The Hawks racing downhill
A lesson from Franz Klammer
BY DAVID THORPE
Just a few months ago, the Hawks were flirting with the NBA Finals—they won as many games against the champion Bucks as the Suns did in the NBA Finals. Armed with a superstar scorer in Trae Young alongside tons of depth, Vegas insiders had their over-under win total set at 47.5. I would have taken the over.
Now that’s well out of reach. At 17-23, 2-8 their last 10 games, they’d have to finish the season on a 31-11 run to hit 48 wins. They have lost nine straight home games, and—by trading Cam Reddish to the Knicks—have begun shaking up the roster. This is a team desperate to find a way to get better.
My suggestion is that the Hawks watch this video from the 1976 Winter Olympics.
The king of downhill ski racing, Franz Klammer needed a miracle to secure gold in his final run. “By the time I walked into the starting gate, I knew I am going to win,” he says. “I was so convinced that I can do it. But I knew I had to risk everything. I was so focused, I was so concentrated.”
It’s considered one of the greatest Olympic moments of all time. In 1976, I had never even seen snow, but still got so fired up I spent years imagining myself flying off rollers, legs splayed and uneven, heart caught in suspense. He almost ran into the fence and some hay bales, and didn’t mind a bit. His rival Bernhard Russi said “the whole mountain started to shake” as the crowd witnessed what was unfolding, especially a crazy decision to attack the final pitch on a line no one had ever attempted, for fear of crashing. “He just did it,” Russi said later, with respect.
The Hawks are basically Franz Klammer on offense. Locked in, daring, thrilling, and victorious.
On defense, they look lift-line bored—and have almost the worst team statistics in the league. Casual, sloppy, absent, passionless, and uncommitted. Sure they have good or even great possessions, dozens every game, but that’s nowhere near enough for the 100 possession games we see in the NBA. Given the heavy expectation, that lack of purpose comes with an even more bitter coating. It’s one thing to drift through games near the end of a bad season, another to do so in the first half of what should be a great season.
Head coach Nate McMillan arrived with a reputation as a defensive coach, but ironically now coaches a team that’s fourth overall in offense. He took over for Lloyd Pierce in the middle of last season, reportedly because Pierce struggled to get through to Trae Young. It seemed like a genius move when Young played the villain to perfection in knocking off the favored Knicks and Sixers in the playoffs. But now that Pierce is an assistant coach with the Pacers, and Young is one of the league’s worst defensive players, it seems like he saw this crash coming. In a sense, he got fired trying to prevent it, pushing Young’s buttons in a fashion the young player didn't enjoy. Young is in the 99th percentile on offense, bottom three percent as a defensive player.
It’s possible to play solid defense as a team with a weak defender at point guard—but it’s hard. For starters, that position is typically the first line of defense in transition or after a turnover. The good news is that the Hawks have the fewest turnovers per game. The bad news is that they are 18th in giving up points off turnovers. Meaning, they don’t turn it over much, but when they do, the other team gets buckets.
Watch almost any quarter of any recent game, and you can see why: