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The 'Could've Been' Hawks

I strolled into the Atlanta Hawks locker room after their season-high fourth consecutive win, a 97-92 victory over the Washington Wizards Friday night, and there were smiles all around.

Most of the players were beyond giddy after the game, with the team snapping an seven-game losing streak at Verizon Center. Hawks rookie forward Al Horford told sixth man Josh Childress that if felt so good to be winning. "You have no idea," said Childress, who along with Josh Smith had to endure a 13-win season in 2004-05.

No, Horford really has no idea. The last time the Hawks (14-12) were two games over .500 this late in the season was 1999 - when Horford was just 12 and still living in the Dominican Republic. That also happened to be the last year that the Hawks were in the playoffs.

Yeah, we're okay. But I played in Phoenix. I know what a really good team is.(Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

I covered a few of those lottery teams in Atlanta, so I know how putrid the team has been and how surreal it is that they could be in the postseason. The one guy who didn't seem overly impressed with the start of what appears to be the Hawks' best team this millenium was Joe Johnson, who scored half of his game-high 32 points in the fourth quarter against the Wizards.

Johnson left a 62-win team in Phoenix to come to Atlanta in the summer of 2005. The Hawks have won a total of 60 games since his arrival. I asked him how it felt to finally win some games in Atlanta, Johnson shrugged and said, "It's okay."

Okay is a nice word to describe the Hawks. They are nicer than when I was covering them more than three years ago. Johnson is an all-star. Smith is a potential all-star, a new-wave Shawn Marion. Horford was a great pickup with the third pick last summer, a bruiser inside who knows how to win. And, Marvin Williams may never live up to being the No. 2 pick of the 2005 draft, but he is finally looking like a promising player.

The problem with the Hawks, of course, is experience and depth. They don't have much beyond their top six players, which makes every game an ordeal, a 48-minute grind, and forces Johnson to log heavy minutes (he's played a combined 99 minutes the past two games). But barring any major injuries, and no Speedy Claxton being out (again) doesn't count, they should still be in the playoff hunt until the regular season ends - and possibly end the NBA's longest playoff drought.

I had lunch with friend and Hawks beat writer Sekou Smith Friday afternoon and we talked about how the Hawks could be so much better. And when I say better, I mean a team that - with a few tweaks here or there in the past few drafts - could've been the livest, most exciting team in the NBA.

Mama, there go that man again! For as long as I play, I will haunt you, Hawks. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein /Getty Images)

We both thought the Hawks would go from average to awesome if they had only drafted Chris Paul or Deron Williams. The Hawks passing on Paul and Williams - players who desperately wanted to be drafted by Atlanta - has been beaten so much that we are merely opening the casket of that storyline and kicking the carcass at this point. But then it hit me that the Hawks could've taken Brandon Roy the following year, too.

I know many people around the league are excited about Roy and the potential of the Portland Trail Blazers, especially with the arrival of Greg Oden next season. But the Hawks could have easily been the team that kept Philips Arena filled and had the national networks (TNT, ESPN, ABC) clamoring to put this squad on the idiot box with regularity.

Now this isn't meant to criticize Hawks general manager Billy Knight, someone whom I had a pretty good relationship in my time covering the team and has done a decent job building a competitive team from the ground up (especially under some difficult circumstances involving an unstable ownership group). This is merely for the sake of hypothesizing about what could've been. And, to be fair, these scenarios could be done for every team in the league. But let's have some fun with the Hawks.

(Plus, what are reporters if we don't second-guess front office executives, coaches and players?).

I told Sekou to hand me a piece of paper from his notebook. I scribbled down a team that almost knocked my socks off. I went through the past five NBA drafts to check out the players the Hawks could've had as opposed to the players the Hawks selected. Then, I took in consideration what the Hawks could be if the Hawks had called the Phoenix Suns' bluff and signed Joe Johnson outright, rather than giving them two first round picks and Boris Diaw. I started scratching my head with amazement.

Yep, I could've been a Hawk, too. (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE/ via Getty Images).

