NBA / Dec 23, 2009 / 8:30 am

Can the Hawks win a championship?

Joe Johnson (photo. Zach Wolfe)

Joe Johnson (photo. Zach Wolfe)

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?

Josh Smith (photo. adidas)

Josh Smith (photo. adidas)

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 — 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 — 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?

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  • JP

    Being from ATL and watching every Hawks game live or in person I’ve noticed a lot of things about them.
    1. Joe Johnson IS a superstar, and he’s playing much better than last year, putting up similar numbers with less minutes

    2. Josh Smith is the most important player on the team. When he’s filling the stat sheet, he causes major problems.

    3. J. Crawford is the perfect guy coming off the bench and can put up numbers.

    4. They really REALLY do not like the Celtics and aren’t afraid of them like most teams. They are very a confident team.

    5. One player away from a the CHIP! Prediction, East finals, loss to Celtics.

  • SVG

    Magic or Celtics at full strength take these guys out in 6 games at the most. I like the Hawks but they just aren’t there yet. The Celtics have too much in the starting 5 and Orlando OWNS Atlanta. Every time they meet it seems like the Magic are up 20 from the get-go.

  • Brown

    FYI Austin, it’s the Stanley Cup Finals, not the NHL Finals.

  • no j mayo

    I’ll play Austin Burton for a second:
    “Now, if the Hawks could just find a way to trade for TMAC (for Josh Smith?) they could elevate themselves to REAL contenders.”

  • KnicksFan84

    Austin seems to have good intentions writing his columns but sometimes I think your sports knowledge is equivalent to a foreign project player like Desegana Diop: “Talent is there, but knowledge of the game and fundamentals are raw”

    NHL Finals… SMH.

    But besides that, yeah good article. Pretty much agree with it.

  • http://www.petsocietyhelp.com Pet Society Help

    Bring back Mookie Blaylock and Mutombo and you prob have a chance.

  • relll

    The Hawks could go to the finals if they had 1 playoff proven superstar. So far the last 2 years, Joe Johnson hasn’t done anything in the playoffs. He had one great game against Boston and 1 great game again Miami and that’s it. I like Joe Johnson but I don’t think he can lead a team to the finals.

  • http://www.myspace.com 40 cal bouncemag.com

    Nope! This is actually a case of the 80’s repeating itself, there going to have to go through Boston and I don’t see that happening anytime soon in a playoff game, there record looks great and they are a very good team but that’s what paper champions are made of!

  • http://dime eyes

    Sundiata Gaines or a playmaker. A young PG or even Rafer Alston. I’ve said it before he could start or even come of the bench & help this team over the hump. He’s familar with the Orlando system. He could shoot & play D and he’d pick up the tempo helping players like Smith get more easy buckets along with Marvin Williams. Rafer”Skip”Alston is the answer here and he has a chip & owes Orlando something. He’d be able to help move the ball around & JJ #’s & Horford would go up. Win Win if not him. I’d even try my cards With Jamal Tinsley. A sign & trade come February could allow them to contest this yr. They’re talented enough & have all the parts except pg. Bibby is good but would be better served in limited minutes as he’s a defensive liability. Teague isn’t ready just yet.

  • SaggyWheels

    Cb4 next season and it’s on.

  • fiyaman

    damn picky picky are we..

    whats the difference btwn Stanley Cup and NHL finals? damn people change ur pads

  • Diego

    I am a big Hawks fan and see them play almost all home games live. Some thoughts:

    (i) JJ really is excellent. A few bad playoff series have tainted folks view of him, but he really is great (albeit below Kobe, LeBron and Wade (not as much re. Wade)).

    (ii) Last year’s whitewash vs. Cleveland is not indicative. Marvin, Josh and Horford were all not up to par physically. Thise year they are all healthy and jumping out of the gym.

    (iii) Horford and Josh are much improved this year. Enough about Horford’s size! I’ll take his combo of strengh (and now he knows how to use it) and soft touch in the paint against any center in the East except Dwight.

    (iv) Bibby is great fit for this team. We don’t need another first string point. There is only one ball to share, and Bibby handles his role great. Teague is too young though and when going gets tought, Crawford or JJ is 2nd string point.

  • Diego

    —Continuation of above–sent e-mail inadvertantly.

    (v) BUT Hawks still realistically won’t win title. I think they have better talent than Boston and will beat Boston in any series this year. Boston just is not that good!!! Hawks also can beat the Cavs, unless the refs dictate otherwise. Orlando has too much talent and depth (and a certain mojo over Atlanta) and similarly, Hawks can’t take Lakers. So, no Hawks don’t win chip this year, because they won’t be able to get by Orlando (if that match-up occurs) and they definitely won’t get by the Lakers.

