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Thursday, May 12, 2011
Hawks' future suddenly looks much better

By John Hollinger

ATLANTA -- So, it’s a wrap for the 2010-11 Hawks. But here’s what we can say about Atlanta after two rounds of the playoffs: There’s a future here.

That’s more than we could have said for the Hawks a month ago and abundantly more than we can say for the local hockey team that’s owned, for the moment, by the same group of investors.

None of this was apparent when the postseason began. Atlanta won 44 games in the regular season, down nine from 2009-10, and even that overstated its quality -- the Hawks finished the regular season with more points allowed than points scored. Rookie head coach Larry Drew looked overmatched, second-year guard Jeff Teague looked like a marginal player, and the mix of other players looked uninspiring at its best and toxic at its worst.

Those conclusions are radically different after a solid run into Game 6 of the second round of the postseason -- which, believe it or not, represents Atlanta’s deepest playoff incursion since lasting six games into the second round in 1994. Thus, the Hawks enter the offseason on something of a high note ... even after closing out with a moribund 93-73 defeat by a plainly superior Bulls team.

Heck, even the hockey news might be good news for the Hawks. Sure, it’s not exactly positive for a city’s sports reputation when its history entails losing franchises to both Alberta and Manitoba, but the financial constraints that have limited some of the Hawks’ dealings in recent years could perhaps ease a bit if they can (A) unload the money pit called the Thrashers and (B) eliminate some of the competition for Hawks seats. (For the record, an owner I spoke with had nothing to add beyond “we’re looking for solutions” when asked about the rumored move of the NHL’s Thrashers to Winnipeg.)

That’s perhaps a glass-overflowing look at things, but it’s difficult not to walk away from this spring with a more optimistic view.

For that, we can give big dollops of credit to the growth of both Teague and Drew. Teague hardly played during the regular season, and for the most part, this was on merit -- although Drew had a short leash with him, he did little to earn a longer one. And although his numbers were halfway decent, most his best performances in the regular season came in garbage time.

That changed, dramatically, in this series, and although he struggled with a sprained wrist in Game 6, his first five games established him as the team’s point guard of the future.

In doing so, this also opens up new options for the Hawks that we hardly saw all season. Atlanta can play Teague at the point, Kirk Hinrich at shooting guard and Joe Johnson at small forward -- a look that puts a top-notch scorer, a defensive ace and a penetrating, ball-pushing point guard on the court at once. Or the Hawks can roll with a Teague-Jamal Crawford-Johnson triumvirate (if Crawford returns) on the perimeter that even the defensive-minded Bulls struggled to match up against at times.

Of course, all that depends on Teague being more than a five-game flash in the pan and taking his strong series into next season.

“I’m hoping that Jeff will take this series and build from it,” Drew said. “He did some really good things; he surprised a lot of people. He has shown that he has the ability to be a starter. It’s going to be up to Jeff, how he comes back next year, does he come back with the mentality of being a reserve or the mentality of being a starter? It’s not going to be anything that’s going to be handed to him. He has to show that he wants it.”

As for Drew, he struggled to maintain his grip on the team during the second half of the regular season but eventually got his players to turn the corner in the postseason. Additionally, some of the bizarre tactical choices that plagued him early in the season gave way to more sound strategy as the year went on.

Drew’s bizarre benching of Al Horford with two fouls in the first quarter of Game 2 of the Orlando series seemingly crystallized his struggles against the forces of common sense, but for the rest of the playoffs, he consistently put optimal lineups on the floor.

He also deserves credit for reviving Jason Collins' career and putting him in positions to succeed, and for tinkering with a “big” lineup that moved Josh Smith and Horford to the two forward spots.

As for Horford, he showed dramatic improvement in his midrange shot but his production tailed off during the second half of the season. Drew said Horford will need to improve his footwork to become a more effective low-post scorer. He’s still a bit mechanical on the block, but his deadly pick-and-pop game helped him earn third-team All-NBA honors earlier Thursday.

Work remains, however. Atlanta also could use another scorer to defer attention from the iso-heavy attack of guards Johnson and Crawford, which the Bulls sent the kitchen sink at after the two combined to shred Chicago’s vaunted defense in the opener.

“After Game 1, they made me and Joe’s life a living hell,” Crawford said.

Crawford’s tenure with the team is up in the air, too. Technically, Atlanta can sign him to an extension until June 30, but it appears he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. His departure would leave a void in bench scoring. Atlanta also needs another body in the frontcourt to upgrade the Josh Powell-Hilton Armstrong-Etan Thomas flotsam that lingered at the end of the bench and ideally would pick up a floor-spacing forward for the second unit.

Atlanta has no first-round pick and limited cap space; the luxury tax, depending on the new collective bargaining agreement, is another potential obstacle. Finally, the Hawks likely will shop disappointing forward Marvin Williams, who finished his season with a thud by playing 15 scoreless minutes.

“Are we satisfied? No,” Drew said. “But I thought we made tremendous strides from what happened to us last year and where we are this year.”

A month ago, that would have been a bare-faced lie. And for that reason alone, the Hawks’ postseason run could have a lasting impact going forward.