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Shaun Powell

Josh Smith
Josh Smith is averaging 13.7 points and 9.4 rebounds a game this season.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

For the Hawks, that last championship step remains a doozy

Posted Nov 11 2010 9:59AM

ATLANTA -- You know, the Hawks aren't such a bad team.

Their coach, in his first year, hasn't been half bad so far. Their general manager, either. Their superstar, Joe Johnson? Not so bad. Their core players, bench, sixth man -- even the arena where they play -- not bad at all.

Then why are the Hawks in such a lousy situation?

We mean lousy, in relative terms. The Hawks aren't Timberwolves lousy, nothing like that. They just can't seem to shatter the glass ceiling above their heads. That makes for a lousy feeling of helplessness. They'll probably win 50 games again and put a player in the All-Star Game and reach the playoffs, but will never be lumped with the Magic, Heat and Celtics, the kingpins of the East.

It looks like the same-old, same-old for these Hawks, who breezed to a 6-0 start before crumbling down the stretch to the Suns, then receiving their annual lumps from Orlando, then taking a 17-point lashing at home to the Bucks. It was a three-game slide that only fueled the belief Atlanta is strictly second-tier. Which isn't so bad. Plenty of teams would love to be stuck in such a rut.

But if you're the Hawks, after using the last 4-5 years adding pieces and building to this point, you wonder: when's the breakthrough coming?

Is the breakthrough coming?

Larry Drew isn't having any of that talk. The first-year coach looks at this season as one of "positive growth" and believes the Hawks will not repeat the nightmare of last spring, when they were exposed by the Bucks without Andrew Bogut in the first round, then pummeled by the Magic in a sordid sweep the next.

"Our confidence is high," Drew said.

Perhaps. But here in the early going, there's nothing to suggest the Hawks are bringing a better team for 2010-11. There's no new face in the lineup or the rotation. Mike Bibby is still the starting point guard, and while he's actually off to a decent start (43 percent on 3-point shooting), the idea in the preseason was to have second-year man Jeff Teague assuming the controls.

Well, Teague is getting 15 minutes off the bench and giving mixed results, same as he did under Mike Woodson, who was accused of hurting Teague's progress. Could it be that Teague, who needs to get tough-minded and stay under control, just isn't starting material, that he's merely a backup?

Jordan Crawford led all rookies in scoring in the preseason, only to be buried on the bench since the season began. And that's about the extent of the new blood for the Hawks. Meanwhile, the Magic added Quentin Richardson, the Celtics reeled in Shaquille O'Neal (who rejected the Hawks) and Jermaine O'Neal, and the Heat ... well, you know what they did.

Not that you can blame Rick Sund, the team's general manager. His hands are somewhat tied, given the financial restraints of the franchise. The Hawks aren't necessarily a small-market team, but they have small-market issues. They don't sell out regularly at Philips Arena (only 11,211 showed up Wednesday night for Milwaukee), and the ownership group therefore will not dive deeply into luxury-tax land (not that you can blame them).

The Hawks hired Drew on the cheap last summer, and while they did fork over $120 million for Johnson (some folks thought Atlanta was nuts) and extended Al Horford by $60 million, there's nothing left for Jamal Crawford, the reigning Sixth Man winner. Basically, the Hawks locked themselves into the Johnson-Horford-Josh Smith trio, a fine one compared to more than half the league. But probably not enough for the Hawks to move themselves into championship pole position.

The X-factor is supposed to be Marvin Williams. He's only 24. He's also had a very inconsistent career, is somewhat of an underachiever considering the Hawks drafted him No. 2 and then gave him an extension two summers ago, and on this team he is clearly the fourth option. Williams would be better used as trade bait, where the Hawks could find a point guard or a raw, young big man and entertain the thought of shifting Horford to power forward, where some NBA types believe is his more natural position.

"We've played together for a while now," said Smith. "We're as anxious as everyone else. We still think we have what it takes to win in this league."

Win? Of course. The Hawks can do that, times 50.

Win a championship? That's a whole 'nother thing.

The word is the Hawks could be for sale if the right buyer came along. But who'd pay top dollar in this financial climate for a club that historically has never been a hot ticket in town, even during the Dominique years? Would you pour money into a roster if there was no return at the gate and little chance to turn a reasonable profit? Besides, new ownership doesn't always translate into better ownership.

But life as a 50-win team isn't so bad, if you can get past the part about your nose being perpetually pressed against the display window, looking at all that championship hardware beyond your reach.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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