Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why the Atlanta Hawks Deserve Your Hate

There are four types of teams in the NBA. Some of them fall into categories relative to your particular franchise allegiance, and some stay the same no matter what the colors you cheer for.

1) The franchises you love

A pretty easy one; the city you live in, the region your family is from, the college you went to or the place your spouse grew up. The team you live and breathe and die with, the one that gives you fits late at night and effects you deep into the summer.

2) The franchises you hate because of the franchises you love

Any team that would threaten the superiority of the team you love. Perhaps it's the crew that prevents your beloved franchise from reaching superiority. You hate them viscerally, like your DNA was programmed with the genomes that set your senses ablaze when those colors came across your corneas. You hate because you love.

3) The franchises you respectfully hate

And then there is the point where the rivalry is no longer a simple issue of them being better than you, or you trying to be better than them. It's a rivalry steeped in deep tradition that will permeate through the histories of both regions for as long as organized ball is played. Hundreds of games have been contested, and with it, championships and accolades for both of those teams have followed. But through it all, you come to hatefully respect them on the opposite side of the field. They know the thrilling rush of victory, and the desolate emptiness of defeat. In all of your hostility and antagonism, there's a unity of spirit that can't be denied. You hate them, with respect, because in the end, you're all a part of a shared tradition.

4) And then there's the franchises you just hate...because they're awful

There comes a point in your love of the game transcends the simple loyalty you have towards a certain team. You begin to love the sanctity of the sport that it inhabits. You start to see players as not just opponents, but also through the prism of how they represent the principles of the game you love so much. Oddly enough, the more you become invested in your team, it seems the more objective you become about the sport it's in.

As such, the hate flows from you like a barbed Tupac lyric. Teams, players and management that you would otherwise find benign, as they have no daily, weekly or even monthly impact on your sports-watching life, begin to anger you than you have any logical cause to be. They consistently make the wrong moves, misevaluate players, hire the wrong coaching staffs and say the most offensive statements possible in the media. You hate them because they violate the sanctity of the sport you take so seriously. You hate them because they are terrible. Simple enough.

This is why I hate the Atlanta Hawks. And you should do.

The Atlanta Hawks, as currently constituted, have never won an NBA title. Their predecessors, the St. Louis Hawks, were one-time champions and the only team to defeat the Boston Celtics in the Finals until the 1980's Lakers. Since their move to Atlanta in the 1970's, they have never won more than one round of the playoffs. Needless to say, the Hawks' time in Hotlanta has been tepid, at best.

The current core of Hawks have been together for over 5 seasons now, and have made the playoffs the past 4 years. Though there have been a lot of revolving pieces around them, guard Joe Johnson, forwards Marvin Williams, Josh Smith and center Al Horford have been at the middle of one of the most successful eras in Hawks basketball. Having missed the playoffs for a franchise-worst 8 seasons in a row, these four men comprised the core that got the team back into the postseason and winning the first round 3 years running.

Nothing I've just said really seems that offensive. So...why do I hate them so much?

They avoid the basic tenants of team-building.

1) They've needed a point guard since 1999.

The last time the Atlanta Hawks had a true point guard, it was Mookie Blalock in 1999. For real.

Since then, Jason Terry, Dan Dickau, Bob Sura, Tony Delk, Joe Johnson, Speedy Claxton, Acie Law, Mike Bibby, Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Teague have run various Atlanta offenses. Out of that pupu platter of shooters, Speedy Claxton and Kirk Hinrich bear the closest resemblance to what I would call a classic "pass-first" point guard.

With the signing of Joe Johnson in 2005, the pieces started coming into place for the Hawks team befouling your otherwise pristine flat-screen televisions today. Josh Smith was drafted in 2004, Marvin Williams in 2005 and Al Horford in 2007. While all those players are nice cogs in the machine, none of them will ever fully work to capacity without a proper point guard in place to take advantage of their multitudinous skill sets.

Despite their continuing need for someone to lead the offense, the Hawks management can't help but pass up a passer for another limited (though sometimes effective) player. Draft bust Shelden Williams was picked in 2006 before All-Star point Rajon Rondo. In 2009 when Jeff Teague was taken, a much more competent ball-handler in Darren Collison was left on the board.

This caption is so freaking comical.
Most notoriously, during the 2005 draft, the Hawks knew they were going to offer Joe Johnson a massive $70 million dollar deal. They mistakenly believed that a shoot-first chucker like Johnson could masquerade as a point guard (I mean, BockerKnocker would look like a great passer if he played with Steve Nash in his prime) and decided to take small forward Marvin Williams with the number two selection in the draft. Williams has had a pretty decent career, but nothing resembling the massive talent evaluators thought he was in 2005 coming out of North Carolina.

