On Christmas Eve growing up every year, I used to read Roald Dahl's Matilda. My adolescent mind never rested well with visions of sugar plumb Lego sets and yet somehow the same story, December 24th after December 24th, brought a sense of structure and imagination for me to see and be ready for something new.
Don't get me wrong, I wish the Atlanta Hawks were the Miami Heat, just as I wish every Powerball hit my numbers, but I don't desire those things. I desire the familiar to be made new. The lottery, the Miami Heat, they are new money unearned, and people despise them for it. I want to enter into the story I have read a hundred times, the painting that I have contemplated down to the left corner brush stroke, and I want to see new things.
That was the pleasure of these playoffs. Pundits and bloggers mocked Atlanta. The Hawks will lose against the Magic because they are the Hawks. The Hawks will lose against the Bulls because they are the Hawks. The argument was absurd, and the reason we knew that is we have read the book. We have read it far more than 82 times. The Hawks win games because of Joe Johnson and they lose them because of them. To say the Hawks will lose because they are the Hawks is to admit that they can beat anyone because they are those same Hawks. There was always something absurdly unknown about this team that won and lost the exact same way every time. Indeed, the Hawks actually lost against the Bulls, in part, for the least likely of reasons, Al Horford, and yet somehow lost doing the same thing they always do.
We know the nuances of this team. We know that Josh Smith is a top 20 player or a game killer. Jamal Crawford is the sixth man in the league or a defensive pariah that ruins all good in the world one possession at a time. These are the Hawks. World beaters and passion destroyers. And yet for nearly every fan, this team had grown stale. Management and coaching had stopped providing flexibility so that something new could come out of the same thing and had entrenched this team to work against the fan. And when that happens, the only way a team can be defined is by what they do poorly.
We all tuned into the playoffs out of obligation more than excitement. And out of desperation, flexibility returned. This was very much the same team, but it was that something new that we got excited about. Jeff Teague came forth as the most familiar face in the most unfamiliar way. And in circumstances like that, whether game or life, you can't help but be angry and excited. "Where have you been and how long can you stay?" we screamed. For a brief moment, the Hawks were a team we knew, a team we loved, and yet totally new.
The great crime of Hawks management is that they don't understand the difference between telling the same story in new ways and regurgitation. This playoffs, we saw what could have been, and come summer, we can only hope what may be.
Atlanta became a story with characters we could buy into. It had Jason Collins and Jeff Teague providing imagination that only defined roles can provide. It began to look like real art. I don't mean to cheapen the masters, the people who can bring the child out of us, but from 2006-2009, I watched and wrote about nearly every Hawks game with childlike fascination, and the newness, the excitement of watching the same Joe Johnson curl floater for a first possession was wonderful every time.
In those days, with Josh Smith improving, Joe Johnson entrenching, Al Horford pushing, Flip Murray exploding, this team continued to win and lose the same way, and I loved watching it. Then 2009 happened, and the combination of a Jamal Crawford injection and an internal understanding of Mike Woodson's complete and total simplicity were embraced to produce a terrible fifty win team. And it became clear to everyone, that the story was no longer structured and flexible.
No one showed up to the arena or turned on TV to discover something new. We knew it all, and what we knew was working against us. Iso Joe, jump shot Josh, mechanical Al, no defense Jamal, lobster claw Marvin, the list goes on. At some point in 2009, the Hawks bought into themselves. They stopped playing against the opponent; they stopped responding to the home crowd. They stopped being neutral players spurred on by competition and momentum and started writing their own scripts. And those stories had no buy in and no hope. Those stories became mediocrity.
And you would think when millions are on the line, those losing millions would see it. They would say this is not a story I want to see over and over again. This is not new creation of the same narrative. This is men cashing checks.
But instead, the ownership hired the offensive mind of a terribly run offensive team. They bid against themselves with the largest contract in the league in the greatest free agent market the league has ever seen for a marginal all-star on the down side of his career. They stopped player development and role defining and entrenched themselves in the known. They wanted to stay in the story that was no longer creative. The owners said, "we don't want our fans to come and help create something new, we want to antagonize them by assuming their ignorance. Trick them with another playoff season."
We were not tricked. Instead, attendance went down, TV ratings plummeted to among the leagues worst in a year when nationally they sky rocketed. The Atlanta Hawks became so embedded in nothing they could hardly move. They asked their fans to hope in hopelessness.
Then two weeks ago, Teague happened. And the fans showed up, excitement boiled, hope was kindled. Even after what in the grand scheme of things was just another second round lose, John Hollinger is writing optimistic articles about this team. With what change? The same roster, the same weaknesses, the same coach, the same city.
In the end, the change was we were given the opportunity to read the same story in a new way. This whole season the Hawks were marred in the idea of maintaining the status quo, keeping a group of guys together so that adequate runs to the playoff could remain possible. They didn't want to engage the story for fear of messing it up and therefore, it stopped being a story. The players did not have roles. They were not empowered. They were isolated and selfish, and it was impossible to watch.
If these playoffs have taught me anything, it is that this team is still worth engaging, but the idea that watching Josh Smith shoot jumpers is just the collateral damage of having Josh Smith, that Joe Johnson somehow deserves a certain number of shots because of what has done and how much he gets paid, that Al Horford can float outside the paint more than delve into it, that Jeff Teague can just sit on the bench because this is the way things are is unacceptable. It is going to kill this team and it is going to kill this fan base.
Eight-two games the Hawks had to find something new in the same old story, and instead, from the owners on down, they put the team in cotton balls and hoped for the best come April. That is not why we are fans. That will not work to empower this city, and if the Hawks cannot become creative and bold with Joe Johnson, Jeff Teague, Al Horford, and Josh Smith, then shame on them.
It may mean tough conversation, lop sided trades, and management moves, but we have a good story. We have real hope. It is time for the owners ask, "How can we best tell it?