The Atlanta Hawks have undergone a big transformation over the last few seasons. For a number of years, the Hawks were a team that was often good, but never great; a team that could win a first round playoff series, but couldn’t hang with the NBA’s best and make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. They were good for some exciting highlights, but not for a substantial run in the postseason.
That team is no more. Mike Woodson, the coach who guided the Hawks from a disastrous first year (13-69 in 2004-05) through five consecutive seasons of improvement ,culminating in a 53-29 record and a #3 seed in the playoffs in 2009-10, was let go after a second round sweep at the hands of the Orlando Magic. His firing was followed by the departure of stars Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, and Josh Smith over the next three years.
The only Hawks still on the roster who saw significant time on those teams are point guard Jeff Teague, and the team’s lone remaining star, forward/center Al Horford. But now even Horford is gone, lost for the season to a torn pectoral muscle suffered in a December 26 win over Cleveland.
With Horford out, the Hawks started the following lineup against the defending champion Miami Heat on January 20: Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Milsap, and Pero Antic. Doesn’t seem like a group that would strike fear in an opponent’s heart does it? Especially not a team like Miami, which features all-everything superstar Lebron James.
But a funny thing happened that night in Atlanta; the Hawks won. They beat the Heat 121-114. Forward Milsap, who signed with Atlanta after seven seasons with Utah, scored 26 points. Antic, the Macedonian rookie, had a career high 17 points to go with 6 rebounds. Korver, who broke the NBA record for consecutive games with a three-pointer on December 6, added 12 points.
Of late, there have been several games like that for these Hawks. They beat the L.A. Clippers back in December. Earlier this month they posted wins over the Houston Rockets and the team with the NBA’s best record, the Indiana Pacers.
That isn’t to say that the Hawks are one of the league’s best teams. There have also been a number of underwhelming losses. But in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year under new coach Mike Budenholzer, who took over in Atlanta this season after 17 years as an assistant in San Antonio, they’ve definitely been better than anyone expected. Budenholzer has kept the Hawks competitive, despite the notable absence of star power.
As of January 23, the Hawks had a record of 22-19. Hardly cause for celebration. But when you consider the amount of talent the team has lost over the last few seasons, it seems better than most fans dared hope. Plus, think about this: In a weak Eastern conference, that 22-19 record would be good for a #3 seed if the playoffs started today. The two teams ahead of them? Indiana and Miami, both of whom the Hawks recently beat.
No, it isn’t time to start planning victory parades in Atlanta. But there is without a doubt reason for optimism in the Peach State. For a team that hasn’t been to the NBA finals since moving South from St. Louis in 1968, any step in the right direction has the potential to be a big one.