For a team that is often compromised of reasonable individuals who typically play hard and have their basketball hearts in the right places, the Atlanta Hawks sure do seem to make a hash of things, year in and year out. The group has made the playoffs five seasons in a row, but the squad has never felt like championship material, despite a massive payroll. Worse, for outsiders, is the team's image. Were it not for a second round pairing against the Chicago Bulls last season or a matchup with the Boston Celtics in 2012, the Hawks would be relegated to an NBA TV afterthought, and rightly so. The team is a less than inspiring watch, and doesn't figure to change that aspect of its personality any time soon.
And, as you can see in the clip above, they're not always on the same page with coach Larry Drew — a fine enough coach who may have locker room issues with the team he's been around since 2004; six years as an assistant, and two years as a head man. We promise we're not writing this in response to the video from late in Game 6 on Thursday night, and we have all the confidence in the world in Larry Drew as the head coach of an NBA team. It's just that, eight years into his term, is he the right coach for this particular team? Have the Hawks tuned him out?
This isn't to say Drew could have done more with Atlanta, because in the regular season and beyond the team played up to expectation. The Hawks were a middle of the road offensive team and sixth in defensive efficiency. The squad worked without the All-Star level talents of Al Horford for 55 of the team's 66 regular season games, and put up with a mini-swoon midseason from Josh Smith in the midst of an All-Star level year in terms of production from the all-around forward.
Jeff Teague didn't exactly turn into a breakout player, as some who breathlessly watched his playoff turn from last season expected, and he remains an average point man who can score in spurts and defend, but often pairs those qualities with dodgy decision-making. Zaza Pachulia was forced into starting more games than Drew likely cared to start him in, and though he cut his turnovers in 2011-12 the big man is still not much of an answer in the pivot. Kirk Hinrich's jumper came and went, per usual, and we've made it this far into the column without even mentioning Joe Johnson.
That's a problem, again, because Joe's relative anonymity runs in clear contrast to his status as one of the NBA's highest-paid players. Johnson was suitable as a scorer and sometimes all around player again in 2011-12, but at his price Joe's typical game (scoring 19 points on 15 shots, not rebounding all that much, watching his assist totals shrink for the third year in a row) is not enough. It's not Johnson's fault, this is exactly in line with what many observers expected of him when the Hawks broke the bank to re-sign him in 2010, but it does hamstring the Hawks moving forward.
Because, with Joe and Horford and Smith all making eight figures in 2012-13, Atlanta will be just about at the salary cap level with six rotation players under contract plus Ivan Johnson and Donald Sloan possibly playing under the relatively cheap qualifying offer. Not to knock the players they'd be shaving off the roster this offseason (Tracy McGrady, Vlad Radmanovic, Jason Collins, et cetera), but the team won't be losing much and yet they won't have much room to work. Unless some team is ready to make a depth-establishing deal for Josh Smith and his expiring contract, Atlanta will roll into 2012-13 looking about the same.
This is what the franchise signed off on, when they signed Johnson and embraced this year-to-year sway back in 2010. The Hawks were a slow build, starting with the team's rebuilding/drafting of Josh Smith/hiring of Mike Woodson's staff in 2004. They'll be a slow winner of more than half their games in 2012-13, and they'll be a slow dismantle as the tumble down the Eastern bracket and out of the playoffs following that.
In the meantime, though, they'll win. They'll be back in the playoffs, making their owners money in spite of Johnson's outrageous deal. And you get the feeling that this will be enough.
As if anyone would notice, anyway.