The Atlanta Hawks: In Expectation of Continued Failure

In any serious conversation involving professional sports in Atlanta, proper decorum dictates that there are two teams which must be discussed before any mention of the third is made. There is a recognizable hierarchy in the region, with two teams looming large, broadly leaning back to back, prominent and proud, while the third cowers at their feet, barely perceptible. Some sports teams play second fiddle in their city. Others get locked outside with no fiddle, while the show goes on without them. Falcons and Braves, Braves and Falcons. Callous Atlanta sports fans don’t even seem to notice anyone else is in the room. The Braves are moving to a new stadium! The Falcons need to recapture the NFC South! And, well, if the Hawks will just keep quiet, we won’t punish them by sending them off to Seattle.

This summer, the Atlanta Redheaded Stepchild made headlines. Unfortunately, the Hawks making news is almost by definition the Hawks making bad news. Otherwise, in Atlanta or elsewhere, nobody really cares. Racially Perceptive Comments, operating under the somewhat more unkind moniker of Racially Charged Comments, caused the team’s majority owner Bruce Levenson to sell his 51% share of the team. (GM Danny Ferry was also condemned for racial comments that came to light this summer.) This marks the end of a forgettable decade of mediocrity, which was preceded by a forgettable decade of mediocrity, and three forgettable decades of mediocrity before that. Since the Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1967 they have failed to reach a conference finals. Allow that fact to sink in. Forty-seven seasons. No NBA championships. No Eastern Conference Finals championships. No Eastern Conference Finals appearances. Can we blame the callous Atlantans from the previous paragraph for their lack of support?

In some ways, yes. Home court advantage is an enormously influential factor in determining the outcomes of games in the NBA. Over the last ten years, home teams during the regular season win their games a startling 62% of the time, per stats obtained from That figure jumps to 65% during the postseason. These are just broad, generic numbers that suggest a team would rather be playing at home. It doesn’t account for games in which an outmatched opponent keeps a contest improbably close only to lose at the final buzzer. It also doesn’t account for the possibility that bigger crowds and greater support from a city could in fact result in better performance from a team. So what does all this have to do with the lowly Hawks? For three straight years from 2004 to 2006 the Hawks ranked in the bottom two in regular season attendance, according to This might seem excusable considering the on-court product was admittedly dreadful. But what about 2007 to 2014, a run of seven seasons characterized by an exciting brand of basketball, promising young players, playoff appearances in every single season, and a team that could compete with anyone on any given night? To put it kindly, the potential on the court did not correspond with sales at the box office, and the Hawks never broke out of the bottom third in attendance. To put it a little less kindly, the city of Atlanta utterly failed their professional basketball team and never game them the extra push they may have needed.

Now that we have some context in which to view this awkward third-wheel of a franchise, let’s revisit the summer of 2014 and discuss those heinous headlines. What was Bruce Levenson really talking about when he made his racial rant? Ticket sales. Why did Danny Ferry refer to a scouting report about Luol Deng in which he described him as being dishonest? Because Luol Deng, the Hawks’ top offseason target, decided (like many free agents before him) that the city of Atlanta was not a basketball city. Everything relates to the fan base in one way or another, it is nearly impossible to overstate its effects. Lost among all the news coverage and press is the fact that a very good basketball team failed to take significant steps forward. Beyond that, the franchise as a whole took several substantial steps backward. Rest assured, the Hawks will once again make the playoffs this year. They are just talented enough to get as far as they’ve ever gotten, and no farther. But as for the coming years? Players in their prime will lose their legs. Contracts will expire. Windows for winning will close completely. And the city of Atlanta will stand by idly, attributing the failures of the franchise to some inherent negative quality outside of their control. They will mention the Hawks in passing, and then shift the discussion back to the two teams that matter. It has been this way for at least twenty years, the full extent of my lifetime. Isn’t it time someone changed the conversation?

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