As little attention as I pay to hockey, I always make sure to catch the final seconds of the clinching game of the NHL Finals. And amidst my second-favorite team sports celebration (after an NCAA Tournament upset), there always seems to be one guy on the newly-crowned champs who’s happier than everyone else, the guy who’s been in the League 15-20 years without winning a Stanley Cup.
In the NBA, Jamal Crawford is that guy, but worse. In a league where half of the teams make the playoffs, Crawford is 10 years deep in the game without even making a postseason. So when he was traded to the Atlanta Hawks over the summer, we all figured that at least Crawford’s playoff drought would be over.
But two months into the season, should we be talking about Crawford and the Hawks as a realistic threat to win a championship?
History and knee-jerk reactions say no. For starters, ATL is young, and young teams don’t win titles. Second, they don’t have a superstar on the level of Kobe, Duncan or D-Wade who can carry them to a ‘chip. Third, they’re the Atlanta Hawks. Getting to the conference finals would be the Super Bowl for them; this isn’t the Lakers or Celtics or Spurs, where championships are an annual goal.
Hopefully you were able to tell that all the reasons given in that last paragraph amount to a plate full of wish sandwiches this season.
The Hawks aren’t as young and inexperienced as you’d think: Mike Bibby is a 12-year vet with 69 playoff games under hs belt. Joe Johnson is 28 years old and has already been through postseason showdowns with Paul Pierce, LeBron and Wade. Throw in veteran role players like Crawford, Joe Smith and Mo Evans that have been around the block a few times, and the Hawks aren’t exactly brand-new.
And as far as superstars go, Joe Johnson is up there with the NBA’s elite — he’s just not as famous. Johnson is on his way to a fourth straight All-Star appearance, averaging 21.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, one of only three players in the League posting 20-5-5 each night (LeBron and Tyreke Evans being the others).
And the last one is all about reputation, which is only relevant if you believe in curses and birthrights in sports. These Hawks have made the playoffs two years running and have progressed each year: #8 seed and a first-round exit in ’08, #4 seed and a second-round exit in ’09. Is the next step a championship?
Not so fast. Let’s go back to last year, in my Fake Contenders column that included this section:
“Pretenders” are teams that have talent, that can get into the playoffs, but there’s no real reason for anyone to think they can actually win a championship (think ’09 Atlanta Hawks). Fake contenders are a different animal: You can’t completely write them off because of what they have â€” at least one playoff-proven superstar, a handful of established vets with postseason experience, usually a good coach, a deep bench and they play adequate defense â€” but so many things have to fall into place for them to win the ‘chip, it doesn’t make sense to take them as a realistic title threat.
To Atlanta’s credit, they have stepped up to at least a fake contender — and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. In addition to signature wins at Boston and at Dallas, the Hawks have been exposing other pretenders and fake contenders all year: they’ve scored decisive/blowout wins over Utah, Portland, Toronto, Chicago, Miami, New Orleans, Washington and Denver.
My plan Tuesday night was to watch the Hawks/Wolves game closely to gain some more insight for this column, but I only learned two things: (1) I wouldn’t learn much by watching a game involving Minnesota, and (2) At the very least, the Hawks are for real. This isn’t just a hot streak. Josh Smith has never played better, Johnson has been unstoppable at times, Al Horford should get All-Star consideration, and Bibby is efficiently running the show even though his numbers are down.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m watching a team that just doesn’t have enough to go all the way. I can’t explain it, but you know how there’s one or two NCAA teams every year that smash the competition throughout the regular season, but you just know in your gut all along they won’t win it all? Last year it was Oklahoma and UConn; in the NBA, it was the Nuggets.
The Hawks (20-7) are that team this year. Blame the coach — Mike Woodson is one of those types who could win Coach of the Year in 2010 and be fired by 2012 — or blame the players, but I just don’t see this group winning a title, despite how well they’re playing right now. In a seven-game series against a Cleveland or Boston or Orlando, we’d be reminded that Smith still can’t shoot, that Bibby still can’t run, that Horford still can’t get any taller. And somewhere, some team will take advantage.
I’ll go ahead and amend my preseason “ceiling/basement” prediction: I think the 2010 Atlanta Hawks can make the conference finals, and I can’t see them losing in the first round to any of the East’s 5-8 seeds. But they’re not ready to win a championship. At least not yet.
Do you think the Hawks can win the 2010 NBA championship?