The answer to my question posed in the title is yes. It's yes in many definitions but it's no in that, throughout the entirely of the run, there have been no illusions about any kind of NBA title.
Zach Lowe noted in his Nuggets piece @Grantland that the teams, like the Nuggets and others, don't want to get into that non-championship no-man's land of being playoff caliber but lacking in what it needs to win it all.
But are the Nuggets set up to be the Western Conference version of the Joe Johnson-era Hawks, only more exciting? A lot of fans turn up their noses at those Atlanta teams; what's the point of being pretty good when there are all-or-nothing alternatives available? But a lot of team executives view Atlanta as a success. It's hard to be a relevant conference semifinalist-type for a half-decade straight.
You won't find many banners flying around Philips Arena with the proclamation of success based on the current playoff run of six seasons in a row, but should it be considered somewhat of a success based on the difficulty of doing so?
Only four teams have as many or more current consecutive playoff season streaks as Atlanta. Those teams are the Nuggets with 10 straight and the Lakers with eight straight. Leading the way are the San Antonio Spurs with an incredible run of 16 straight playoff appearances. The Boston Celtics round out the bunch with an equal number of six straight appearances, starting with the epic showdown with the Hawks in the first round in 2008 NBA Playoffs.
You know who is not on that list? A lot of the teams that are said to have a shot at a title this season: Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City, Houston, Portland and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Which would you prefer as a fan: Longevity like the Nuggets, who have been ousted in the first round of those playoffs every single season during their run except one, or one who makes a run at a title, drops off for any number of reasons, then has to rebuild?
Almost every single fan wants their team to win a title, but the folks who are employed by the owners of these franchises demand winning now. It's clear why executives would look at the Hawks or Nuggets run of playoff eligibility and see that as a feather in the cap of the team.
It's a great gamble to take a team that is in the playoff hunt, scrap it down to the frame and bet on getting the right players to get them back on top.
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When the Boston Celtics ended their playoff run in 1993, with just Robert Parish left behind from their 80's glory days of their original Big Three, they had losing seasons eight seasons in a row until Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce matured into a playoff nucleus. Even then, it was a middling success for four seasons and then it was out for two more until the Celtics swung two big trades to get Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to make their six season run that's expected to end this season.
The poster children for the good, but not great franchises were the Milwaukee Bucks teams of the 1980's. Those teams went to the playoffs 12 straight seasons 1979-80 and 1990-91. Three times those Don Nelson-led teams lost in the conference finals and watched throughout their run as the Celtics, Sixers and then the Pistons and Bulls passed them to greater glory thanks to better top end talent.
Were they a success? By definition of record, history and consistency, absolutely, but by the ultimate goal, to win a championship? They weren't.
#EvenTheHawks have had a run like this previously, when the Lenny Wilkens teams ran off seven straight playoff runs behind Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith and Dikembe Mutombo. They were very tough teams that had excellent talent on them, but weren't good enough to be the best of even the conference, much less the league.
Ten of the 14 teams led by Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello made the playoffs, the later teams led by Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. None made it even as far as the conference finals, so they were a success by a lot of measure for Hawks fans, but their failure to advance has always been the nasty footnote on that era.
Were they a success? By record and play, yes, but by championships, obviously not.
When Pete Babcock watched the last of the Lenny Wilkens playoff teams gets blitzed by the Knicks in the 1999 playoffs, he made the decision to start over. Mookie and Smitty were traded as Babcock embarked on rebuilding.
It took nine very long seasons to get back to the postseason, a stretch dotted with many failed first round picks, poor basketball and myriad punch-lines at the franchise's expense.
Such is the risk with letting go of that playoff run - one false lottery pick or bad free agent signing could limit the success of the franchise moving forward. LeBron James is a no-brainer at the top of a lottery, but there are many years where that's not the case. Few franchise saviors exist from one generation to another, which is why they are celebrated at the end of their careers with a Hall of Fame plaque.
Teams make mistakes in the draft and free agency, and those executives pay with their jobs when they are wrong. Miss on Chris Paul or have an unexplained affection for Shelden Williams and the team suffers, no matter if Al Horford is your next pick. Those misses stunt the growth of the franchise and limit the ultimate upside of the team's climb.
The Hawks run with Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, Mike Woodson and Larry Drew peaked and now drifts into a new era with Danny Ferry at the controls, Mike Budenholzer on the bench and with only Al Horford as a core link to all of those teams.
They look like they will be a playoff caliber team again, stretching their postseason relevance to a likely seventh season and many executives will laud the ability to stay in the mix year after year while fans and the NBA Watchers will yawn at the averageness of the whole endeavor.
It's a success in that it's hard to win in the NBA and even harder to maintain that, season after season, especially when there is that lack of franchise player at the top of the roster. San Antonio has had an amazing run, but it helps greatly to build around David Robinson and then Tim Duncan, for sure.
I don't begrudge anyone for holding out the championship trophy as the only true measure of success - it's what you're supposed to be gunning for, to win it all. But just as I am not willing to toss out Dan Marino, Charles Barkley, Ernie Banks and the like for never winning it all, I am not willing to call these hard-working Hawks teams less than some form of success.
It's not cool to call runs like this a success. Folks want to penalize teams for not accomplishing enough, rather than acknowledge what has actually been accomplished. They aren't champions - that's penalty enough - and it sure beats the agony of a decade of lottery life. It is hard to build a winning team and maintain it in the NBA and the Hawks have been able to do just that.
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