ATLANTA – Five seasons ago the Atlanta Hawks made the organization’s first postseason in nine years, losing in seven games in an exciting first-round series to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics.
For the next three years, the Hawks advanced to the second round, but could go no farther.
On Thursday, the Hawks, as the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed, were eliminated in the first round, again by the Celtics, but this time in six games.
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Such a pattern begs the question as to whether this group of Hawks has hit its peak and whether major changes need to be made to the core players who have been present throughout the current five-year postseason run. That core – center Al Horford, guard Joe Johnson and forwards Josh Smith and Marvin Williams – have been together for each of those five seasons, with Smith the first arrival in 2004-05.
Coach Larry Drew and those key players all agreed on Friday that the Hawks have not yet hit their peak – Johnson, at 30, is the oldest – but some other veterans who have not been on the team as long and, therefore, have some distance to speak on the subject maybe a little more analytically, had some insightful comments about what the Hawks need to do to break through to the conference finals.
Guard Kirk Hinrich, who was acquired before the 2010-11 trade deadline from Washington, said he thinks the Hawks “are not that far away” but have some room to improve.
“I just think it comes down to commitment, being that team, getting that experience, feeling it and wanting more,” said Hinrich, 30, who completed his ninth season in the league and will be a free agent.
Hinrich said he had no preconceived notions about whether he would be back. Another player in the same boat is forward Tracy McGrady, 32, who just completed his 15th season. McGrady also is a free agent and said he has not yet thought about whether he will return.
One of the criticisms of the Hawks over the years has been that they are a team that is not mentally tough enough. In losing the series to Boston, the Hawks lost three close games, including Game 6 when they couldn’t hold a three-point lead in the final minutes.
McGrady believes that is one of the areas – closing out games — in which the Hawks need to improve when he was asked what characteristics the team might be lacking.
“I wouldn’t say what we’re lacking,” he said. “I just think you got to do a better job of, if the team comes back the same, find better ways to execute down the stretch of ballgames. You’ve got to be mentally tough, physically tough and we’ll see what happens if we take care of those two things.”
McGrady said the biggest factor is learning how to close out games like Thursday’s.
“When you have the lead, learn how to build on those leads and maintain that,” he said. “You can sit here and talk about a lot of things, but we just have to learn how to close out games.”
How does a team does learn that? It’s hard to simulate in practice.
“That’s just the help of coaching, individually, being mental tough, understanding situations, clock management,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that play into it and the guys who are out there all have to be on the same page and got to understand how to do that.”
While some fans might be tiring of waiting for the Hawks to mature, Johnson, the team’s leading scorer, said he thinks that the team needs more “time and maturity” to get to the next level.
“We’ve got a lot of great pieces here,” he said. “I would like to see us come back and give it another go.”
Nine of the team’s players are free agents but that core – Johnson, Smith, Horford and Williams – are all under contract. Other key decisions that the organization needs to make involve the status of general manager Rick Sund and coach Larry Drew.
Sund’s contract reportedly is up and the team has to decide whether to pick up an option on Drew, who just completed his second full season.
“My situation is I haven’t spoken to anybody about it,” Drew said. “I’ll be talking to my representative sometime next week just to see if he’s heard anything from them, as far as the direction they want to go in, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not something right now I’m going to worry myself about.”
He was asked if Sund’s situation affects his.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never been in this situation before. I’m new at this. I don’t know. That’s a good question. I will know more once I speak to my representative on how all this works, given what Rick’s situation is, how that affects me. I honestly couldn’t give you an honest answer.”
Drew said the team has a deadline by which it must pick up his option but he said he did not know what the date was off the top of his head.
Nonetheless, he said he thinks the Hawks are a team that is “knocking on the door.” He said it was too early to discuss what changes the Hawks might make and if, potentially, they might affect the core.
“Again, then, that’s just something we’re going to have to sit down and talk about as a staff,” he said. “That won’t be my decision. I’ll sit down with upper management and see the direction they want to go. Certainly, we’ll have a long discussion and a lot of dialogue about that. We’ll have to sit down when the time comes to talk about that to see exactly the direction we’re going to go.”
The team also has potential decisions to make about Smith, who was arguably the team’s best player this season with injuries to Johnson and Horford. Next year is the last on his contract and prior to the trade deadline there were reports that he wanted to be traded. He would not discuss that subject on Friday, but he did say the team was not able to enter into discussions with him about a contract extension because of the way his last deal was concluded. He said that because he was signed to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent that the Hawks matched, the Hawks are not able to negotiate with him right now.
“Well, I can’t be extended because they didn’t give me my money,” he said. “I had to go get it. That’s something I have to play it out and see how it goes from there.”
Many of the big decisions regarding this team – and whether it keeps going forward or regresses — are all things that will have to play out.