To: Rick Sund, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Atlanta Hawks
From: An NBA fan
I write to you this morning with hope in my heart. Not the sort of hope that fans of other NBA teams feel as the strike-shortened season kicks off. That hope is based on the real possibility that fans of teams like the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls, the Boston Celtics, or even the Oklahoma City Thunder could see their team hold high the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy by winning the NBA Finals in 2012. The Atlanta Hawks, the team you run, has no shot at doing this. My hope for you, then, is that you'll realize this, stop pretending or saying otherwise, blow up this team, and start giving the fans something to look to besides the slow dissolution of a pretend contender.
My credentials to assert such a claim are impeccable. I like basketball a whole lot. I have a mean hook shot for a 5-foot-10 40-something. And, as you can see from the photo that accompanies this story, I was one of many Dallasites whom Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban allowed to have a picture taken with this year's championship trophy. In other words, I'm a championship prognosticator. As such, I can tell you, despite what you and your ownership are selling to Hawks fans, there is no way in hell this team could ever be the league's best.
The reasons are many: overpriced and underperforming stars (Joe Johnson); supremely gifted studs who mentally check in and out of games (Josh Smith); lack of a top-tier point guard (Jeff Teague had a nice playoff series last year, but he isn't the answer); a team that doesn't value advanced statistics as much as the true contenders do. In short, no long-term plan, no chance this team gets better than it's been, which is just good enough to tease.
I know you disagree. I read with arched eyebrows the interview Hawks' co-owner, Michael Gearon Jr., did with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before the season began. And I was struck by just how insane he sounded.
"There are three teams the last three years that have advanced past the first round," he said, "the Lakers—who everybody loves the Lakers—the Celtics, and the Atlanta Hawks. It's not the Dallas Mavericks, it's not the Miami Heat, it's not the New York Knicks, it's not the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's not the Orlando Magic. It's just those three."
Yeees. Go on.
" ... Now last year if, we had lost in the first round or gotten blown out in the second round, our roster would look like a lot different because we would say, 'You know what? Time to make a change, let's blow this up.' Instead, we've got a core group that each year keeps chipping away and getting better. ... One thing nobody has really given us credit for is last year the Atlanta Hawks had the most competitive [second-round] series than they've had in 18 years."
Granted, I just moved here from another city, so maybe this sort of stuff flies with fans. But let me give you an idea of how owners like Mark Cuban talk to fans in Dallas:
<i>The only goal is to win a championship. We've got to get better. We owe it to our fans. Saying we had a really competitive second-round playoff series so leave us alone is ridiculous. Hold us accountable. Et cetera, et cetera.</i>
I know I'm not the only one who sees this problem of low expectations. People who cover the team closely do as well.
"It's a nice core of players," says Jason Walker, lead writer for Peachtreehoops.com, part of the SBNation.com network of sports sites. "Sure, it's a relevant playoff caliber core. But it's a core whose style and efficiency will only carry them so far."
Hawks fans have long known this to be true, Mr. Sund. As Walker also told me, "Sure, you could beat bad teams. And in the NBA, three-fourths of the teams are not great. Your superior athleticism can beat them. But when it comes to playoffs and your isolation offenses, defenses are too good for that. It's inefficient basketball, and it takes a lot of athleticism to overcome that in the regular season. It doesn't work in the post-season."
I don't want to be solely negative. Al Horford is a very nice, very efficient professional basketball player. He takes good shots, plays good defense, makes those around him better. Unlike Josh Smith, the supremely talented, highly inefficient player you have him teamed with. He makes incredible plays, but he also takes terrible shots, plays his team out of close games, and generally could run a clinic on how highlight basketball will only take you so far. It's like watching a fantastic rec-league team. As ESPN's John Hollinger notes, "Smith is an All-Star-caliber talent, but right now shot selection prevents him from becoming an actual All-Star." Pretty much sums up the team.
You can only sell that style of play for so long, Mr. Sund. As Walker says, "This city is very savvy. They can sniff out a pretender." That's why attendance is middling, that's why there is not a sense of excitement around the season. You've got to sell hope to get basketball fans excited, and despite what your owner says, you're selling a spit-shined version of the same old shoe.
In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy told Red, "Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best thing. And a good thing never dies." I'm not sure that's true, Mr. Sund. I think it does burn out, although it can usually be rekindled. In any case, I wouldn't chance it, because it burns pretty low for Hawks fans right now. My one burning hope for the New Year, though, is that you'll do something about that. Be bold. Trade Josh Smith. Get younger. Get smarter. Take a step back and retrench. Give the fans a sense there is something at the end of the journey besides heartbreak and three-pointers hoisted with 20 seconds on the shot clock. The first step, though, is admitting to yourself there's a problem. The next is being comfortable with a rebuilding project, something few general managers are because of most owners' "win-now" approach. But it's okay. You don't have to admit you're doing this. The fans are smart and will see you're trying to build a true championship contender, not just a competitive mirage.
Just don't tell Mr. Gearon.