Another Sweep May Prompt Hawks to Change Direction
ATLANTA -- Since Mike Woodson arrived as coach in 2004, the Atlanta Hawks have stubbornly stuck with a fiscally-responsible plan, building gradually, adding one key piece to their nucleus each season, improving their win total each year.
One horrendous playoff series may change everything.
The Hawks are being embarrassed in this Eastern Conference semifinal round by the Orlando Magic, who expect to finish their surprisingly-easy sweep Monday night, leaving Atlanta to burn.
Neither Hawks star Joe Johnson nor Woodson have contracts for next season. And neither may get one in Atlanta now, touching off a dramatic change of direction.
Both are seeing their multiple, regular-season successes being overshadowed by playoff failures. Unless something changes dramatically, this will be the second consecutive season the Hawks were scorched by a second-round sweep.
Johnson still expects to earn superstar money as a free agent this summer -- and the desperate New York Knicks or New Jersey Nets surely will pay it -- but he has become a questionable purchase at max-contract value for the Hawks in light of his disappearance in the playoffs.
Woodson, who has the longest tenure of any coach with his current team in the Eastern Conference, has been baffled by his team's sudden lack of urgency, wondering himself about the future direction of the franchise.
"All of a sudden, we have hit a wall,'' he said Sunday after practice. "I don't know what ownership is going to do. My whole thing is, you bring Joe back, and hopefully, I'm able to stay and complete the process we started. I sure hope they don't go back the other way and bust it up. I'd hate that, but regardless of whether I'm here or not, I'd like to think I've left this a better place than it was six years ago.''
The Hawks won 53 games this season -- their most in 13 years -- but they have lost the first three games of this series by an average of 29 points, never even challenging in two of the three. When they were swept by Cleveland last year, they lost by an average of 18 points.
And ringing in everyone's ear now was the pronouncement by ownership earlier this season that the measurement of the team would be based not on victory totals, but on playoff success.
"It would be tough (if the nucleus was broken up this summer), considering we've been together for quite some time, but everyone here understands this is a business, and that's how you have to approach it,'' Johnson said after practice Sunday. "At times, we're one of the best teams in the league, but sometimes, we're almost one of the worst teams in the league.''
No one doubts that the Hawks are one of the more athletic, physically-gifted teams in the league, although they lack any depth, but the pieces suddenly look like they don't fit.
"Chemistry is what's lacking right now, in my opinion,'' said veteran reserve Maurice Evans, who has played in all 10 playoff games. "Chemistry is an issue with a lot of teams in this league. And I think we have that issue right now. I think that's the difference in this series right now.''
Evans, now with his sixth different NBA team, has an option year left on his contract with Atlanta but said he will wait and see what changes are made before deciding whether he will return.
And he isn't the only one curious about what will happen this summer. Center Al Horford, who joined Johnson on the All-Star team for the first time in February, has questioned the effort put forth by his teammates.
"In the playoffs, the last thing you should be worried about is guys being ready to play, but I didn't see the effort,'' Horford said. "Guys should be held accountable. Our chemistry is just OK. At times, it's good. Other times it's not so good. Our guys mesh to a certain extent, but when things don't go our way, everyone seems to crawl into their own little hole. It will be interesting to see what happens (with the roster). You can only hope for the best.''
Johnson certainly isn't the only one at fault in this series. Point guard Mike Bibby, who signed a three-year contract extension before the season, has lost his quickness and struggles to defend anyone. Enigmatic power forward Josh Smith has settled too often for outside jump shots. Horford isn't physically strong or big enough to handle Magic center Dwight Howard.
"We have to be able to handle adversity better, to take a punch and get back up. You can't take a punch, lay there and let a guy kick you,'' said Hawks guard Jamal Crawford, the NBA's Sixth Man Award winner. "This has looked like an NCAA Tournament with a No. 1 seed against a No. 16. It never should have gotten this bad.''
Everyone in the Atlanta locker room Sunday said they expected a much better showing on Monday, but they said the same thing before Saturday's 30-point debacle. No one expects them to win the series, but they will be expected at least to be competitive. Whatever happens might just set the tone for the summer.
"We haven't played with much effort in this series. (Saturday), it was non-existent,'' Woodson said. "That's disappointing because it's a reflection on me. Sometimes when you lose, you find out a lot about your team.''