Yesterday, an article of mine about the Atlanta Hawks playing the Golden State Warriors went up at Hardwood Paroxysm (thanks to Ian Levy). I didn’t really think much of it. Whenever I guest post somewhere, the article goes up, a couple tweets and retweets occur, and then I usually don’t hear anything else about the piece. Like most writers or aspiring writers, I’m already working on something else. But yesterday was different. The good people of Atlanta, or at least the good people of Atlanta on Twitter, did not, at least from what I could tell, enjoy the article or my opinions.
On the one hand, I was glad people even looked at something I had written—as I always am. On the other hand, I was surprised, maybe even taken aback by the negative comments. After all, I didn’t think I’d written a negative article on the Hawks, but an impression of what a good basketball team looked like while playing a great basketball team. The Hawks are not playing at the level they did last year, but to say that is not to say they are a bad basketball team. They are indeed a good one. They could make some noise in the playoffs. They could also go quietly.
While their defense is much improved and statistically one of the tops in the league, their offense is not the same. They are also still figuring out some quirks in their rotation. Do they play Jeff Teague at point guard down the stretch or hand the reins over to his backup Dennis Schröder? Against the Warriors, they opted for Schröder, as they have in other games of late. Is this stretch of the season a microcosm of what the coaching staff will opt for the rest of the season and on into the playoffs? Or, will they still be tinkering?
I ask these questions because the Hawks are often discussed as a finished product. As they won sixty games last season, it became popular to question whether they were as good as their record suggested. Such questions are kind of silly. If a team can win sixty games, the team is sixty wins good. Then again, the regular season is not the playoffs. Perhaps the question, when such things occur, should be whether or not the team can win in the playoffs like it has or did in the regular season. This argument is largely about semantics. It returns to the idea that the Hawks are good, but not quite good enough. It also makes them more interesting than the idea that they can be defined solely by a system.
In other words, the Atlanta Hawks are something besides a machine. And a heckuva lot more interesting, too.
Teague and Schröder are a lot of fun to watch with the ball. They play like X-wing fighters crashing a party at the Death Star. Sometimes this is awesome. Sometimes they fly too fast and too reckless for the team’s own good. Kent Bazemore is still figuring out what it takes to be a starter for a team that may or may not be elite. He’s a guy figuring it out, pushing against the boundaries of his talent. That’s fun to watch. And then there’s the frontline tandem of Paul Millsap and Al Horford. The undersized Millsap does a bit of everything. Al Horford and his broad shoulders are the anchors to the much improved defense. He is also an offensive player with a portfolio of diverse skills, even if he does often shirk and shrug his talents.
I have always had a soft spot for the Atlanta Hawks. The first NBA games I ever attended were in the old Omni. The kids I went to elementary and middle school with were torn between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. My first memories of sports writing involve digging through the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the sports section and unearthing the secrets of Dikembe Mutombo’s finger wag. I wanted Aland Henderson and Tyrone Corbin to be the missing pieces. I loved the name Mookie Blaylock.
I would never claim to be a die hard Atlanta Hawks fan. I have always had amorphous NBA loyalties. But it was weird yesterday when a handful of Hawks fans thought the article was “trash” or horribly written. Maybe it was the word “counterfeit” that set everybody off. After all, such a word is often read as “fraud,” but I meant it with a wink. These Hawks remind me of John Falstaff, a man who fakes his own death. I’m not sure there’s a more southern character in all of Shakespeare’s writing. There also may not be one more beloved. But Shakespeare isn’t inherently southern, so I discussed opossums playing dead. To be fraudulent is as southern as Brer Rabbit and the briar patch. To accept or embrace the fraud is as real as it gets.
These Hawks aren’t as mechanically flawless as a system. But they do appear to be on a rather predictable arc. They’re just good enough, trying to get better, and that’s painfully fun to watch, but, believe me, the pain will surface. This can’t end well, at least not this year. Hence, there’s something rotten in the Hawks of Atlanta. I mean that as a compliment.
Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys, mostly about basketball and books.