The Hawks aren’t oblivious to their standing in this perpetually humbled sports market. Two years ago at this time, they were everybody’s darling. Today, they have all the allure of a $1 scratch-off lottery ticket.
The pro football team is coming off a Super Bowl. The pro baseball team has modest expectations for this season but at least has tangible reasons to believe things are ascending. The pro basketball team? Atlanta responds with a collective: Feh.
“It’s not for everyone to believe in this team because they don’t come here, they don’t sweat, they don’t bleed,” Hawks forward Kent Bazemore said. “If there weren’t any non-believers it wouldn’t be fun. We’re trying to prove them wrong and make them chew on their words.”
There are 26 games left before the playoffs. The Hawks are 32-24 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings. The odds appear against a mass chewing of words but this is a franchise accustomed to empty seats in the arena and skeptics outside of it..
They made two deals before the trade deadline. The first brought stretch power forward Ersan Ilyasova from Philadelphia for Tiago Splitter, who for two seasons was the Hawks’ official hologram. (There also was a swap of second-round picks.) The second trade sent Mike Scott to Phoenix for cash, possibly a role of quarters.
So the Hawks traded one guy (Splitter) who’s always too hurt to play and another guy (Scott) who’s not very good and has felony drug charges hanging over his pouty head.
This is the NBA equivalent of going through the refrigerator and throwing out old Chinese food.
Ilyasova could help. He averages 14.3 points per game. But let’s keep expectations in check. This is his fifth team since the start of last season (Detroit, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia). As a general rule, “game-changer” and “fifth team in two seasons” don’t intersect. The Hawks still don’t give the appearances of a team that will win more than one playoff round. If that.
I asked coach and team president Mike Budenholzer if he realizes there’s a city of skeptics to convert, or whether he’s not even concerned about that.
“I guess if I didn’t realize that … I’ll just say no. I’ll cut myself off,” he said.
What does he see that so few others do?
“Paul (Millsap) has obviously proven himself. When you see guys around Paul, particularly Dwight (Howard) and Dennis (Schroder), when they’re playing well and they’re at their peak, everybody plays off those three guys and I think we’re pretty good.”
Not a convincing argument but it’s all he’s got.
Barring a strong finish and an extended playoff run, Budenholzer will need stronger talking points in the offseason when he meets with majority owner Tony Ressler, partner Jesse Itzler and others and attempts to convince him why he should retain power over personnel decisions.
There is a need for this franchise to push reset, both on the roster and in the front office. As I wrote last week, point guard Dennis Schroder is the only proven building block for the future and this roster is expected to radically change with so many expiring contracts. Budenholzer remains unproven as a franchise architect, which is an issue with so many roster spots coming up and as many as 10 draft picks (five first rounders) available to them in the next three years.
Millsap is saying all the right things — that he loves playing for Budenholzer, that he wants to stay in Atlanta (which remains to be seen when negotiations start in the summer), that he believes in the Hawks’ future. Sounds like DeMarre Carroll, who’s now in Toronto. Sounds like Al Horford, who’s now in Boston.
“The ownership, coach Bud, the (Philips Arena) renovations, the practice center, you get a sense that this organization wants to be really good,” Millsap said. “That gives me hope for the future.”
Atlanta is a fickle sports market. Most of the conversation these days is divided between three subjects: What happened in the last football season, what’s going to happen in the baseball season and what will happen next football season.
The Hawks are like the guy on a street corner twirling a sign to try to lure you inside the store. This should be their window for attention but few are looking in their direction.
“That’s fine,” Millsap said. “I actually don’t care. We can’t focus on anybody outside of this gym.”
The Hawks need to significantly improve offensively to be a threat in the East. They rank 26th in the metric “offensive rating” (points per 100 possessions), 20th in scoring, 16th in field goal percentage, 25th in three-point shooting and 22nd in three-pointers made. They’re only 15th in point differential, which is remarkable for a team that’s eight games over .500).
The Hawks would lose playoff series to Cleveland or Boston (whom they play five times down the stretch). It remains to be seen if they can keep pace with Toronto or Washington (whom they’re 2-3 against with two games left). There are skeptics to convert. But they should be used to that by now.