Hawks struggling but players aren’t ones who put team together

When the Hawks started the season 9-2, it was logical to assume there would be a market correction. So it’s just as fair to suggest that just because the same team has lost seven straight and is 1-10 since early nirvana doesn’t mean it’s going to spend the next four months winning at a nine percent clip (as we all lapse into mind-numbing Billy Knight flashbacks).

“Losing is never fun, especially when you’re coming off a nice run like a 9-2 start,” Paul Millsap said Tuesday. “But it’s a long season and over (time), you learn who you are.”

So are you closer to the 9-2 team or the 1-10 one since?

“We’re a 9-2 team.”

What tells you that?

“We went 9-2.”

(This is me avoiding the obvious follow-up fact.)

Millsap is a terrific player and likeable guy. I’m sure his next team is going to like him too, because, his words for public consumption notwithstanding, there’s little to suggest this Hawks’ team, as currently constructed, is going anywhere. With Millsap expected to opt out of his contract after the season, there’s a possibility the Hawks will move him before the trade deadline if they’re not sitting in a prime playoff spot.

But back to the current mess. The Hawks’ most recent loss, a 102-99 defeat to Oklahoma City on Monday night, actually elevated hopes. It’s come to that: ranking losses. But when a team is coming off a stretch that includes lopsided deficits of 18, 27, 15, 36 and 44, a three-point defeat doesn’t seem so bad.

The Hawks aren’t a great offensive team. They rank 23rd in points per game and 26th in three-point shooting. They’ve also been prone to checking out mentally, which is how you lose games by one-sided margins. The direction of the franchise is in question. Criticism has been raining down.

If you’re looking to point blame, just make sure you do so in the right direction.

This team was put together by coach Mike Budenholzer, who’s also the president of basketball operations, and Wes Wilcox, the general manager (effectively Budenholzer’s assistant).

It was their decision to bring in Dwight Howard and move on from Al Horford. It was their decision to turn over the starting point guard duties to Dennis Schroder and move on from Jeff Teague. It was their decision to suddenly cast Kent Bazemore, a terrific bench player, as a relative franchise centerpiece with a $70 million contract.

There’s a lot to like about Bazemore — his energy, his enthusiasm, his defense and occasionally his dunks. But big contracts sometimes have an adverse effect on athletes, particularly when a team is losing, and it appears Bazemore is pressing. He was scoreless and went 0 for 7 from the floor Monday night, his third 0-fer of the season and the sixth time he has made one or zero shots.

But it’s a difficult situation for Bazemore. As a player, he is what he is, even if the Hawks see an offensive upside.

Similarly, don't blame Howard for not scoring 18 to 20 points a game, like he did with younger legs and a stronger back in Orlando. He has brought the Hawks rebounding but his 13.3-point average is in line with the 13.7 he scored in Houston last season. And he has never been what one would term a "glue guy" in the locker room.

Don’t blame Kyle Korver for anything. This guy has given the Hawks more than anybody could have possibly expected and at the age of 35, it was natural he was going to slide. Now he’s coming off the bench.

Don’t blame Millsap, who’s had an off-season. He’s been playing with a bad hip, missed three games and, like the others, is struggling to create chemistry with new starters.

The players are always easy to blame because they’re the ones we see. But if this doesn’t work, the problems go back to the roster decisions.

“None of us would’ve expected (this after) 9-2,” Budenholzer said Tuesday. “We all have high expectations and high standards. So, yeah, this is a little bit of uncharted waters or unexpected.”

This was after the Hawks’ first full home practice in more than three weeks, the residual of the busy early schedule. It could be reasoned that is a contributing factor to the recent problems, especially the lack of motion and ball movement on offense. But Budenholzer knows that doesn’t excuse everything, saying, “… We would not be looking at ourselves honestly.”

It has been a challenging season for Budenholzer, a former NBA coach of the year who is still trying to prove himself as an executive. He benched all of the starters during a recent embarrassing 121-85 home loss to Detroit and, in the last game, started Thabo Sefolosha over Korver.

Budenholzer said that will continue for now, meaning Korver and Tim Hardaway Jr. come off the bench and the Hawks start an offensively challenged lineup of Sefolosha, Bazemore, Howard, Millsap and Schroder.

When asked if the offseason changes creates more pressure in situations like this, Budenholzer responded, “Maybe tougher. I wouldn’t say more pressure. There’s the uniqueness of Dennis starting and Dwight as a new player. I’m hoping we have enough guys who’ve been here that we can self-correct. But is it maybe a little bit tougher? Could be.”

Subscribe for free to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast with Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. All episodes can be downloaded and heard on iTunes or here via WSBRadio.com. New episodes every Monday and Thursday.