In the East, the Hawks' 3-0 record against Boston is creating hope that they may be that sleeper team. But those kinds of upsets are rare in the NBA: Each of the last 14 champions has been a No. 1 or 2 seed in its conference tournament. The Hawks are limiting themselves to 13 players while maintaining a $65 million payroll -- $20 million less than the Celtics and about $15 million cheaper than the Cavs or Magic. In these disparities the Hawks find themselves in the role of the Minnesota Twins trying to match up against the Yankees -- meaning they won't have the manpower to deal with Cleveland, Boston and Orlando if all of those expensive contenders are healthy.
I have always found it hard to dislike the Atlanta Spirit. They were a large ownership group with bad organization over who could and could not make decisions, and that caused one moderate blunder with Belkin (and I say moderate because it has really had no effect on the team other than PR). Yes, bad moves were made by the GM (along with good moves), and for some of us, a coach has been in place for too long, but really, these are rich team problems. These are poor team problems. Basically, these are NBA problems.
Yet, where Atlanta bucks the normal NBA trend is they keep getting better. Considering Atlanta's previous history with free agents and the current team standing, the Joe Johnson deal worked. And the Spirit have put a team on the floor that has slowly, earned the trust of the fans. Philips is not what it should be, but it is leaps and bounds over what it used to be. Plus, the ownership has shown a willingness to take on some salary when it mattered like the playoff push in 2008.
The ownership is still losing money, but I have a hard time penning that on them. They, hopefully, knew they were going to take loses those first couple years, and with the ownership issues and fans just not showing up in the numbers the team's record dictates they should, the Spirit are still fighting to survive. I am sure they are racking their brains as to how to put a product on the court that will sell out Tuesday night games, but at some point, it is on the city to show up.
All that is to say, the Atlanta Hawks are the small market success story of this season (yes more than the Spurs than 15 million more in payroll). We are the Twins. We don't have the money to toss around, and yet we are competing with the big boys. We are bucking the odds. So often we, as Hawks fans, look at the past and shout 'what ifs" about Chris Paul or see the future seven game series and say "what's the point we can never win the whole thing." But I think the perspective to take is the Hawks are the fly in the ointment. They are the middle finger to those Yankees of the NBA.
Atlanta bucks the trend, and I for one will look forward to our trip to the Eastern conference finals and it will be all the more satisfying to pick up our luxury tax check along the way.