Atlanta Hawks: From bust to boom

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By JIM O'SHEA
College Contributor Network

Most things in life go from boom to bust. Just look at history. The English and French empires. Enron in the early 2000s and even in the NBA, the Celtics and Lakers most recently.

But there are always outliers. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was a movie about a man who when he aged in years, he began to look younger. So he grew up looking like a grandpa and aged into a baby.

Well now let's take a look at the "Curious Case of the Atlanta Hawks." A team that has gone from a total bust to leading the Eastern Conference.

Rewind to the 2008 Eastern Conference playoffs. The year you could argue the "Big Three" era of the NBA began. The Boston Celtics were the No. 1 seed with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett leading the charge. The C's first round matchup: the young, up-and-coming Atlanta Hawks. Sounded like a sweep waiting to happen.

But the Hawks took the eventual world champion Celtics to seven games! A team whose "Big Three" of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford all were 26 or younger. Everyone talked about how this team would be one to watch out for the next couple of years.

In 2009, Atlanta lost in the second round. A step up from the year before, so a step in the right direction.

Then, the plateau and eventual decline began.

In 2009-10, the Hawks won 50 games for the first time since 1997-98. The team finished 53-29, so maybe this was their year to finally push through? But another second-round exit was in the making after the Magic swept the Hawks and left a lot more questions than answers for the organization.

The summer of 2010 may have been highlighted by "The Decision" but the Hawks also made a decision that did not pan out how they wanted it to. On July 1, before free agents could even sign with a team, Joe Johnson inked a six-year, $119 million deal with the Hawks. Johnson was now officially the "franchise player" for Atlanta.

Many were surprised the Hawks reached so deep into their pockets to retain Johnson. The following season, the squad went 44-38 with a new coach in Larry Drew and yet another time bowed out in the second round.

In 2011-12, the Hawks went 40-26 in a shortened season and this time did not even reach the second round. Atlanta lost to the aging Boston Celtics in six games, one less than it did four years ago when Atlanta was just a young team.

Three straight disappointing finishes to the season and finally the Hawks had enough. The summer of 2012 is when the bus began to be emptied. The "franchise player" was traded to the Nets for a bunch of expiring contracts. The Hawks finally realized that Johnson was not the answer.

After yet another first-round exit the following season, another top guy departed Atlanta. Josh Smith became a free agent and the Pistons picked him up for four-years and $56 million.

The Hawks made some quiet moves that offseason that have paid big dividends. Atlanta signed Paul Millsap to a two-year deal worth $16 million. Also, Kyle Korver was inked to a four-year, $24 million deal to keep the sharpshooter in town.

The Hawks were now an underrated crew. And the team was even led by an underrated and even unknown coach. Mike Budenholzer had never coached in the NBA before, but the Hawks must have seen something they liked.

The next season was a rocky one, finishing 38-44 and losing in the first round.

But the team now had one year together and the "core four" of Jeff Teague, Horford, Millsap, and Korver knew they were here to stay. After starting the year 1-3, it looked like yet another mediocre year in store. But a four-game winning streak started to turn things around.

The team went on to lose only two games in December and were 23-8 come 2015.

January was the month everyone started to notice this team. Going undefeated definitely helps, but it was the way the team was doing it. No stars like the Cavs, no flash like Lob City. Team ball was the name of the game. And the NBA recognized this in its Conference Player of the Month. The entire Hawks' starting five was named January's co-Eastern Conference Players of the Month.

A 19-game winning streak, fifth-most in NBA history. Atlanta fell to New Orleans in its next contest on February 3, its first loss since December 26! The Hawks won a few more, including one over the Western Conference-leading Warriors, before the All-Star break to enter it at 43-11.

Atlanta sits at 45-12 (as of February 27), a full eight games ahead of Toronto for the top spot in the East. And even when the Hawks have faced the West, it has not mattered. They are 16-4 against the "better conference" teams.

How have the Hawks turned around the franchise? With a simple, yet contorted formula. It traded or got rid of its stars and got lesser-known players who are not as good on paper. But as a team, the Atlanta Hawks are indeed on the up and a basketball boom has been accomplished in the southeast.

Jim O'Shea is a junior at Syracuse University studying Broadcast and Digital Journalism. Born and raised in Houston, TX. He's an avid Texans and Texas Rangers fan. Also golf is his favorite sport. Follow him on Twitter: @JimOShea4
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