Friday, May 22, 2009

Official HHB Hawks Season Recap

47 wins, most since 1997-98.

Second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

A 6-0 start to the season, with wins on the road against New Orleans and Orlando that would serve notice that the Hawks competitiveness in the previous season's playoffs was more proof than fluke.

At first pass, one would say that the 2008-2009 season was a successful one for the Hawks and their young core.

Still, the HHB has spent a week on the sports psychiatrist's coach asking this question:

Why, given the simple data that shows improvement, does it feel like such a letdown?

What follows are the (formerly) confidential notes from those sessions:

When (10) Wins Doesn't Feel Like Improvement

As the Hawks were being ushered out of the previous year's post season festivities by the eventual champs, while celebrating the areas that the Hawks had been good at by making the playoff experience the longest it could have been for a first round exit, it was clear there were some areas that the Hawks needed to focus on to improve and build on the playoff berth.

Then the new season started and the Hawks came out with all guns blazing, bursting a 6-0 start that only the heralded Los Angeles Lakers could match. Included in these games were a rousing opening night win in Orlando and a surprising road win against New Orleans. In these games, the Hawks played strong as a unit and seemed intent on making the case that they were serious about taking a step forward from the season before.

Then, Josh Smith got hurt, the streak ended, and the Hawks played six games above .500 the rest of the way. The rest of the way we saw a team that was strong at home, inconsistent at best on the road, and mired in their ways.

Read any blog about the Hawks for this past season and you will see what the HHB is referring to here. Their ways. This would include:

Josh Smith and His Many Ways to Confound, Frustrate, and Entertain (and produce).

Constant slow starts at the beginning of games as the Hawks would try to take the other team's basketball temperature to see how hard they would have to play for that night. This would be commonly referred to by the team themselves as "coming out flat".

Offensive game plans that amounted to little more than dribble down, make a pass, and then stand around and watch that chosen player break his man down one-on-one and see what happens. At the end of games, this would be referred to as "Watching Joe Johnson".

Poor defensive efforts that would start with Mike Bibby struggling to maintain his man or, worse still, constant switching that would create whatever matchup the other team wanted to see. It's no Rubik's Cube when everybody knows how to solve that little mystery.

The Atlanta Hawks feature a talented young roster that on some nights can out-athleticize and out-shoot most teams in the NBA. This works against less talented teams in the league, but it doesn't scale to good teams, or on the road, and certainly not when both those factors are in play.

Second Round and Bust

To advance past the Miami Heat (w/Dwyane Wade!) and move into the second round seems like good progress, but nothing about the first round victory seemed impressive, especially given that all the points above reared their ugly heads continuously through that seven game series.

The Hawks had way more talent ready to win than Miami did, yet allowed all their bad habits to stretch the series to the limit.

Then came the series against Cleveland, or as Cavs fans call it "Did We Play A Second Round?". Whereas the Hawks surprised the Celtics the season before and were able to jump the better team at home, this sound team was ready and took all the Hawks best shots before tossing them aside. The Hawks had used home court and the energy Philips Arena provided as a crutch and a way to hide the glaring issues that lingered throughout the season. The Cavs came along and pulled back the curtain on the Hawks and showed just how far mentally and strategically the team had to go to really be anything more than a participant in the NBA's glory season.

When Do You Know That It's Love?

That's how you can go from a quick look at the simple data and see success to feeling underwhelmed by the whole finish.

When a team seems like they peaked in the sixth game of the year, the rest of the season will have that anti-climactic feeling to it. Add in the annoying, obvious, and continuous problems that were never addressed for the remainder of the season, and one might see how Frequent Bird Watchers can carry this opinion about a 47 win, second round playoff team--even given the recent history.

Looking at the statistics, most everything improved about the team, especially compared with the rest of the league---their offensive rating (per 100 possessions) improved from 16th to 10th, and their defensive rating made a similar improvement (18th to 11th).

Marvin Williams and Al Horford both made strides towards being more efficient in the PER model (The HHB will address players individually in greater detail throughout the offseason), Mike Bibby greatly improved the play from the point guard position from the season before, and even Joe Johnson proved to be slightly more productive than in the previous season.

And by the way, you know, when you're telling these little stories? Here's a good idea - have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!

Our bottom line is this---there is no disputing the productive improvement over the course of the season, 10 games more won, moving forward in the playoffs, home court advantage---all of these definitely point to an improvement and a step forward for a franchise that had no forward movement at all for this decade.

However, when feeling positive about this team, it's hard not to be concerned about the areas which plagued the team all season long, without correction. It's those problems that caused a disaster of a second round series and prolonged a first round series against an inferior team, in which home court was, at one point, lost.

This offseason will be dotted with drafts, free agency, and a probable "Where in the World is Josh Childress" story arc at some point.

But, in our opinion, the most important and influential area that the Hawks can address are the ways in which they lost the season before. We can always use more talent---and that was made clear as well throughout the year, especially in the case of many injuries---but all the talent in the world can't mask some of the systemic problems we've noted here often and above, and if the goal is to move beyond the benchmark of this season, then these have got to be corrected.

Or so says our therapist.

The HHB will be offering player reviews throughout the offseason, but also has a 5th child on the way, creating a devastating Starting Five in about (20) years. Thoughts and Diapers can be left in the Comments Area.

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