has alienated teammates in previous endeavours. It’s unfair to fully blame him when the Lakers created an environment that was far from positive, and the existence of James Harden in Houston as a teammate would leave any top player in the league disengaged. Hence, the move to Atlanta will give a unique insight into Howard’s character when trying to mesh within a new team.
Familiar surroundings will add a sense of comfort and a warmer reception from the fans should result in a happier and more determined Howard. If he does return to his devastating best, injuries withstanding, the Atlanta Hawks could genuinely challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers due to a roster brimming with fresh ideas. There is little doubt that a starting line-up consisting of Dwight, Millsap, Schröder and a returning Kent Bazemore can make noise in the East. But if one thing that is certain, it’s that the organisation in Atlanta has finally decided to break the mould and alter a situation that had reached a dead end.
When analysing the Hawks, a quote from Academy Award winning picture ‘Whiplash’ comes to mind on the subject of success. The character of Terence Fletcher, an insane jazz instructor, asserts in a fit of rage: “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job”. His methods may be extreme, but his objectives are attained because of this. The quote should be engraved in the Hawk’s dressing room, as with a little faith and a change in mind-set, the franchise can, at the very least, lift their ceiling a little higher to where it should be.