If you appreciate Zach Harper's work or you're a regular on the Daily Dime Live chats he moderates during NBA games, then you already know one of Harper's primary basketball axioms: "Never Trust The Hawks." There are no conditions or subsections to that rule, folks. Never means never. Doesn't matter how good they look on a given night; the other shoe is always a few possessions away from falling. Maybe it's a totally unnecessary reliance on the not-so-vaunted Iso-Joe offesne, or a sudden spate of ill-advised J Smoove jumpers, but something always wrenches up the gears eventually for this team. Like a rickety stage backdrop in a middle school play, it doesn't take much to bring the entire edifice down in a cloud of dust and disappointment.
As a Hawks fan, the frustrating thing about Harper's theory is that there is no empirical data to suggest that we shouldn't transition it from hypothesis into scientific basketball law. Fatalism isn't pretty on anybody (except maybe Cubs fans), but at some point you have to concede that yet again this team is not constructed and/or coached well enough to be taken seriously. That it's time for yet another rebuilding effort that is very nearly doomed from the outset because of the ludicrous financial albatross that is Joe Johnson's contract, and because the front office has not shown itself capable of rebuilding in an intelligent, calculated manner.
And yet ... I just can't write 'em off. After watching the Hawks give New Orleans the business last night, despite it being the second-to-last game of a grueling road trip, I have to think that maybe, just maybe, I can trust my team a little bit this season. Yeah, yeah, the Hornets are a terrible excuse for a professional basketball team right now, and anybody worth their salt ought to crush them, so it wasn't exactly a touchstone victory. I'll admit that ... however:
What I watched last night was a team capable of winning even when many things aren't going right. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, arguably our two most potent offensive weapons, combined for a paltry 15 points. In the past, such a poor showing from critical players would have been disastrous, even against a lowly team like the Hornets, but it was just a speed bump that the Hawks flew over "Dukes Of Hazard" style last night. When their shots weren't falling, Smith and Johnson didn't disengage, they focused on helping the team in other ways, and notched a combined 17 boards, 4 blocks, and 4 assists. Filling the offensive void, Jeff Teague went off for 24 points, Marvin Williams chipped in for 14, and Willie Green put up 16 in just 18 minutes.
Atlanta also got significant help from Ivan Johnson, Tracy McGrady, and Zaza Pachulia, who all submitted workmanlike efforts to round out the winning performance. A game that at times had the hallmarks of another typical Hawks implosion ended instead with a 94-72 victory. There's just something different about the team this season; a sort of cool, collected hustle that harnesses their best talents and minimizes their deficiencies. They're playing gas-pedal defense and making the extra pass more often. They look like, if not contenders exactly, at least a real, dignified basketball team. Which is kind of a big step up.
Have you checked the standings today, by the way? Atlanta has the fourth-best record in the league. Not in the Eastern Conference, mind, but in all of basketball. Now, I hate the "if the playoffs started today ..." trope as much a s anyone, but fourth in the league?!?!? That's a signifier of at least a smidge of legit ballin', right? Which brings me to another sports meme that might counter "Never Trust The Hawks." That's right, I'm talking about Bill Simmons' famous Ewing Theory.
For the uninitiated, the Ewing Theory postulates that there are instances in which a team can lose its best player and actually improve as a result. The Hawks, of course, have lost their best player for the remainder of the regular season in Al Horford.
I can feel your incredulity from here. "Al Horford?" you're saying. "Sure, he's really good, but was he actually their best player?" Yes. Yes he was.
Before Horford went down this year, he was doing what he always has done for the Hawks. To wit: whatever was needed. Flagging offensive production? Al had us covered by pouring in buckets around the rim. Need help on the glass? He's pulling down rebounds with gusto. And always, always; solid defense, either as a primary or help defender. On a team prone to gunning and spurts of ineffectual play, Horford was our bedrock of consistent excellence. And now he's gone.
Yet this team keeps rattling off wins. In their linchpin's absence, everyone else is filling the gaps. The Hawks are playing like an honest-to-god team, not the ill-fitting collection of parts they have so often appeared to be in the recent past. I know the schedule has been kind to us, and things are going to get significantly tougher from here on out. I know it's maybe unreasonable to expect a team to continue operating at a high level without a dominant presence in the paint. I also know that the Hawks look awfully good right now. I know we've split our battles thusfar with Miami and Chicago. I know the team is playing with a cohesion and verve heretofore lacking in its other recent iterations. T-Mac still has something left in the tank. Ivan Johnson is an unhinged round of ammunition who will, hopefully, detonate in the face of the opposition rather than his own team. Willie Green is having himself a career year. And Joe, Josh, and Jeff can hold it together until Al gets back right around playoff time.
And when Al Horford returns, keep in mind: his legs will be fresher and his hops more hoppy than everyone who has endured the full brunt of the regular season. That might be all Atlanta needs. I'm not stupid enough to think we can seriously challenge the Bulls or Heat in the East. Or even Indy or Philly, for that matter. But if you don't have hope, your sports outlook gets pretty bleak pretty fast. It's true this team ain't built to beat the best under normal conditions, but this season is anything but normal. With so much unpredictability running roughshod over the NBA, it's possible we could rattle some cages at the least. And that's enough to be getting on with for now. Trust the Hawks. After all, what have you got to lose?