Nowhere men: The suffocating nothingness of the Atlanta Hawks

Jay Croucher Columnist

By Jay Croucher, Jay Croucher is a Roar Expert

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    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.

    Atlanta Hawks Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll

    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.

    Dennis Schroder for the Atlanta Hawks. Image: YouTube.

    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.

    Jay Croucher
    Jay Croucher

    From MSG in New York to the MCG in Melbourne, Jay has spent his adult life travelling the world, indulging in sport and approaching it from the angle of history and pop culture. Follow him on Twitter @CroucherJD

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    The Crowd Says (4)

    • March 21st 2017 @ 1:02pm
      joe said | March 21st 2017 @ 1:02pm | ! Report

      Atlanta is a bad sports town in general.None of their teams have ever had much success & the fans there don’t care a whole lot either.
      Even with the heyday of the Braves with Maddux,Smoltz,Glavine & Chipper Jones they only ever won 1 World Series.For a lineup that great to win only 1 is a letdown & they couldn’t sell out playoff games half the time.
      Probably the most rabid team support at any time was the Michael Vick led Falcons.
      Atlanta is a predominantly black city & the fans there loved Vick & we saw how that all ended.
      The Hawks are nothing.Its a great place for opposing teams to visit as Atlanta has a ton of bigtime strip joints & pro athletes flock to them bigtime.Atlanta is a big party scene.

      • March 21st 2017 @ 3:21pm
        no one in particular said | March 21st 2017 @ 3:21pm | ! Report

        Atlanta is strange. The Hawks are an Atlanta team, but the Braves are a Georgia team. i watched Atlanta Utds opener at Bobby Dodd and that place was rocking

    • March 21st 2017 @ 3:22pm
      no one in particular said | March 21st 2017 @ 3:22pm | ! Report

      Who would have though the addition of serial pest Dwight Howard would have a team rocketing to mediocrity

    • March 22nd 2017 @ 9:14am
      Swampy said | March 22nd 2017 @ 9:14am | ! Report

      Dwight is from Atlanta is he not? Bit of a homecoming for him. Probably a bit happier off court these days.

      Two years ago the Hawks had primes of Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague along with a defensive menace in Demarre Carroll off the splinters. Tabo Sefalosha busted his leg in a non-basketball related incident and their window disappeared as they petered out against an unholy force of nature in the playoffs.

      This current iteration of the Hawks bears little semblance to the 60 win team.

      Surely though if they chose not to resign Milsap then they would have massive salary cap space

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