Hawks’ success often comes at a price

Al Horford has gone from the Hawks to the Celtics.

The playoffs are right around the corner. The Hawks are currently a top-four team in the East. They are playing at an extremely productive level, winning out of their last 11 games — with impressive victories over the Bulls, Wizards, Pistons, Grizzlies and Rockets in that stretch. This could finally be the year that the Hawks put it all together and make a championship run.

Sound familiar? Because it should.

The Hawks have spent the better part of the last 10 years stuck in basketball purgatory. It seems like each year, the Hawks put together an impressive regular season, get their hopes high and then fall short of the ultimate prize.

Now, this is not to say the Hawks are a bad team. By clinching a spot, the Hawks will extend their postseason streak to nine consecutive seasons. During this streak, the Hawks have averaged a very respectable 45 wins per year.

However, teams are judged by postseason success and Larry O’Brien trophies. This is where the Hawks have been coming short. Out of the last eight postseason trips for the Hawks, only one has resulted in a trip to the Eastern Conference finals, which came last year against the Cavaliers (where they lost in four games).

Making the postseason is always better than going on vacation early. At the end of the day, would you rather be rooting for the 76ers or Knicks over the Hawks? The answer to that one is pretty clear.

However, the Hawks have been finding themselves in a tricky position. They are good enough to make the playoffs, but for different reasons each season, are never good enough to make an actual run at the championship.

By constantly making the playoffs, the Hawks are also preventing themselves from securing top draft picks and therefore missing out on the chance to add superstar talent. The Hawks also tend to take a conservative approach in free agency, which also prevents them from adding superstar talent.

This Hawks team serves as a picture-perfect definition of what is meant by “basketball purgatory.”

The Hawks are talented with an extremely productive and underrated coach in Mike Budenholzer. Also, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder are all solid players. Meanwhile, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott are all solid role players.

Additionally, Budenholzer has installed an extremely effective team-based philosophy predicated on ball movement, resulting high-IQ play and strong team defense.

All of the above factors lead to productive, fun-to-watch regular seasons. However, it will also lead to a disappointing, hard-to-watch postseason.

The true title contenders do need ball movement and good coaching. But they also need “go to guys” and superstars to carry them to the championship. This is where the Hawks come up short. The Hawks have not had that kind of player in years. Josh Smith never developed into that player. Joe Johnson had his moments. Al Horford is not that kind of dominant force.

Meanwhile, other teams in the East have added superstar players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Paul George and Jimmy Butler to lead them to deep playoff runs. Until the Hawks can find a way to add a true superstar to counteract those kinds of players, they will be stuck in this “basketball purgatory” for years to come.

Fortunately for the Hawks, they have chances to add this kind of talent in the near future. They have some tradable pieces such as Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap that they could package along with their first round pick to move up in the draft.

Additionally, there are some big name players entering the free agent markets in the upcoming years.

Notable players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Blake Griffin, Mike Conley and Hassan Whiteside will be available.

Other up-and-coming guys like Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes, C.J. McCollum, Rudy Gobert, Jordan Clarkson and Giannis Antetokounmpo can be chased as well.

In order for the Hawks to take some big steps forward, they might also have to take a few steps back first. Saying goodbye to players like Horford, Teague and Millsap might be necessary. While these decisions might be hard, they could position the Hawks in a very favorable way moving forward.

For the next few weeks, the Hawks will be focusing on preparing for another playoff run.

With a top-four seed in sight, there are still reasons to be excited about this team. However, June and July will bring a slew of questions, a cloudy future and a potential roster overhaul.

Brace yourself.