The Atlanta Hawks’ Worst-Ever Season: 2005

The NBA tips off its 2022-23 season on October 18, and for the next 30 days, I’ll be taking a look at all 30 teams’ low-water mark, the kind of terrible season they’ll be praying to avoid in the coming year. And because I don’t want to accidentally forget anyone, I’ll be taking the teams in alphabetical order of city, starting with the Atlanta Hawks.

Some ground rules, taken directly from last year’s counterpart series of every NBA team’s best-ever season:

First off, for teams that have played in multiple cities over the course of their history, only seasons in their current city count. The 1951-52 Milwaukee Hawks went 17-49, but that was two cities ago and if folks in Milwaukee have memories of awful teams, they’re far more likely to be of something like the Bucks’ gods-awful 2014 campaign (15-67, spoiler alert) than of some Hawks team that left town during the NBA Stone Age. Likewise, nobody in Sacramento cares about the Rochester Royals, nor can Philadelphians be expected to care overmuch about the history of the Syracuse Nationals.

Second, the Oklahoma City Thunder are not the Seattle SuperSonics. The 2008 Sonics had a worse year than even the worst year the Thunder have had in Oklahoma City, but nobody in Oklahoma City cared about the Sonics before their weasel owners stole the team…if anything, “their” team was probably still New Orleans, thanks to Oklahoma City having hosted the Hornets/now Pelicans when that fetid swamp of a city got hit by Hurricane Katrina—it is here that I remind the reader that I’m a lifelong resident of cold-weather cities who has since 2013 lived in Seattle.

Anyway, let’s get right down to it, examining how truly awful the 2005 Hawks were. We’ll look for the silver lining in terms of what that lost campaign got them in the years to come. One thing I’ve noticed in preliminary research for this series is that truly awful, total garbage fire seasons have a funny habit of ending in “and four years later they were in the conference finals” (Cleveland Cavaliers fans, you know what I’m talking about, and we’ll get to you in turn.)

The On-Court Record

It’s easier to distill a worst-ever season from Basketball Reference’s Franchise Index. Unlike choosing a best season, worst seasons don’t have mitigating factors like “this wasn’t the best regular-season record but it’s the franchise’s only title.” Just for a minute pretend the Rockets didn’t win in ’94 and you quickly realize that a 47-win team truly would be Houston’s all-time best.

The ’05 Hawks were the low point of a three-year swoon, but they won 28 games in 2004 and would win 26 in 2006. Indeed, 2005 is the only time the Hawks even failed to win 25 games in an 82-game season. The 20-47 record in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season is otherwise their second-lowest win total in Atlanta.

In 2005? They went 13-69. That’s just 52 percent of the wins they achieved in their second-worst season and seven wins short of a season in which they played 15 fewer games because the world temporarily ended.

Atlanta lost early (they lost their first four games, all by double digits, and started 2-13), they lost often (going 1-27 between February 7 and April 8), and they got whupped with alarming frequency (a whopping minus-10.5 Net Rating; the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, who went 59-23, posted just plus-8.7 for their part to lead the league.)

The Featured Players

Josh Childress, in the first of what would be 14 seasons both in the NBA and playing in leagues around the world as an utterly unimpressive sixth overall pick in the 2004 draft, led the Hawks in Win Shares with just 4.6.

Every washed-up who-dat in the league seemed to cross paths with the 2005 Hawks, whether it was an over-the-hill Kenny Anderson, a finally-run-out-of-Boston Antoine Walker (.004 WS/48, contributing almost literally nothing), the not ready for prime time Boris Diaw (4.8 points per game and a good-for-this-crew .005 WS/48), a 35-year-old Tom Gugliotta, a 42-year-old Kevin Willis, and the incomparable Josh Smith, whose shot selection brought to mind less a basketball player and more a guy firing into a crowd for giggles in an online shooter video game.

Smith was 19, and all you really need to know about his wasted talent comes from looking at how his rookie year was handled.

Of the 13 Hawks players with at least 700 minutes played, Tyronn Lue led the team in WS/48 with .100. Walker, contributing just 0.2 Win Shares in 2,128 minutes played, somehow managed to lead the team in VORP at 0.9.

This team was atrocious any way you slice it. This wasn’t just the worst team in Hawks franchise history but one of the worst teams ever puked out onto an arena floor to attempt 82 games of NBA basketball in any era.

The Coach

The wildest part of this is that this was Mike Woodson‘s first year at the helm, the same Mike Woodson who would coach the team for six seasons and go 53-29 in 2010. Woodson so thoroughly outcoached Doc Rivers in the 2008 first round that the 8-seed Hawks nearly beat the eventual champion Celtics, taking them seven games in that series despite getting blown out in all four road losses yet winning all three home games.

Woodson then went on to coach the Knicks during the high-water mark of Carmelo Anthony‘s career and while he never did cross the .500 mark, he still managed to coach in the playoffs five times in nine seasons.

This isn’t the NFL’s Rich Kotite coaching the Jets. This is a competent—not great, but competent—coach falling flat on his face and yet having patient enough ownership to be able to oversee the Hawks’ turnaround from historically awful to a genuine early-round playoff threat.

Damning with faint praise? Maybe. But it wasn’t the coach who was the driving force behind the futility here.

The Aftermath

Well, I kind of gave it away in the last section, but the Hawks were in the playoffs within three years of this lost season. Atlanta did this despite front-office incompetence that boggles the mind.

They drafted Marvin Williams over Chris Paul in 2005. They took Shelden Williams fifth overall in 2006. It wasn’t until 2007 that they finally got one right and drafted Al Horford out of Florida.

Despite those two big whiffs and a rookie, that 2007-08 Hawks team finally broke through. It would be the first of ten consecutive playoff appearances before the team that would eventually go 60-22 in 2015 finally petered out and had to rebuild—a rebuild that netted them Trae Young and an appearance in the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.

If you’re bad enough for long enough, eventually you catch a break. And to be truly bad enough, you have to bottom out at just plain truly bad.

The 2005 Hawks were a disaster movie that not even Roland Emmerich could’ve dreamed up…and yet there they were, three years later, in the playoffs and playing a Game 7 against the eventual champions.

Ain’t the NBA funny?

NEXT: Boston Celtics.