Before the season, co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. declared this to be a “make or break” year for the Hawks. The Hawks posted a 40-26 record during the lockout-shortened season, equivalent to 50 victories in a regular 82-game season.
But Atlanta’s postseason trajectory went downward. The team’s streak of advancing to the second round ended at three with the elimination by the Celtics.
It’s likely that the owners’ view of the early postseason exit is mitigated by the team’s significant injuries. Gearon cited those injuries last week, noting that the Hawks still were competitive against the Celtics.
The team’s frontcourt was particularly depleted. Center Zaza Pachulia (foot) missed the series, Horford didn’t return until Game 4 and Smith (knee) missed Game 3 with a knee injury that slowed him thereafter.
Horford missed the balance of the regular season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle Jan. 11.
“I feel like we are a team that never really reached their potential because of all the injuries,” Horford said. “It remains to be seen [what happens] this summer. We will see what management decides to do.”
It’s still not clear which basketball executive will be in charge of making moves because Sund’s contract expires next month.
The Hawks have expressed an interest in retaining Sund, who was hired to replace Billy Knight in 2008. But Sund said he preferred to wait until after the season to address his future. In addition to another GM job, Sund’s options include retirement or taking on a part-time consulting role with the Hawks or another team. He will be 61 next month.
ESPN reported that the Trail Blazers have expressed an interest in talking to Sund once the Hawks grant them permission. Portland’s general manager position is open, and Sund still has a home in the Seattle area from his days working for the SuperSonics.
Sund or his replacement won’t have much flexibility to add high-priced free agents.
The Hawks have about $61 million in salaries committed to the six returning players in 2012-13, and the salary cap is projected to be about $58 million. If the Hawks don’t spend above the luxury-tax line, that would leave about $10 million to sign seven to nine players using cap exceptions.
If Sund leaves, that complicates Drew’s future because the new general manager may get input on the decision. Before the 2010-11 season, the Hawks signed Drew to a two-year contract with a team option. He said Friday the Hawks haven’t talked to him or his agent about his future.
During Drew’s tenure as head coach, the Hawks have developed an identity as a team that is good on defense but hasn’t figured out how to be consistently good on offense.
After ranking 15th in the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2010-11, the Hawks improved to sixth in 2011-12. A significant part of that improvement probably can be attributed to replacing weaker defenders such as Mike Bibby with better players such as Jeff Teague but, subjectively, the Hawks also seemed to compete harder this season.
The Hawks cited Drew’s offensive expertise as a major factor in his hiring. Yet his teams have been pedestrian on offense, with efficiency rankings of 21st in 2010-11 and tied for 14th in 2011-12 (though the latter ranking suffered from Horford’s absence).
Drew wanted to scrap an isolation attack that relied heavily on Johnson for a more balanced and less predictable approach. The Hawks have shown flashes of embracing that philosophy, but were prone to stagnate as Johnson tried to score in isolation late in games.
“We just know it’s Joe’s time, and we make it tough on him [by] not moving and cutting,” Teague said. “I think we all stand around and watch him play.”
The Celtics smothered Johnson in those situations during the series, same as the Bulls did in the second round of the 2011 playoffs. Johnson plays a deliberate style and doesn’t appear comfortable making quicker decisions against elite defensive teams such as Boston and Chicago.
The Hawks also lack a consistent post scorer or players who regularly drive to the basket to score or draw fouls. They depend on making jump shots to generate offense, so their scoring suffers from the inevitable fluctuations of whether those shots are going in.
Teague, the Hawks’ first-round draft pick in 2009, was the full-time starter this season and showed further improvement. He’s still not a strong finisher at the basket, has an inconsistent jumper and is more comfortable scoring than creating high-percentage shots for teammates.
Smith provided across-the-board production on offense and defense and carried the Hawks for stretches after Horford’s injury. But his efficiency on offense suffered from taking more long 2-point shots than every player in the league except Kobe Bryant and making only 37 percent.
It’s doubtful at this point that Hawks regulars, all veterans, can change their games on offense. So improvement there most likely will have to come from Sund or the next general manager adding players who can diversify the offense and Drew or the next coach finding a way to mesh them in a way that makes the offense more efficient. Either way, it seems changes are in store for the Hawks even as Drew and the players lament not getting it done with this group.
“Hopefully everybody comes back the same,” Teague said. “I loved it. It was a great group. I know we all got along very well and we all felt like we had an opportunity to do something special. We want another crack at it.”