Slumping Hawks seek take-charge leadership

It was at the All-Star break when Joe Johnson declared that the Hawks team that he co-captains had no more excuses.

"We can't hang our hat on ‘We are a young team' anymore," said Johnson, speaking from the position afforded a team leader and five-time All-Star guard. "We can't still say it's a new coach. It's just put up or shut up."

It was a strong message to send. However, after the team reconvened after the break, team officials found it necessary to post copies of an AJC blog in the locker room with Johnson's comments highlighted to make sure teammates got it.

On Sunday afternoon, the Hawks (39-30) will try to pull themselves out of their tailspin when they play the Detroit Pistons at Philips Arena. The Hawks' slump -- 3-7 in their past 10, 6-12 in their past 18 -- has magnified flaws that their increasingly disgruntled fans are only too happy to enumerate, starting with an over-reliance on jump shots, an inconsistent transition game and questionable focus.

But the problems, and the Hawks' difficulties in correcting them, perhaps point to a more fundamental issue revealed in how Johnson's declaration was communicated.

Said forward Josh Smith, "I think that we're afraid to hurt people's feelings."

A flipside to one of the Hawks' greatest strengths -- that players genuinely like each other and enjoy being around one another -- may also be holding them back at this crucial juncture. While team co-captains Smith, Johnson and center Al Horford have leadership qualities, a willingness to hold teammates accountable for their effort and performance doesn't come naturally to any of them.

"That's fair to say," Horford said. "It has to do with a lot of similar personalities on the team."

Smith has an encouraging spirit; he is quick to praise teammates to media. Johnson and Horford both are cool heads who lead by example. Johnson hurried back from elbow surgery in December to re-join his teammates. Horford is perhaps the team's hardest worker. None are likely candidates to grab a teammate by the jersey or even pull one aside for a private word of admonishment. Other players may have that skill, but lack the clout to do so.

"We need that," coach Larry Drew said. He pointed out that all of the Hawks' weaknesses and losing behaviors have been addressed. "But when they step in between those lines, it's about them. They can't be afraid to hold one another accountable."

On Saturday, perhaps, was a start. Horford called a players-only meeting after the team's Saturday morning practice. If minutes were kept, Horford wasn't about to share them, but he allowed "I think it's something that I think we're going to make a bigger effort on trying to keep each other accountable."

At this stage, there is plenty of material. Shot selection has been less than judicious and effort has been inconsistent. The Hawks have shot fewer free throws than their opponents in each of the past six games, reflecting an unwillingness to go strong to the basket. Despite having two gifted rebounders in Horford and Smith, the Hawks have been outrebounded in seven of the past 10 games.

"I think that it's going to start happening, that guys are going to start policing each other more and holding each other accountable," Smith said. "When we do that, that's when we're going to reach elite status."

With 13 games to play and perhaps the season hanging in the balance, Hawks fans likely would be content with a few wins.

Etc.

With streets being closed near Philips Arena for the Publix Georgia Marathon and Half Marathon as late as 2 p.m., fans attending Sunday's game are strongly encouraged to take MARTA or, if driving, to allow additional time. More information is available at hawks.com.