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Hawks are in playoffs and few seem to care — that’s a problem

The Hawks open the playoffs Sunday.

This is not breaking news. It’s just the news so few seem to care about. That can be confirmed by the thousands of empty seats in Philips Arena, the continuing struggle for attention in a hard-to-please pro-sports town — except when there’s a new stadium on display — and the fact that a 60-win season and run to the NBA Eastern Conference finals only two years ago has faded from most memory banks.

Al Horford, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll were integral parts of that team. If you’re wondering where they are today, they play for Boston, Cleveland and Toronto, respectively, the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference.

The Hawks open the playoffs on the road at Washington, That’s fine because nobody’s home.

Dwight Howard said he’s not bothered by the lack of buzz.

“They don’t have to talk about us,” he said. “Doesn’t matter. Like DJ Khaled said, ‘Keep they out your life.’ That’s they — they are all the people who don’t believe in us.”

The problem: “They” would be many. “They” would be the majority.

Howard’s words might ring with the right attitude, but this is no minor issue, not for the team, not for ownership and most of all not for the coach and president of basketball operations, Mike Budenholzer.

What happens in this postseason will be a referendum on the past two years. Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox were theoretically in charge of personnel decisions in the blazing 2014-15 season, but the roster that year was formed by general manager Danny Ferry, who subsequently was sent into purgatory (and eventually unemployment).

If Ferry had been retained, it doesn’t mean the Hawks would’ve won 60 games again. But the drop-off to 48 and then 43 wins is mind-numbing. The drop-off in affection the city’s sports fans have for the Hawks might be even more dramatic. This was the most likable and watchable product on the local sports landscape, and now it’s like they don’t exist.

That’s a basketball problem, a marketing problem and a business problem. All of the “volt” colored clothing and fantasy turnstile counts in the world aren’t going to cover that up.

The Hawks believe, or at least say, they have turned things around, pointing to three late-season wins over Cleveland (twice) and Boston as evidence. The problem is, they’ve long-since lost the benefit of the doubt, so it’s going to take more than a late-season blip to convince folks.

“If we win one or two on the road, maybe people will (pay attention),” guard Dennis Schroder said. “Other than that, we can’t get that trust.”

Tony Ressler is the Hawks’ majority owner. He attends a number of home games. But he has said very little publicly since the deal closed, he goes out of his way to avoid speaking to the media, and he has been unable to get partner Grant Hill more involved in basketball operations.

Ressler, who lives in Los Angeles, has been so low-profile since purchasing the Hawks, a case could be made that Braves’ maligned corporate owner, Liberty Media, is more accessible. At least Liberty has quarterly investors calls that can be monitored by media members.

This isn’t to suggest that Ressler and his partners, including Atlanta resident Jesse Itzler, aren’t interested in winning. The Hawks are building a long-needed practice facility (opening next season), will own and operate a D-League team (beginning in 2019-20) and are planning major renovations to Philips Arena (with millions in public money, of course).

But none of that registers with the populace, nor does it address the clear problems in basketball operations.

Budenholzer has proved to be one of the NBA’s best coaches. He deserves credit for his recent decisions to reduce Dwight Howard’s minutes and have Kent Bazemore go from starter back to bench player. That has led to improved ball-movement and, therefore, a more watchable and productive offense, with a unit including Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr., Paul Millsap and rookie Taurean Prince.

“We’re playing as good or better than we have all year,” Budenholzer said.

OK. But what do the recent coaching moves say about Budenholzer, the de-facto general manager?

It was his decision to bring in Howard and give him a three-year, $70.5 million contract, far more than any other team likely would’ve offered at this stage of the center’s carer. It also was his decision to give a four-year, $70 million contract to Bazemore, a solid young player who is limited on offense.

It was his decision to let Horford go. It was his decision not to start the rebuilding process at the deadline and trade Millsap, who will opt out after the season and become an unrestricted free agent. So now the Hawks are faced with the options of either losing Millsap for nothing (like Horford) or re-signing a 32-year-old with a bothersome knee to an expensive, long-term contract. (Horford is two years younger, and the Hawks passed.)

Howard hasn’t been bad. He has improved the Hawks’ rebounding. But they’re a lesser offensive team when he’s on the court. They’re worse. Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets, the team Howard left, jumped from last season’s record of 41-41 to 55-27 this season, has had an MVP-caliber season from a rejuvenated James Harden and might have the coach of the year in Mike D’Antoni.

Is that all a coincidence?

The Hawks have a problem. They’re in the playoffs and seemingly nobody’s paying attention. It’s not hard to understand why.

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