Guerry Clegg commentary: Believing in these Hawks is easy

sports@ledger-enquirer.comApril 29, 2014 

There's a part of me that cautions, "Let's not get carried away." Yes, the Atlanta Hawks are one win away from becoming only the sixth No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed.

We have seen enough RoadRunner cartoons to know better than to root for Wile E. Coyote. No matter how clever his plan, he always wound up with an anvil on his head or flames on his tush.

The source of caution is threefold. One, the Indiana Pacers have clearly demonstrated themselves to be apathetic and dysfunctional. Two, the Hawks haven't won anything yet. They just hold a 3-2 series lead. And three, even if they get past the Pacers, they still must contend with two other teams, including one with LeBron James, just to reach the NBA Finals.

Still …

For the first time since Dominique Wilkins was shipped off to the Clippers for Danny Manning, the Hawks have hope.

Oh, they have had some pretty decent teams since then. Many of those teams were better than this one, which is decidedly average. But unlike those late '90s teams of Mookie Blaylock and Dikembe Mutombo or the recent bunch of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, these Hawks seem to have legitimate hope.

So why am I suddenly bullish on a team that just two weeks ago I said would have been better off missing the playoffs?

There are several key reasons, starting with their accommodating first-round opponents. With Chicago's Derrick Rose missing almost all of the past two seasons with injuries, the Eastern Conference has consisted of two superior teams -- Miami and Indiana -- followed by varying shades of mediocrity. The implosion of the Pacers means that the rest of the East behind Miami is suddenly up for grabs.

Granted, the Pacers' troubles have no bearing on the gap between the Heat and the Hawks. But James won't be with the Heat forever. There's a slight chance he could opt out of his contract this summer and go to a Western Conference team. Even if he stays in Miami, his contract is up in two years, at which time he would be almost 32. How long can James remain the most physically dominating player in the game?

But the Hawks also are different. They play with more unity, more passion and more focus than the Mike Woodson-Larry Drew run teams, which relied more on Smith's freakish athleticism and Johnson's scoring. They spread the floor with shooters and force teams to defend the entire perimeter. Point guard Jeff Teague is the playmaker those other teams lacked. All they need offensively is stronger presence inside. And that leads to another source of hope.

Al Horford returns next season. It's easy to forget that the Hawks were arguably the third-best team in the Eastern Conference before losing Horford for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. They were 16-13 before Horford's injury and 22-31 after. Getting him back will be huge.

They still won't have a true franchise player that all great teams have. But what they do have is something lacking for ages -- direction. General manager Danny Ferry has reshaped the roster and coach Mike Budenholzer has remodeled the culture in the mold of the San Antonio Spurs. The recent addition of Steve Koonin as a minority owner and naming him CEO helps bring stability to upper management.

Together, Ferry, Budenholzer and Koonin give the Hawks credibility, which is prerequisite to establishing Atlanta as a bona fide NBA city. So if the Hawks can't become bad enough to draft a franchise player, perhaps they can become credible enough to attract a franchise free agent.

Like, say, LeBron?

OK, so maybe I really am getting carried away. Why not?

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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