To get him, they passed up on both Chris Paul and Deron Williams.

Yes, Atlanta had not one, but TWO superstar point guards just sitting and WAITING for them in the draft, and somehow decided that the guy who has turned into a career 11 point per game scorer was the man they needed going forward.

Even when their biggest and most pressing need was most clear, the Hawks still decided to draft a player who played the very same position as the guy they took the year before in Josh Smith. Year after year, they see their need for a ball distributor in an offense that so often stalls and ends up in a Josh Smith 30 foot shot. Yet, year after year, they refuse to address the need that perhaps has kept them out of the elite in the Eastern Conference.

They passed on Chris Paul and Deron Williams. This alone is enough reason for the hate.

2) They can't seem to find a center to help Al Horford.

Horford with fellow Gator Joakim Noah (right), the
last true center he's played with.
Since Al Horford was drafted, the Hawks have decided an undersized natural power forward will be a good choice to lead the Atlanta Hawks into playoff glory.

Even as above the rim as Josh Smith plays (he's just spectacular), Horford, even with all his toughness and grit, just isn't the answer at center. He's often undersized, but because of his division and conference, the size disparity he faces while in the paint isn't regularly exposed (taking a look at Dwight Howard's splits since Horford's came into the league, he's never averaged less than 16 points and 16 rebounds in a 4 game annual set against the Hawks).

Still, they've continually swung and missed when it comes to finding another big man to help Horford. Zaza Pachulia, Shelden Williams, Solomon Jones, a Collins brother (does it really matter which one) and an ancient Joe Smith have been the extremely mediocre warriors to share the paint with Big Al since 2007.

When you have a team, you're supposed to start with either a point guard or a capable big man. The Hawks have done neither; quite the opposite in fact. They've filled out every other position on the team. It seems almost as if the Hawks are trying ACTIVELY to find a way around basketball principles that have stood for decades, in a new and brilliantly insidious way to torture the dedicated basketball fanatic and their own fan base.

I am a boiling cauldron of anger right now.

They compacted the mistake of drafting Marvin Williams by giving him a long term contract.

It's not that Marvin Williams has been a bad player; he's been just fine. I'll take a small forward who shoots 45% scores 11 a game and snatches 5 boards a game any day of the week. He never seems to do anything to wow you, nor does he do anything particularly offensive. I've never watched a Hawks game and turned off the TV thinking "wow, Marvin Williams really killed ______ tonight". Fill in the name of either team there. He's just never left an impression with me. He's kind of like eating only 1 M&M. Satisfying, in a way, but you'll forget you had it 3 minutes after you've eaten it. The problem with Marvin Williams is that he's the beginning of what I call "The Atlanta Logjam" (which is also something that goes on in downtown on Saturday nights).

Williams' is a natural small forward who can disguise himself as a power forward if you have a great point guard that can run the fast break (WHOOPS). However, in a conventional offense like Atlanta's, he's going to be a 3. Now, because he's at the 3, another highly paid natural small forward like Josh Smith has to play big at the power forward spot. This bumps Al Horford, a natural power forward, to the center position. So now you have an undersized lineup with 2 of your best players out of their natural spots. Congrats, Marvin. Your existence has effed up the Hawks' universe.

Truthfully, Williams should be a bench player and the Hawks should have invested some money in getting a shot blocker to play center. But, this is Atlanta, and they like to take what you think makes sense, and defecate all over it.

But this is all organizational jargon. Unless you're a NBA freak like me, you're not going to be aware of half of what I just pointed out. The problem is that all this front office mismanagement leads to an incredibly inferior product on the floor.

The Hawks have no organized plan of attack. They have a bunch of guys that go one on one and occasionally pass. I've heard that everyone that plays with Steve Nash is more apt to pass because Nash's ball-sharing is infectious. He leads by example, and it shows on every one of his teams. Atlanta is the exact opposite - they consistently pull up after a singular passs, and by the sheer talent, they sometimes convert. There is no sense of team basketball when Josh Smith is taking jumpers he can't make and Marvin Williams is shooting with 22 seconds let on the shot clock. And if you think about it, the discombobulated nature of Hawks basketball makes perfect sense. Management has bestowed the city of Atlanta with a bunch of miscast players, who are all trying to play outside of themselves in roles they're not suited for. They're doing so without a proper facilitator bringing the ball up the court. It's so incredible to see how Atlanta finds new and exciting ways to compound their weaknesses by finding the exact way to exploit them further.

If you look at them on paper, you see the stats, and you can't fully understand how deplorable it is to watch this team play. Every time I watch them (like last night, they unearth new methods to make a hoops fan furious. Their play makes them look selfish, stupid and lazy. You have to watch them to truly appreciate how much you'll hate them.

