The Hawks share some connective tissue with two of this week's opponents. And when you examine how Atlanta tangentially relates to the Washington Wizards and New Jersey Nets, it's actually not too pretty of a picture, given that the Wizards and Nets will almost surely be drafting in the 2012 lottery while the Hawks make yet another trip to the playoffs but both teams are more promising and, somehow, more relevant than Atlanta.
Remember the 2008 playoffs when the young Hawks took Boston and its team of OG veterans the eventual champs to seven games in the first round? The Hawks were hot. Al Horford was a productive rookie, fresh off back-to-back championships with Florida. Josh Smith, in his fourth year, had morphed into a legit all-around force (the fact that he was so mercurial was somewhat of a good thing, back then). And Joe Johnson had made his second straight All-Star team. They were young upstarts, a team full of athletes with the collective talent and confidence necessary to scare the league's older, elite squads.
That's not the Hawks, anymore. As Johnson said recently, "We've been here long enough. We're no longer a young team. We've been around the block. We've been through the trenches. We know what to expect."
The 2008-era Hawks seems to be where the Wizards are headedI repeat "seem" to be "headed."
The Hawks victory over the Wizards was more like a brush-off, a flick. The explanation for the 18-point win was simple: Atlanta is discernibly better than Washington. The Hawks are more skilled, experienced, familiar flat out better in the way that perennial playoff squads are better than perennial lottery teams.
The Wizards are still more relevant, though.
The Wiz' have a chest full of young players with high ceilings, specifically John Wall and Javale McGee. But, they often exhibit the collective hoops IQ of the hardwood floors they play on. McGee tried to dunk from the free throw line, last seasonduring an actual game; sometimes Wall plays like a cross between a wind-up toy and a the Tasmanian Devil. Nic Young and Andray Blatche are what you'd call "talents" and not "players." Young plays without a conscious, Blatche without composure.
Still, Wizards fans likely look at their pieces and say, "In a couple years, if and when these kids figure it out, we're going to be really good." Few things in sports are as romantic as the notion of promise and the Wiz have a lot. That's where the Hawks used to be. Nowadays, five seasons into the "Joe, Josh and Al" era, the promise is gone. They've figured out whatever it is that youngsters need to figure out and they're goodjust without the "really" qualifier.
Atlanta opened its season by embarrassing the Nets 106-70. Why the blowout? Well, Atlanta is good and New Jersey is bad. But the Nets have cache. They have a Russian billionaire for an owner, the buzz of their upcoming move to Brooklyn and they stay in the news because Dwight Howard has reported said that he prefers to be traded to less than a handful of teams, one of which is the Nets.
The sad thing is that Atlanta had reportedly engaged in some brief trade talks before they were swiftly shuttered due to Howard's disinterest in playing for the Hawks. It's sad because Howard is from Atlanta. There's no doubt that Atlanta would have to gut its roster (parting with some combination of the Joe-Josh-Al trio) to make the trade, which isn't a welcoming thought for Howard, but stars have said "make it work," before. It seems as though Howard has no interest in Orlando and Atlanta making a deal work. He doesn't want to come home.
Think about that. The New Jersey Nets one of the NBA's historically hapless franchises and currently one of the NBA's worst squads is a more desirable destination for an ATL homeboy than his hometown Hawks. That says a lot.
The Hawks are in a weirdly unenviable place. For so many years they were the dangerous young team. Now they're "just" a good team with essentially the same players. There's a staleness and ho-hum quality to where they are and where they can go. The Hawks wouldn't move the national needle with a five-game losing streak or a five-game winning streak.
Good teams are not immune to lethargy. In fact, it's the middle-rung squads good, but not great that suffer from it the most.
Adding veterans Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse were Atlanta's splash-moves. And, true, they will help. For a team that has never really had a vocal leader, McGrady and Stackhouse are more important additions than many are crediting. (As coach Larry Drew said, "They're not afraid to step on any toes and that's one of the most parts of veteran leadership. They're not afraid to call guys out and we haven't had that before.")
Horford and Smith are entering their primes, Johnson is still in his. Young point guard Jeff Teague has a lot of room to grow. The Hawks can be better this season, but their "better" might still just be "good" and not as "good" as the Knicks or Heat or Bulls or Celticsmaybe not even as "good" as a healthy Milwaukee or the "upstart" Pacers.
"I think this is the make or break year for us," said Horford. "We don't want to regress. We want to get over that hump and if we don't then it won't be a successful season."
This is the Hawks' reality. No longer young enough to warrant curious interest and not great or compelling enough to arrest hoops fans' attentions. They're just solid. Competitive. Respectable. Good. But these guys have been good for several seasons. At what point is "good" no longer good enough?
"You can feel it, man" said Johnson. "You can feel the pressure and us players can feel it more than anybody else. But I think the sky's the limit for us. We just all have to believe."
Is the sky really the limit? Or are the Hawks heads a little tender from banging it against the ceiling?