Two seasons ago, the Hawks won 60 games in the East. And then what happened?
For the past decade, the Hawks have been stuck in the middle. Good, not great. Strong players, but nothing close to competitive. As Bill Simmons mentions over and over in his Book of Basketball, the Hawks had a streak of their first-round playoff series being on NBATV. In other words, nobody cared about the Atlanta Hawks. They were so mediocre that Atlanta didn’t even care about the Atlanta Hawks. They could never get over the hump. They have a sneaky streak of making the playoffs every year for the past nine years (twice, they made it as a sub-.500 team) and it looks like a tenth year won’t happen.
No player symbolizes the mediocre late 2000’s-early 2010’s better than Josh Smith. Though he did have enough recognition to earn himself the nickname “J Smooth,” he was nowhere near a household name, though with a name like Josh Smith, how could he?
When he was on he was really on, and when he was off, the Hawks would almost certainly lose. Even for how streaky of a shooter Josh Smith was, he would try to break out of a slump by shooting more. He stuck with the Hawks until 2013, when the Pistons signed him to a four-year deal, and was then bought out by the Pistons a year and a half after the signing. He bounced around for the next two years before signing to play in China.
And then there’s Joe Johnson, whom the Celtics drafted and dealt away a few years later. He found his way with the Hawks, and came close to being a star player. There were two major distinctions about Joe Johnson. First, his clutch shooting, which helped the Utah Jazz advance to their four-game smashing by the Warriors earlier this year. Kevin Garnett once called Joe Johnson, “Joe Jesus.”
Johnson is credited for signing one of the worst contracts in NBA history in 2010: 6 years, $126 million. It made the entire league laugh the day it was announced. But as ridiculous as the contract was, he helped the Hawks reach relative success in his time as with the team.
Two years later, in a move that stopped the bleeding, Billy King’s Brooklyn Nets traded for Joe Johnson to surround Deron Williams. In one of the greatest and most shocking “get out of jail free” trades in NBA history, Brooklyn agreed to take on every penny of what Johnson was owed. As we all know, this was only the second-worst trade Billy King has ever made.
The Hawks continued their listless marches into the playoffs until 2014-15, the year everything came together for them. Feature pieces included Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroeder, Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kent Bazemore, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kyle Korver, and Coach Mike “Bud” Budenholzer. They were a stifling defensive team that benefited from Horford’s passing, Millsap’s scoring and Teague’s ability to run the offense. The team dominated the East before bowing out to LeBron’s Cavs in the Conference Finals.
From here the Hawks regressed a little in 2015-16, winning 48 games and defeating the upstart Celtics in Round 1. Again, they were defeated by the eventual champion Cleveland Cavs.
Atlanta truly lost their momentum when Jeff Teague decided he wanted out. The Hawks traded him to Indiana for the 12th pick in the 2016 Draft, hoping to resign Horford and Bazemore. This left Dennis Schroeder the keys at point guard.
Their offseason did not go as planned. Al Horford signed a max contract with Boston as bait for Kevin Durant, and Atlanta’s second option was to sign hometown hero Dwight Howard to a loaded 3-year, $70 million contract. They did keep Bazemore, giving $70 million for 4 years. Each signing cost the Hawks in their wallets and in their team’s futures. The 2016-17 Hawks limped to a 43-39 record, with longtime sharpshooter Kyle Korver getting dealt to Cleveland.
Much like the Knicks’ Stephon Marbury homecoming and now Dwyane Wade’s homecoming with the Bulls, the Dwight Homecoming Tour did not work out. Howard scored an underwhelming 13.5 points per game in the 2016-2017 season and only played a diminished role in the playoffs. This was a quick breaking point for Dwightlanta, and the Hawks dumped him on the Charlotte Hornets after a single season.
The Hawks also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. to free agency, but for a number that wasn’t even close to what they offered. New York gave Hardaway $71 million over four years to come back to the Knicks, so it turns out to be more of a win for Atlanta. The trend of losing players to free agency continued for the Hawks as front man Paul Millsap signed with Denver for $90 million over three years.
The greatest failure for the Hawks was not knowing when to move on from players and be proactive and future-oriented; they held on to their good players for as long as they could, and did not trade them when it was in their best interest. Then, when their plans in free agency ultimately failed, they had no backup plans. The greatest example of this lack of direction was Al Horford’s signing with the Boston Celtics. Atlanta was initially interested in bringing Horford back, until a team with more money to offer showed up. With their cap space that was meant for Al Horford, they gave it to the disgruntled Dwight Howard, fresh off playing for a shitshow Rockets team. It was a stroke of luck that Charlotte was there for Atlanta to find its way out of the Dwight contract, but now, Atlanta is finally ready to rebuild.
Tankathon.com has Atlanta finishing with the worst record in 2017-18, selecting Michael Porter Jr. first overall. After years of mediocrity, the smart move is for Atlanta to hop in the tank and hope for a real star, instead of building around the Joe Johnsons of the world.
The moral of the story is that free agency is a killer, especially for a non-destination franchise like Atlanta. Therefore, their team must be built around keeping their players with potential around, but not holding on to them to push for another year in the middle of the pack. Had Atlanta planned for the future by trading Millsap or Horford before they hit the market, they could now have building blocks for the future. For now, they have to make their own first-round draft pick worth something.