The Atlanta Hawks are not good and they are not bad – they are an enduring, bitterly resilient nothing.
Two years ago they were everything. They were beyond just successful – their success was that rare, inspiring kind that made you believe in a better basketball world. Maybe you didn’t need extraordinary physical talent to thrive. Perhaps teamwork, altruism, discipline and intelligence were enough to go all the way.
That Hawks team seems like a lifetime ago, but its memory is still clear and powerful enough to poison their present.
The triumph of 2014-15 – a 60-win team and number one seed with a leading scorer who averaged 16.7 points per game – appears to have trapped Atlanta in a gyre of merciless respectability.
The Hawks have no discernible plan beyond just being the Hawks. They continue to do the same things that produced that miraculous four All-Star no superstar season, but magic has abandoned them.
They try and play Moneyball basketball, searching for values and market inefficiencies, and attempting to unearth competence from typically barren sources. They don’t give out long-term, franchise-asphyxiating deals, favouring a future with oxygen over a present with adrenalin. The problem is, through this process, their heart has stopped beating.
The Hawks are the most ‘blah’ team in the NBA right now. They’re 19th in the league by net rating, with an anaemic offence that scores at a rate worse than the Lakers. Their record (37-32) is deceptive, inflated by a 4-0 mark in overtime games. The advanced stats suggest they’re a team that should actually be 32-37.
Beyond the mediocrity in the numbers, there’s a joylessness – the type that can only come from profound meaninglessness – that pervades Atlanta games. This is a team coming from almost somewhere, and now stuck in the ditch of nowhere.
It feels like Dennis Schroeder should be fun to watch, and occasionally he is, with those slithering Rondo-when-he-was-a-real-basketball-player drives to the rim. But for the most part he’s just frustrating, someone who often settles when he should attack, and attacks when he should settle. There’s something off in the wiring of the Schroder machine, and his haphazard play, fairly or not, seems to give credence to the idea that he’s a complicated and niggling personality off the court.
Speaking of Dwight Howard, the NBA’s best centre since Shaquille O’Neal has had a dead silent renaissance this season, staving off a basketball funeral that seemed to be nigh. With age and injuries reducing his athleticism from ‘nuclear’ to merely ‘impressive’, Howard’s scoring is never coming back – he doesn’t have Bruce Wayne’s smarts to endure when the costume is gone.
But he’s crashing the boards at a career best per-36 minutes rate and anchoring the league’s fourth best defence. He’s never going to be especially fun to watch, though, and the sad (although becoming strangely honourable) epilogue to his prime only adds to the Atlanta melancholy. It makes sense that Dwight, a still respectable player fallen far from relevance, has found his home on the Atlanta Hawks.
On most nights, the only real reason to watch the Hawks is to marvel at the genius of Paul Millsap. The NBA’s quietest star, someone who seems as out of place in the All-Star game as Daniel Day-Lewis would at a Zac Efron party, Millsap has put up another stellar season, marrying savvy offence that can be both violent and delicate to a typical stout, hyper-aware defensive presence.
But with Millsap and Kent Bazemore nursing troublesome knees, the Hawks are limping into the playoffs, and the first round looms as an inevitable six-game series loss. Only when eliminated will the Hawks become interesting again, faced with arguably the offseason’s saddest dilemma.
Millsap has been a magnificent Hawk, with All-Star appearances in all four of his Atlanta years. But he’s 32 and entering unrestricted free agency, where he’s going to demand franchise-altering money. If the Hawks pay the max to retain Millsap, who is already breaking down and shooting the lowest percentage of his career, that contract is going to be a disaster of Deron Williams in Brooklyn proportions.
If the Hawks let him walk for nothing, which they should unless they can get him on a favourable contract (say, big money, short length – three years, $90 million), they will have to deal with the embarrassment of back-to-back years of franchise players leaving with zero compensation.
This is Atlanta’s situation, not quite as dire as their football team’s Super Bowl, but hardly blossoming with hope.
The memory of the joy that the 14-15 Hawks played with – the whipped passes, the infectious skill and selflessness, the image of a spaced floor so modern and wonderful it belonged in a pretentious French museum – makes the visions of the present even more irreconcilable – Millsap driving defiantly but bleakly into a crowded lane, Schroder ignoring the open pick and pop player to jack a bad contested two.
It’s been a gradual fall in results, but a steep one in existence. It’s a fall, ultimately, that speaks to the NBA’s most relevant truth, one that we all knew and the Hawks briefly appeared capable of disproving – if you don’t have a superstar, you’re nowhere: home of the Hawks.