  • http://heckler@aol.com Heckler

    maybe they should try to bring back Josh Childress.
    then we can talk about them getting to the chip round.

    until then, they are just a 2nd round team. however, i dont think anyone on here minds watching the hawks. i surely dont. i kinda root for them.

  • http://twitter.com/sum_cut_up emory

    marcus camby is the guy that they need…his contract is up after this year…maybe clips give him up when griffin comes back

  • Diego

    @ Heckler:

    Bringing back Childress would be great. Basically, he would be upgrade over Mo Evans, plus he can handle the ball quite well, and a lot of times Woodson used him as kind of a point/forward to bring the ball up. Hawks could use that because Teague just has a long way to go.

    But big thing next year is for JJ not to jump ship if someone dangles more $ at him. (I think it would be a mistake by him because he has chance to become real Hawks icon (Dominique lite), if he stays with the team.)

  • kevin k

    I do agree with your article for the most part but Austin, as an ATL native who watches almost all the Hawks’ games, please, pleassssssssssse watch the games before you write some nonsense down.

    You mentioned Mike Bibby in the All Star selection twice… you kidding me??? He’s a cancer. In two of the Hawks’ loses to Orlando and Knicks, Bibby let Anthony Johnson who was avging like 1 ppg drop 17 in 21 min. He let Chris Duhon who had couple 0 – something drop 25 pts and 10 assists. Mike Bibby can’t guard anyone. He makes Steve Nash look like Bill Russell.

    I hate Coach Woodson. He seriously has like 3 plays in his offensive arsenal. BUT, you know what coaching change he did after losing 4 out of 6 this season that works?? He used to always take out Marvin Williams first for Jamal Crawford. Now he takes out Bibby first instead of Marvin, and the Hawks have won 7 out of last 8. I wonder why?

    Do you know or notice the difference in Joe Johnson’s game this year compared to last 2 years? Yea, he’s putting up similar stats, but his game style is lot more different and most importantly, more efficient. Do you? Of course not. you don’t watch the game but base everything on numbers.

    Al Horford is a stud. He plays hard, very efficient, and is a team player. BUT, we struggle against teams that have a legit C. Orlando owns us. Cavs have Shaq. We match up well against the Celtics, but Rondo will run over Bibby.

  • http://dime eyes

    I like the Marcus Camby pick up. NICE. Childress coming back would be a big boost as well. Bibby is a great fit for them not to win the championship. He’s good but that isn’t what they’re trying to acheieve. Just say you don’t like Alston. LOL. I’m only trying to give you who’s out there that would work. W/O a top tier or above avg offensive & defensive PG. This team stands no chance. Bibby isn’t a faciltator. He spaces to court with his jumpshot & cannot score enough to even out what he gives up. He can’t stay in front of 3rd tier guards now. White Chocolate would be an upgrade for him. Has Bibby had a major injury? WHy does he seem so old & slow out there. I forget he’s a pick & pop guy that needs screens.

    This team gets a floor leader they win this yr. With Chris Paul(Draft blunder) They win the N.B.A. championship this yr over the 2man Laker team. One being not human. Why is Kobe that good? Derek Fisher kills me in the starting line up. He said he has 5 more years to go. ROFL. If you can’t do what little you have to do on this roster. You really stink and should be ashamed of yourself. Farmar,Vujaic especially. With all that talent the Lakers should just be better.

  • http://dime eyes

    Javele Mcgee project but him & Smith manning the paint would be Block R US. Go After Gortat or B.Bass as well. Makes some moves this yr and you guys are the Warriors of 06 that go all the way to the finals. Anything is possible. Bibby has calmed this team but a veteran he should understand aside from the $$ he makes he be better suited coming of the bench just looking to score. I’d even take a flyer on Eddy Curry for the remaining yr & Nate Robinson. I’m a Hawks fan & just want to see them win now. Before they break up. The goal is to win Championships right???? Not just be good enough. What better city than NY & all the others than the ATL SHORTY- PEACE SIDE DOWN. COULD YOU IMAGINE HOW BIG THAT WOULD BE IN THE A. MANNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN

  • Diego

    Okay, I guess I had low expectations for Bibby this year, so I am happy with his performance. But I agree his defense is a real liability.

    The chemistry is really flowing now, so I would not mess it up too much. Gortat is not that much an upgrade over Zaza. Hawks really don’t need another gunner in Nate; it is a minor miracle that there have been enough shots and points to keep both JJ and Crawford happy.

    But an athletic, veteran, defensive-minded point guard (doesn’t need to be a big scorer) added would be very nice. I definitely do not have faith in Teague to play clutch minutes. And sooner or later Bibby will miss some games due to injury.

  • JP

    Wow are you guys serious! The Hawks need a legit 7 footer to contend for the CHIP. If they were able to get Candyman aka Marcus Camby, there would be problems for the EAST and West!

