In their quiet way, the Hawks have been a nice story on the Atlanta sports scene this year.
At the start of the season, they were seen as a fringe playoff team, most prominently because they did nothing to improve in the off-season to improve the roster. Rick Sund had to go dumpster diving through the free agent market to fill up the bench, producing Tracy McGrady to replace Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, as well as Willie Green, Jannero Pargo, and Vlad Radmanovic. Sund was almost certainly operating under budgetary restraints set by Atlanta Spirit, the ownership group who spent the summer putting the final nails in the coffin of hockey in Atlanta and trying to sell the Hawks. In short, the team didn't exactly give the fan base a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings coming into 2011-12. Then, Al Horford, arguably the team's best player went down with a shoulder injury early in the season.
For a team that was supposed to be on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff race, this looked like doom.
Lo and behold, the Hawks sit today at 30-20. They have the fifth-best record in the East, one-half game behind Indiana. This Hawks collection announced their arrival to the NBA in 2008 when as the No. 8 seed, they took the heavily-favored No. 1 seed Boston Celtics to seven games in a spirited series. Four years later, the Hawks have passed the Celtics and have a better regular season record.
The biggest reason for the Hawks' surprisingly good play has been Josh Smith, who is having a career year. Smith is posting career-high averages in points and rebounds. Moreover, he hasn't just been putting up numbers as a result of playing more minutes. If you normalize for per-minute rates, his scoring and rebound rates are career highs, his assist rate is the second-highest of his career, and his turnover rate is a career low. He has done all of this while playing every game over the course of a brutal, compressed schedule. Smith has also done this while playing his usual good defense, as he has been one of the major reasons why the Hawks have surged to sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
(The major reasons for this improvement have been a full season from Jeff Teague defending opposing point guards as opposed to Mike Bibby, as well as the subtraction of the defensively-challenged Jamal Crawford.)
So with a team that has been surprisingly good and a home-grown star leading the way, why am I finding myself not caring as much as I should? My routine with the Hawks is to check game recaps and box scores in the morning, as well as watching a few minutes here and there and then listening to Steve Holman's broadcasts whenever I'm in the car.* I've been to one game this year, a home rout at the hands of the Sixers. I'm hardly alone in not feeling passion about the Hawks, as the team is 24th in the NBA in home attendance.** Among teams in playoff positions, only Indiana has a lower average attendance.***
* - Holman has always been a great play-by-play guy, but he has really seen to kick into a higher gear this year in terms of brutal honesty. When the Hawks aren't playing well, Holman is unsparing in his criticism. When the refs are protecting opposing stars, Holman savages the refs. In a post-modern world where we don't expect honest from team-affiliated media, Holman is a breath of fres air. He's taken the mantle from Skip Caray as my favorite radio guy in sports.
** - One explanation is that there are a lot of sports fans in the metro Atlanta area who have just never cared about the Hawks, for good reasons or bad. I'm not in that group. When I was a kid in the area in the 80s, the Hawks were the only good Atlanta team and I went to games about as often as I could convince my parents to schlep me up from Macon to the Omni. I went to a bevy of home games during the 04-05 and 05-06 season when the Hawks were one of the worst teams in the NBA. I ought to care.
*** - I suppose that people in Indiana just don't like basketball.
If I have to come to grips with why I feel the way I feel, the lack of a collective excitement over the Hawks is one reason for me. If Philips Arena were full and loud, then I would be more likely to go to games. Instead, I have to get myself in the right mood to be hectored by Ryan Cameron. SEC football is fun in this market because if I go to a game or watch one on TV, I get the fact that other people care and it makes me want to care. Similarly, I can listen to the radio in Atlanta and get my fill of SEC football discussion, at least between the transparent "we have personalities!" schtick of many of the local hosts. Try to find discussion of the Hawks on the radio.
The second reason why I am having to force myself to get more excited about the local pro basketball collective is the fact that the team has reached a plateau. It's harder to appreciate the team having the fifth-best record in the East when they finished fifth last year, third the year before that, and fourth the year before that. Each of the past three seasons have finished with a narrow win in the first round of the playoffs, followed by an elimination at the hands of one of the elite teams in the conference. Sure enough, the likely end of the road this year in the event that the Hawks win their first-round series is a loss in the Eastern semifinals to the Bulls or Heat. It takes a lot of creativity to imagine a deep playoff run, which is a drag on excitement.
This is an instance where my sports ideology conflicts with my self-interest as a fan. My favorite sports are college football and European club soccer. One of the reasons for these preferences is the fact that these sports have meaningful regular seasons. College football's two-team playoff puts a premium on winning regular season games. In Europe, domestic championships are decided in the fairest way possible: each team plays each other team home and away and the team with the best record at the end is the winner.
The NBA doesn't have this structure. It has the conventional American pro sports model that annoys me: a long regular season, followed by a reset button and then a short tournament during which the long regular season is a total afterthought. However, because: (1) home court advantage matters so much; and (2) the better team tends to win in basketball because the large number of possessions reduces variance, the NBA doesn't lend itself to upsets. If my problem with the NFL and MLB is that undeserving teams like the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants can win multiple championships after merely decent regular seasons, then I should like the NBA. Even on the rare occasions where the NBA produces a surprise champion like Dallas last year, that team is usually a perennial contender that finally broke through from a slightly lower seed.
The NBA is pretty good at crowning a deserving champion, so where does that leave the Hawks? With the Braves and Falcons, we can be excited when they go into the playoffs because the MLB and NFL playoffs have turned into lotteries. The Hawks aren't buying a lottery ticket so much as they are facing a firing squad. As someone who tries to value the big sample over the small one, I should be enjoying the Hawks' solid regular season, but in a league where regular season success is dismissed, I find it hard to step outside of this mindset. Reduced to focusing on the postseason, I try to imagine a Black Swan world of highly improbable events, but with the Hawks, it is hard to make myself believe.