Michael Cunningham: Just like old times, it's hard to trust the Hawks

Michael Cunningham, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Basketball

ATLANTA — Watching the Hawks stirs some old feelings. They often remind me of Mike Woodson’s better teams. Good enough to make the playoffs, which never should be taken for granted. Not good enough do much once they get there, which is a letdown given their high aspirations.

Nate McMillan, like Woodson, hasn’t been able to get his talented team to play cohesively for more than a week at a time. Trae Young is better than Joe Johnson ever was, but some Iso-Joe tendencies are creeping into his game. The Hawks have been solid overall on defense when center Clint Capela is healthy. Yet, he was on the court for five of the seven games in which they surrendered 70-plus points in a half.

The Hawks just can’t be trusted. They followed last week’s season-high five-game win streak with two ugly losses. The Hawks tried to blow the game in Oklahoma City on Wednesday. They won, but that makes three consecutive games in which the Hawks (25-24) faltered at winning time after they had seemed to break out of some bad habits.

Woodson’s Hawks teams could have been a force if they played the right way when it mattered most more than occasionally. It’s the same thing with these Hawks. Woodson’s team reached its peak in the East’s second round of the playoffs before getting exposed. I see the same fate for this season’s Hawks unless general manager Landry Fields makes some moves before the NBA’s Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Even that might not be enough. It will be difficult for Fields to send away a player in the rotation, or deeper on the bench, while getting better talent in return. The Hawks made their big move when they traded for Dejounte Murray last summer. There’s not much flexibility to do another one without abandoning the Young/Murray experiment with the results still preliminary.

Fields probably can make trades to improve the team’s depth. That would help the Hawks finish the regular season strong and bypass the play-in tournament by finishing at least sixth in the Eastern Conference. They can use reinforcements. Per Tankathon, after Wednesday’s games the Hawks had the sixth-hardest remaining schedule as measured by opponent winning percentage.

Trades can make the Hawks better at the edges, but they pretty much are who they are. Improvement will need to happen internally. The ceiling is below the East finals.

It’s possible that I’m being too pessimistic about the Hawks. After all, they’ve won seven of their past 10 games and stand eighth in the East. Fatigue may have been a factor in the most recent two losses. The Hawks just finished playing eight games in 13 days, with two sets of back-to-backs and six travel days.

Injuries have dragged the Hawks down all season. They got healthy for three games last week before regulars showed up on the injured list again. Other teams have had it a lot worse with injuries, though. Consider the production of the players who are missing games, and the Hawks have been relatively lucky, according to the database at


One issue is that if any of the top Hawks eight players is out, then the talent level drops significantly. There’s not much McMillan can do about that, given the short bench created by cost-saving moves. The bigger problem is that McMillan and his best players make too many inexplicable decisions that hurt their chances of winning. That’s happened in each game following the five-game win streak.

The Hornets won at State Farm Arena on Saturday without two of their better players, LaMelo Ball and Kelly Oubre. The visitors trailed by 19 points after halftime. The Hawks let them back in the game with the familiar patterns: bad shots, poor focus, little defensive resistance. The Hawks got the ball side out at their end with a second left and trailing by two points, but Young failed to even pass the ball before the five-second count.

Rookie AJ Griffin was the best shooter on the floor during a stretch of the fourth quarter at Chicago on Monday. He didn’t get a field-goal attempt as Murray and Bogdan Bogdanovic took turns jacking up challenged shots. A tie score became an eight-point deficit for the Hawks. McMillan sent Young back in the game to restore order, but it was too late to avoid another loss.

The Hawks led by 19 points at Oklahoma City behind Young’s brilliant play in the third quarter. The advantage was down to six points with three-plus minutes left. That’s when Young and Murray took turns passing the ball to each other until the shot clock expired. Murray later ignored Young open at the top of the key and went on an aimless drive into the lane that ended with him stepping out of bounds. Then Jalen Williams snatched the ball from Young to get OKC within a point of the lead with 15 seconds left.

The Hawks won thanks to two free throws from John Collins and a daring blocked shot by Murray. Give them credit for avoiding another bad loss, but even while winning, the Hawks showed why it’s hard to believe they can be better than pretty good.

It doesn’t matter if McMillan has his full complement of players if he doesn’t deploy them in optimal ways. The scoring ability of Young, Murray and Bogdanovic is muted when they gum up the offensive flow with too much one-on-one play. The Hawks can lose to the Hornets, a bad team missing key players, when they don’t finish games with the same vigor that they showed at the start.

Those are among the reasons why the Hawks have been a middling team despite their talent. Woodson’s Hawks used to inspire the same feelings. We know how that era ended. The Hawks did one better by making the East finals in 2021. That seems long ago now. It’s hard to trust these Hawks to do it again.

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