I want to murder someone.

They paid Joe Johnson $121 million dollars to do...something.

And then there's the "franchise guy" in "Silent" Joe Johnson (here's a hint GMs everywhere...don't sign up someone to be "the guy" if his nickname is "Silent"). Here is a list of guys that currently make as much, or more than Joe Johnson (other than future Amnesty victim and current Weekend at Bernie's impersonator Rashard Lewis):
  • Kobe Bryant, $25 million: 5-time champion, 2008 MVP. One of the 10 greatest players ever to live.
  • Tim Duncan, $21 million: 4-time champion, 2002/2003 MVPs. One of the 10 greatest players ever to live and the greatest power forward ever.
  • Kevin Garnett, $21 million: 1-time champion, 2004 MVP. One of the 30 greatest players ever to live, and the 2nd best power forward of his era
  • Dirk Nowitzki, $19 million: 1-time champion, 2007 MVP. The best shooting big man ever.
  • Pau Gasol, $19 million: 2-time champion, perhaps should have been the 2010 Finals MVP. One of the best power forwards of his era
  • Carmelo Anthony, $18 million: The best pure scorer in the league, and the best crunch-time player in the league.
  • Amar'e Stoudemire, $18 million: One of the most effective scoring power forwards, been in the top-10 of MVP voting 3 times.
  • Dwight Howard, $18 million: The best center and defensive player in the league.
Keep looking hard, Joe!
And then there's Joe Johnson. He sucks.

I mean, does he actually suck? Of course not. Joe Johnson's a really nice player. He's averaged 17 points, 4 boards and 5 assists on 45% shooting an 37% 3 point shooting a game. He's comfortable taking 17 shots a game and being Atlanta's offensive focal point. Those are really fine stats, especially if you can get them dependably.

But unlike Carmelo, Amar'e, Pau, Kobe, Dwight and Dirk, you can regularly forget that Joe Johnson is on the floor. Let's not even make this about numbers or stats. Those guys I just mentioned, think about them. Think about all the ridiculous games they've had. In Kobe's, Dirk's and Dwight's case, think about the amazing performances they've had late in the playoffs, when greatness matters most. But let's not give them the unfair advantage because those guys have played on great teams. Carmelo has been on one Denver team that's made it past the first round, but if you're a NBA fan, you can tell me 20 memorable games Melo has had or big shots he's made in his career.

Do that for Joe Johnson. Think about it. You ever remember a night where Joe Smith annihilated your favorite team? Can you recall him taking the Sportscenter headlines by force? You can't. Because it's never happened. Yes, he's played on some bad Hawks teams, but Carmelo played on some bad Denver squads. Dwight balls in the small Orlando market. But those guys make national headlines and give memorable performances because they are franchise players.

Joe Johnson is a glorified role player. He might be the greatest role player that ever lived. But he's nothing more than that. He is a magnificent shooter that moves well without the ball. Johnson is an unselfish guy who can make a solid pass. He can pull up and shoot the jumper. But he can't initiate his own offense and can't facilitate his team's scoring. Joe becomes invisible on the court. And therein lies the problem that ties management to the team.

They gave Joe Johnson a $121 million contract that pays in the stratosphere where only superstars belong. But, as I've said, Johnson just isn't a superstar. There are going to be nights where he won't affect the game much, or can't explode past his defender. Those are just his limitations. But the problem is that your fans are going to be angry. You're paying him like a star, you've raised expectations for him, and yet, he can somehow go 7 games without scoring more than 14 points (this actually happened last year). He can't elevate his team past the very mortal levels they've been at the past 5 years. He can't do any of these things because quite frankly, he's not that good. He's not a leader. He's just fine. But fine shouldn't get you $121 million dollars.

But I'm not mad at Joe. Joe's not the reason he got that deal or that the Hawks see him as a player he isn't. But his contract is the reason why the Hawks aren't going to be able to improve their team going forward.

I understand the Atlanta is going through a pretty rough ownership situation, spinning in several directions like a ship without a rudder. Several years ago when they originally did a sign-and-trade deal with Phoenix for Johnson, different parts of the ownership group were arguing publicly with each other on it. Atlanta is a vibrant city with a sports-hungry fan base. They deserve more than the backwards team building and awful decisions-making they've had to endure with Hawks squad with plenty of talent, but no focus. The front office keeps on making poor decisions, and those decisions are in turn making the players look selfish and lazy. It's like they're showcasing each of their player's weaknesses on purpose. If you love basketball like I do, you watch the Hawks play night after night and you see so much wasted potential and as a consequence, lazy, pathetic basketball. I hate them, and so should you.

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