    Mike Bibby is a VET! Point blank period. He’s one of the best SET shooters in the game. Plus he runs the team the way a PG is supposed to, this far out weighs him being a defensive liability.

    J. Chill is never coming back to ATL lol, cancel that idea.

    JJ is playing better because he finally has help. This year teams can’t double and triple him like last year. So he can Iso and destroy.

  • Diego

    Unless we can package Jason Collins and some Hawksbucks to the Clippers for Camby, I’ll pass on that.

    Camby would be a nice guy off the bench to relieve Horford and Smith (with Horford moving to pf when Smith is on bench), but I sure would rather have Horford and Josh Smith as our 2 big guys starting. (And if you think Smith is a small forward, please just don’t post any more comments regarding Hawks basketball.)

    Basically, this Hawks team should be compared to the Pistons that won the title (not saying the Hawks are as good)–a nice ensemble cast. (No coincidence Woody was assistant coach with that team.) Only big downsides (not really Bibby vs. Chauncy imo, although I know Chauncy is better) is Zaza, Joe Smith and Jason Collins are not exactly Okur, Big Nasty and Elden Campbell, and there is no vet. back up point.

    Horford is better than the vast majority of centers in the league today–including the Cavs player formerly known as Shaq.

  • http://twitter.com/sum_cut_up emory

    al horford is better than shaq in the stat columns and on nba live 10, but when the REAL season starts (read:the playoffs) we’ll see how good he really is.

  • http://twitter.com/sum_cut_up emory

    they need another QUALITY (read: borderline all-star) big man in order to compete with the real contenders

  • chris

    atlanta has a good chance of getting past orlando AND boston to the nba finals for the simple reason they are young, and way likelier to be healthy at years end than either boston (pierce, allen, garnett ALL healthy? not a good bet) or orlando (carter, jason williams). last time i checked dwight howard was only 6’9″, tho’ he plays bigger – atlanta’s chances of getting to the finals would be much better if they added a big like camby, or serge ibaka, or biedrens, but you know portland is thinking the same thing, now that oden and pryzbilla are gone. beating the lakers in the finals? i don’t think so…watching artest, gasol, bynum and bryant getting used to playing as a group is scary.

  • wolves fan

    I see the hawks having too much talent not to make it to the East finals. Smith has owned KG since he got into the league. Something about his game that makes garnett look stupid and Im even talking about mvp season KG.

    I see the keys to the Hawks being Marvin Williams and Bibby determining how far they go. if those 2 dont show up, its going to be tough

  • D.H.


    You don’t seriously think that Orlando would trade anybody to the Hawks? That is a quick way to lose your job as GM, if anything did come of it.

    The Hawks do need 2 more pieces, a PG and a big (7 footer).

    What about Sessions? I’m not sure if Minni would trade him (or what ATL could offer), but he’s a big guard that could distribute and defend.

    Luther Head could work, but may not be the right fit.

    As for bigs, Oberto or Brezec might work. Both are on non-playoff teams and could likely be had for cheap.

    Just some thoughts. I’ve always been impressed by Crawford’s game and am excited to see him finally get a taste of some real games.

  • http://astrokidz.blogspot.com T.J.

    I think the Hawks have a chance at a chip. Maybe not this year but then again the Hawks are known to surprise people. A lot of people underrate Mike Bibby he seriously plays a bigger role than you think. I agree with what people say about picking up a 7 footer. We need a shot-blocker that can change some shots because when Josh and Al aren’t on the court together we aren’t really a shot-blocking threat. Heck, they don’t even attempt to block shots as much. I think a Marcus Camby or Javale McGee could help that.

    JJ can takeover when needed but sometimes it seems like he’s trying too hard. J-Smoove is a beast. If he could not get called for so many fouls then he’d get alot more PT in clutch situations. Jeff Teague is a beast. I honestly think that we’re set at the 1 spot.

    JJ would be making a mistake if he left ATL this year. I think if we keep together this group we could pull a chip in a year or two. Idk why but Orlando seems to always hit their threes against us like its nothing. Them and LA are our only MAJOR problems when it comes to beating the elites

  • Rufus

    All the Hawks need is a Back-up PG who can play “D”(Kyle lowry)…is my suggestion. Maybe a 7ft shoot blocker, Javele Mcghee.

    I don’t subscirbe to the idea that the Hawks can’t beat the Celtics or Magic. The Celtics are old an unathletic and the Magic are a mediocre defensive team(excluding Dwight and Pietrus). The Hawks have an equal shot to make it to the NBA finals, but without a quick PG they have no chance to beat the Lakers.

    The Hawks are tougher and more athletic than any team in the east…

  • http://twitter.com/PoppiGEE POPPI GEE

    No not with that coach.