— For just under a decade, the status quo for Atlanta’s basketball franchise has been what is known in the computer world as “sleep mode” — the state of being in which a machine idly wastes away at less than full capacity, with a lazy screen saver image occasionally drifting across the monitor’s dim void.
The team’s track record over the past nine seasons is representative of a lengthy and decidedly unsatisfying slumber. With no winning seasons since 1998-99 and a combined record of 255-483 during that time, the Hawks have spent the majority of the past decade as one of the NBA’s most inept and unproductive franchises.
But over the span of the last 11 months, Atlanta has begun to fight its longstanding curse of inertia. And through a series of unanticipated jumpstarts, awakenings and revelations, the 39-28 Hawks have quietly established themselves as a legitimate factor in the Eastern Conference. Here’s a look at the key elements of their emergence:
Stage 1: The Warning Shot
You’ve heard about this one before, but as the ignition to the entire process, its importance can’t be overstated. Last spring, the 37-45 Hawks secured the eighth seed in the playoffs and ascended high above nonexistent expectations by taking the 66-16 top-seeded and eventual NBA champion Celtics to a decisive seventh game.
Though they lost Game 7 in demoralizing fashion (a crushing 99-65 defeat in Boston), taking the Celtics to the brink created a new basketball life force in Atlanta. In the wake of that inspired first-round run, the Hawks came away with a sustainable jolt of confidence to propel them through the offseason and beyond, and in the process of discovering a long-lost swagger, they inadvertently established a considerable home-court advantage (more on that in a moment).
Stage 2: The Mindset
It's a relatively well-known fact that Hawks coach Mike Woodson’s offensive sets are about as imaginative as a computer screen saver featuring a couple of monochromatic squares bouncing off the fringes of the monitor.
A lesser-known fact about Woodson’s offense is that its lack of creativity has had the unforeseen benefit of helping to turn shooting guard Joe Johnson into one of the most cutthroat scorers in the league.
Thanks in large part to his constant isolation at the top of the key or on the wing with no clear directive from his coach other than “OK, Joe, go score,” the team’s focal point has adopted the mindset that no one in the league can stop him. And when he has his entire arsenal of short-range floaters and long-distance, pull-up 3-pointers on target, Johnson is undoubtedly among the league’s most difficult players to contain.
The only problem is that there are times that a stagnant and unpredictable offense becomes, well, stagnant and unpredictable. So when Johnson and the Hawks are at their best, it is despite the limitations of their offense, not because of its strengths. And if there’s a glaring weakness to this team’s attack, it is the coach’s inability to make scoring easier for his players. Johnson is good enough to overcome that with surprising frequency, but even the team’s best player isn’t immune to the offense’s inevitable lulls.
Stage 3: The Meaning of Home Turf
During the 2008 playoffs, Atlanta’s Phillips Arena suddenly and unexpectedly became the single-most deafening venue in the NBA, a factor that played a sizable role in the Hawks’ winning all three games over the Celtics in Atlanta.
Since that time, the decibel level at Phillips has dropped considerably (remember, the status quo in Atlanta all these years has been sleep mode), but the Hawks still employ a decided home-court advantage. Their 39-28 record (fourth best in the East) includes a 25-7 mark at home, and a 7-1 record at Phillips since Feb. 10.
Stage 4: The Enigma Awakens (Again)
For Hawks power forward Josh Smith — the explosive 23-year-old with limitless upside but a known penchant for sleepwalking — a lack of intensity has been the clearest factor conspiring to keep him from being a consistently dominant force in the paint.
Yet, even for a player with a tendency to drift, Smith’s 2008-09 campaign has been excessively lackadaisical. His production in points (15.2), rebounds (7.1), assists (2.4), steals (1.4), blocks (1.6) and free-throw shooting (56.1 percent) have all dropped off from his career-best 2007-08 season, a slump that culminated (or bottomed out, as the case may be) with Smith averaging just 11.7 points and 3.9 rebounds during an 11-game stretch from Feb. 10 to March 6.
But on March 6, a halftime dust-up between Smith and Woodson (and subsequent benching of Smith for the second half) helped re-ignite Smith’s competitive intensity. In the five games since that altercation — far from the first disagreement between Woodson and Smith in recent years — the Hawks power forward has averaged 16.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. And in part because of Smith’s rejuvenated play, the Hawks won all five games (including wins over Detroit, Utah, New Orleans and Portland).
Stage 5: Emergence of the Centerpiece
Unlike other grotesquely botched Hawks’ draft picks (such as the selection of Shelden Williams over Brandon Roy in 2006), there was never much question with regard to drafting Al Horford with the No. 3 pick in 2007, a selection Horford validated by averaging 10.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks during a standout rookie campaign.
However, Horford’s anticipated breakout in 2008-09 was slow in the making. Slowed in part by missing 12 games in January because of an injured knee, the second-year center was averaging a somewhat disappointing 10.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks through his first 39 games (as of mid-February).
In the recurrence of a frequent Hawks trend, Horford has since awakened. Now owning the mindset that every offensive touch is an opportunity to score (rather than an obligation to defer to teammates), the Hawks center has averaged 14.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in his last 14 games, giving Atlanta a slightly undersized but unquestionably dangerous option in the middle.
Stage 6: Stay Awake
“Rise Up” has been a prominent Hawks slogan in recent years, but at the moment — with the Hawks on course for their first winning season in nearly a decade and the No. 4 seed in the East — rising up isn’t the issue. The most important thing right now is to stay awake.
Why? Because for a team that’s had trouble maintaining focus, the road ahead requires a daunting amount of attention.
First off, there’s the schedule, which includes matchups against the Cavaliers, Spurs, Lakers, Celtics (twice), Magic and Heat among the remaining 15 games.
Then, there’s the postseason, where in a presumed first-round matchup with the Heat, the Hawks will have to match the intensity and energy of Dwyane Wade, the man who has played with a bigger quantity of both invaluable qualities than perhaps any other player in the league this season.
Beyond the Heat lies the looming threat of the Celtics, and one critical question: Will the lingering effects of last season’s blowout Game 7 loss coupled with two narrow losses to Boston this season prove to be too much of a psychological advantage for the Hawks to overcome?
The answer to that question — and the question of whether this team enters the playoffs with eyes wide open or adrift with inconsistency — is yet to be determined.
But for now, the objective is more immediate: fight the decade-old gravitation toward losing, keep historically bad habits buried in the past and let the next collective awakening resonate as this team’s most forceful statement yet.