The 2021-22 season began with the expectation that the Hawks had joined the East elite. All the principals from the giddy summer returned – McMillan and Collins on new contracts, Capela on an extended one. By January, they were 17-25 and Schlenk said: “Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to bring everybody back.”
That season ended with the Hawks going 2-0 in the new play-in tournament before being bounced in Round 1 by Miami. The summer of ‘22 saw a go-big-or-go-home trade for Dejounte Murray, seen as Young’s long-sought backcourt complement. That worked for about a week.
Schlenk was nudged aside in December. McMillan was fired in February, replaced by Quin Snyder. The Hawks again landed in the play-in. Again they advanced to Round 1. Again they stopped there.
Today the Hawks are 18-25. Collins can’t be blamed: He was traded to Utah in July. Consensus holds that the next two weeks will see the deadline-dumping of a big name – Murray is the name most mentioned – because whatever they’re doing isn’t working. And here the thought occurs: What happens if, in June 2021, Ben Simmons dunks the ball?
What if the Hawks lose Game 7 in Philly and the Eastern finals don’t involve the A-T-L? What if Schlenk isn’t obliged to keep that bunch intact? What if the lack of a follow-through doesn’t lead the front office to view Murray as the Missing Piece and sacrifice three Round 1 picks for him? What if the Hawks beating the Sixers had more to do with the Sixers than the Hawks?
That last bit is closer to a fact than a what-if. Since June 20, 2021, the Hawks – counting play-ins and playoffs – are 111-117. There was a time when they seemed a coming power. They’ve been caught and passed by Cleveland, Indiana and Orlando.
The Ben Simmons Moment didn’t just leave us with a skewed view of the Hawks. It shook the Eastern Conference. In a post-Game 7 interview, Philly’s Joel Embiid said: “The turning point was when we – I don’t know how to say it – had an open shot and we made one free throw.”
Why didn’t Simmons dunk? Surely because, having missed 30 of 45 free throws in the series, he feared being fouled. Doc Rivers, then the Sixers’ coach, was asked if Simmons would remain his point guard. His response: “I don’t know the answer to that.”
Simmons never played another game for Philly. He landed in Brooklyn, which was assembling an Avengers-like cast – Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden – to little avail. For various reasons, those three played only 16 games together. All are elsewhere today. Simmons remains a Net, though not so you’d notice. He has worked six games this season.
The Hawks haven’t won a playoff series since the night of the non-dunk. Neither have the Nets. The Sixers still haven’t gotten past the Eastern semis. As for Rivers: Fired by Philadelphia in May, he’s in talks to take the Milwaukee job, which came open Tuesday when the Bucks fired Adrian Griffin, who’d replaced the fired Mike Budenholzer, despite the team being 30-13.
This city’s sports history is pockmarked with near-misses. The Hawks’ run to the Eastern finals isn’t so much a miss as a did-it-even-happen. For one brief shining moment, this team ceased being an afterthought. Our only thought today is to ask how long the next rebuild will take.
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