The Atlanta Hawks have chosen their destiny, as have many other teams this offseason. But in contrast to the Lakers, Heat, or Celtics, who have each chosen a path that can lead to greatness and a championship, the Hawks aimed for mediocrity and they’ve got it.
With consistent success under Mike Woodson, the Hawks on paper looked like a young, up-and-coming athletic team with lots of room to grow and with an improving record each of the past 6 seasons, they looked poised to join the elite of the league. But in watching them play, especially in the Playoffs against the Orlando Magic, and it is easy to see that they’ve reached their potential, with nowhere else to go.
Heading into the offseason, the Hawks had just been demolished in the Playoffs by a strong Orlando team, and although the fact that they lost was nothing to be ashamed of, the method by which they were dismantled was quite disheartening. The Magic outhustled, outplayed, and out muscled the Hawks in every facet, and at times Atlanta looked barely like a team, with bickering egos and personalities and worst of all, a disinterested looking superstar and lethargic all-around play.
Joe Johnson has been Atlanta’s go-to guy for the past 4 or 5 years, and as the top dog, he pretty much defines the successes of his team – they can only go as far as he can take them. But what he has shown so far is mediocre to decent shooting touch and pretty decent all around play, but nothing extraordinary and most definitely nothing that would indicate a championship on the horizon for the Hawks. He has been at best a solid All-Star but more by default than anything else, with pretty unspectacular and worse, inconsistent play.
Johnson has averaged a decent 20-5-5, but clearly lacks the leadership skills and burning desire necessary to carry a team, so although the Hawks can win 53 games in a season, without a dominant legitimate top dog they consistently floundered in the postseason. The team, and Johnson, seemed to disregard their coaching, and showed a hardheadedness and lack of discipline that served to sever the remnants of team chemistry that were already a bit lacking within the Hawk locker room. The burden of responsibility for the team’s implosion, an embarrassing loss to the Magic, falls on the shoulders of the superstar, Johnson. He was unable to rally the troops and keep everyone on the same page, and when a team loses its leadership, it is rendered utterly ineffective.
But what makes the scenario even worse for JJ is that in spite of his disinterested, lackadaisical, but also stubborn play was that he didn’t produce even his regular season averages, instead looking like a pouty, useless sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing. He left the floor to boos from the Hawks’ home crowd, but showed no remorse for his play and didn’t have a hint of embarrassment for his lack of assertion. In fact, he sounded a bit defiant, and fired back at the Hawk crowd.
He entered the offseason as a 29 year old shooting guard free agent who shoots jumpshots at a middling percentage and gave up on his team in the postseason while also clashing with coaching and left his previous team (Phoenix Suns) at the height of their power for more money and more shots elsewhere. I, like everyone else in the league who felt bad for the Hawks, was praying they wouldn’t be so stupid as to want him back; they could go a lot further by trying for a better player, or keeping their cap room for better opportunities down the road.
Instead, the Hawks did what we expected them to – and handed Johnson a 6 year contract for the max amount, roughly $120 million. It was the biggest contract given during the whole summer, and it came when the Hawks were bidding basically against no one. An idiotic move.
With Johnson clearly showing an inability to lead, combined with the fact that he has already peaked as a basketball player, this type of long term commitment and financial sacrifice served only to show that the Hawks were both: A. too stupid to realize that they sealed their fate with yet another dumb move and B. content being a 50+ win team with no shot at a ring. They tied up $20 million a year to a player who brought them to the 2nd round before getting demolished and promised to pay him till he’s 35 years old. Excellent.
It comes as no surprise, then, that this season will play out quite similarly to last year. I see the Hawks maintaining their 50+ win regular season record in front of dwindling home crowds and I expect them to edge out the Celtics for a 3rd seed in the East, good enough to appear like a contender but disorganized enough to lack focus in key moments and lack discipline when the game is on the line.
In the Playoffs, the Hawks will once again have the chance to beat a puny Eastern Conference team in the first round, although they will struggle this year with stronger foes now that Amare and Boozer have defected eastward, squeaking past the first round in about 6 games. Then, they will once again face the Magic in the 2nd round, before once again getting pummeled. A sad fate for the Hawks, who will muck their way into the second round for years to come.