Go ahead and finish that ever-popular phrase. Stick it in your head, turn the key. Set it and forget it. It’s pouring in Hawksville and the weather forecast is uncertain. The Hawks are in unchartered territory: sporting a 22-14 record but seeing their level of play dissipate fast. Three losses in a row shouldn’t seem too alarming. After all, you play 82 games in the regular season in the NBA and odds dictate losing streaks. Just ask the Celtics, losers of 5 of their last 7 before beating up on Toronto Sunday.
But it’s not just the losing. It’s how the Hawks have gone about the losing, getting pounded by Orlando in back to back games and not even putting up a fight against an Elton Brand-less Sixer team. What about the defense that had these Hawks soaring to a 6-0 record early in the season? Non-existent. Ball movement and rhythm on offense? Gone. Just after I had written about this young team’s recent knack for finding the flow and consistency necessary to be successful in the NBA, it vanished in a heartbeat. Sekou Smith described the Orlando loss on Friday as the “worst beating he had ever seen,” to paraphrase. Since I lack the censorship he does, I will gladly rephrase. That was an ass-kicking. I have seen matadors in Spain take less of a demolition. To be down 50 to your supposed “division rival” is to say goodnight to any potential challenge for a #3 seed and a division title.
I have a theory. Losing in the NBA is easy. The Hawks have proven that for past decade. With losing comes little to no expectation. Win one here and there, and you’ve done your job. Make the playoffs when you’re not expected to, and you may draw applause. Perhaps a city awakens, as Atlanta did during the playoffs last season. But when a team starts creating the expectation of winning – as the Hawks have done so this year – the entire outlook changes. The pressure shifts like tectonic plates preparing for an earthquake. Balance yourself accordingly, and perhaps you learn to survive with the added weight of expectation. Step forward unprepared and who knows, you may fall just as quickly as it took you to rise.
My point is this. The Hawks are calibrating themselves like a fish swimming in new water. They now have the expectation to win, and it has forced many of the younger players into a position they are unused to. The Hawks were simply not ready to challenge Orlando, a more “veteran” team. They felt the pressure and fell to the ground like a runaway prisoner shot in the leg. But they will get up, and they will continue to challenge for the 4 seed in the East. Make no mistake, this is a talented team. A team which when it puts its mind to it and focuses, can play with just about anyone in the league.
The Orlando back-to-back also exposed one another clear weakness which GM Rick Sund needs to address: depth. The Nuggets recently bolstered their frontcourt with the addition of center Johan Petro. Perhaps the Hawks can also inquire with the Thunder about Chris Wilcox or Joe Smith. Chris Kaman (and to a lesser extent his teammate, Marcus Camby) is also a possibility, although I suspect given the ownership situation the Hawks will avoid such a long term commitment. The Hawks, too, have assets to trade. They may be willing to part with Acie Law, who has found his way into Mike Woodson’s doghouse through no apparent fault of his own. And let’s not forget Speedy Claxton, arguably the worst free agent signing in Hawks history who has given them little other than one horrific season and a neverending stream of injury updates. There’s also the rights to Josh Childress, which may have more value than you think since it is almost a foregone conclusion the lanky swingman will return to domestic play.
Brace yourself Hawks fans. The next few games may be rough. But trust me on this: they will be better for it. And while they are not ready to challenge the Celtics, Cavs and Magic for superiority in the East, they are still capable of doing damage, at which point, we just may see the sun peak out.