“Are the Hawks becoming…cool?”
Matt Moore of CBS Sports asked this question aloud to his many twitter followers last week and the question was interesting to say the least. Has there been a more successful yet uncool franchise of the last decade than the Atlanta Hawks? It’s hard to say for sure how cool or popular a franchise is with the whirlwind of different opinions and view points that can be found in today’s age but one source we can look at is Google. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver took a look at which franchises of North America’s seven sports leagues got Google searched the most. Is this a perfect way to see how cool a team is? No, it’s not, but it gives an idea of how popular a team may be. The top team was the Yankees coming in at a 5.83 Google search popularity. Next was the Red Sox at 5.69. Followed by the Cowboys at 4.45 and the Lakers at 4.18. Meanwhile, the Hawks had a Google search popularity of .30 which put them right under the Bobcats, Wizards, Pelicans, and a handful of NHL teams.
After taking the Celtics to seven games as an 8-seed, the Hawks soon found themselves as a permanent mainstay in the playoffs. Led by Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford the Hawks were always good enough to make the playoffs and usually get into the second round, but never any farther. Despite having three very talented players and always making some progress, this never really helped the Atlanta popularity. Joe Johnson was commonly referred to as overrated because of his humongous contract. The longer Josh Smith found himself in Atlanta, the more he seemed to float away from the rim and take bad jump shots. Al Horford to this day is viewed by many as someone who is not actually a center, but a power forward.
Negative reputations and jokes were soon connected to the franchise. Atlanta became the poster child of the team you didn’t want to become. Trapped in limbo with nothing to show for yourself but a second round exit at the hand of Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, or insert eastern conference title contender, of the last seven years, here. “Never Trust the Hawks” became a staple of what twitter would say any time the Hawks were involved in a close game. Never trust them to win. Never trust them to lose. NTTH.
The Hawks found itself in the 3-seed early on in the season, but an injury to Horford and other key players throughout the season led them down to a place fans were all too familiar with when it came to the Hawks. The 8-seed is not a place most teams want to be. It’s the symbol of mediocrity; a “for sure” first round exit at the hand of a team that’s supposed to be much better. So how fitting it felt that the Hawks were right there at the end of the season in that eight spot.
They say reputations take a long time to change and Atlanta is no exception to this. Gone is Joe Johnson’s contract and Josh Smith isn’t in Atlanta any more to shoot long twos. But the reputation of NTTH lived on. Even with a new General Manager with forward thinking ideas, a Spurs system coach, and an overhauled roster built to play a fun brand of basketball. General view points on the Hawks remained the same. A 1-8 seed Pacers-Hawks matchup. A rematch of last year’s 1st round series that was the most hated series of them all. Reaction to the rematch was… let’s say it wasn’t very positive. Lots of “You can’t make me watch that series” and “We have found our NBA TV series” a joke usually reserved for the least popular playoff series. Of course people that had watched the Hawks all season knew this would be nothing like the previous year. The Hawks were going to shock the common NBA landscape.
The Hawks stole Game 1 and the change was almost immediate. NTTH became “PLAYOFF TEAGUE!” and “Josh Smith long twos became Atlanta’s 5-out strategy. The barrage of 3-pointers and above average pace caught fans by storm. It helped that there was a growing dislike of the Pacers, who were crumbling before our very eyes. The Hawks had the underdog story behind them and they had the 3-ball. It was NCAA tourneyish in the way they captured fan interest. Then there was the other side of the coin. The Pacers were a train wreck that fans were sick of; bad body language, incompetent offense, and a top defense that was being exploited by a team that barely had over 30 wins. The image had changed. Fans were warming up to a team they had constantly given the cold shoulder. Philips Arena, forever associated with jokes of being empty, was full and it was loud. The Hawks were getting a little cooler.
When it really did feel like the Hawks had finally become cool was when they released the “new” logo before Game 6. Atlanta was going back to the PacMan logo. It has a little bit of a modern spin to it but everybody associates it with the days of Dominique Wilkins and those cool 80s uniforms;t hat retro modern thing that’s cool with the kids these days. Going into Game 6, the Hawks were up 3-2 and had a chance to be one of the few 8-seeds to ever defeat a 1-seed. The release of the new logo caused a huge amount of Hawks fans on twitter to change their twitter avatar to the modern PacMan logo. The image change was complete. People who were closet Hawks fans changed their avatar and displayed their Hawks fandom with pride. Basketball fans who didn’t have a favorite basketball team saw all the buzz surrounding Atlanta and decided to become Hawks fans. NTTH officially died that day.
The Hawks ended up losing the series in seven back at Indiana. There was disappointment, but there was something different about it. There was hope. The Hawks fans that were revived or born out of the series didn’t go away, they stayed. Hopeful for what the next season was going to bring. There wasn’t any “Oh there’s the Hawks losing in the 1st round again” it was “You know if they had Al Horford, this team really could have been something”. Even though the Hawks lost another first round, this one isn’t the same. These aren’t your same old Hawks. This team is fun, this team has a future, and yes, this team is cool.
Fans getting behind you and everything is nice, but they aren’t going to stay around if the Hawks can’t find a way to keep winning. A large part of why the Hawks found themselves in a situation where they had to win back some of their own fans is in their entire history of being in Atlanta, they have never gone to the Eastern Conference finals. During this span they have made the playoffs 24 times. According to Jon Bois of SB Nation the statistical probability of this is 0.1%.
However, because the Hawks managed to bring the 1-seed Pacers to seven games, the cap space Atlanta has, and that you hear nothing but good things about Mike Budenholzer, bright days should be ahead. Players pay attention to the teams around them. They see what the Hawks managed to accomplish without their best player. Some of the better players in the NBA see a team that is one piece away from being contenders. They also think they can be that piece.
Atlanta has the potential to be an NBA free agent hot spot. They have the nightlife, they aren’t a small market, and they’re a warm weather city most of the year. They just have to make the team itself attractive. With a playoff series like the one they had against Indiana, they are well on their way to doing so. The barrage of 3-point shooting with lots of ball movement is fun to play in and the extra cap space is nice too. They had the chance to showcase all of that against Indiana and did a great job in making the most of that opportunity.
This Atlanta team’s image has changed. Not only in the eyes of fans, but in the rest of the NBA as well.