So, for the sake of fantasy, here's what I came up with:

Starting Five:
PG Chris Paul (taken in 2005 instead of Marvin Williams)
SG Joe Johnson
SF Josh Howard (taken in 2003 instead of Boris Diaw)
PF Josh Smith
C Al Horford

Bench: Luol Deng (taken in 2004 instead of Josh Childress), Brandon Roy (taken in 2006 instead of Sheldon Williams), Rajon Rondo (taken in 2006 with the draft pick the Hawks sent to Phoenix), Monta Ellis (taken in the second round of 2005 instead of Salim Stoudamire), Paul Milsap (taken in the second round of 2006 instead of Solomon Jones) and Zaza Pachulia.

That is ridiculous.

"They'd be so sweet, they'd give cats cavities," Sekou said.

Don't forget about me. Yeah, Josh. If things went right, I wouldn't be shooting over you right now. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Now, you might not have much of a front line, but that team would be a nightmare for opponents to prepare for on a nightly basis. That team is deep, deep like the mind of Minolta. With that squad, you could be like former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst Hubie Brown and do wholesale, five-man substitution jobs and never really miss a beat. I might even trade in my press pass and buy a ticket for a few of those games.

Okay, maybe not. But you catch my drift.

Of course, this is taking too much for granted. One, that the Hawks would continue to stink and get prime draft lottery real estate despite picking better players. And two, financially, they might not be able afford all of these guys when their contracts came up, either.

Some might argue that there are too many players with similar skill sets and ability, but aren't the Hawks in a similar position right now - just not as talented?

Anyway, we're dealing with a fantasy here, so why get so caught up with the details?

If you own a video game, do yourself a favor and put this squad together, too. Tell me how it fares.

By Michael Lee  |  December 22, 2007; 7:30 AM ET
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Most teams, Wiz included, could play the game of 'what we could have' as far as talent that came and left before reaching its potential, or what the Wiz have passed over in the draft (reaching as far back as drafting Kenny Green over Karl Malone in the 80's). ATL ain't the only team guilty of questionable personnel decisions ...

Posted by: wizardfan11a | December 22, 2007 12:06 AM | Report abuse

Nice fantasy, great blog entry.

While Marvin Williams over Chris Paul was really hard to swallow, especially because the Hawks needed a point guard then...and everyone knows that you build a team around PGs and Cs, and not necessarily tweener wings.

But alas, I'd almost excuse that one since Marvin Williams was supposed to be a beast coming out of Carolina.

No, the true head scratcher, for which Billy Knight should be lambasted, is the Shelden Williams pick.

With the 5th overall?

They would've done better to draft some random cat like Oleksiy Pecherov.

Posted by: | December 22, 2007 12:23 AM | Report abuse

ATL was killing on the boards and second chance points, yet AB played 9 minutes, and The Sloth played only 25. Thanks EJ.

Posted by: EJ = Moron | December 22, 2007 7:53 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: | December 22, 2007 11:04 AM | Report abuse

I disagree that Wilks is a non-factor on both ends simply because he is 5'10". In Atlanta's game, He was a non-factor on offensive because he was not familiar with the offense sets. This can improve as he gets familiar. All we know is that he brings the ball up fast, and handle the ball quite well, we don't need to worry about opponents pressing or trapping him.

On defense end, sure his height is a deficiency; but he hogs the ball handler pretty well, and putting pressure on their PG, that's one dimension that Wizards lack , so he should help in that regard.

Posted by: Sagaliba | December 22, 2007 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Yea AB and BTH did not get a lot of minutes...but from what I saw, neither played with any energy whatsoever when they were in the game.

Can we blame EJ on that?

Posted by: | December 22, 2007 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I am sorry Michael Lee, but drafting Marvin Williams over not just Paul but Deron Williams too disqualifies Billy Knight from being a good GM. We won't even talk about the Shelden Williams pick (would somebody please explain to me how a beautiful woman like Candace Parker ends up with that soft schmo?!).
Yes his ownership situation stunk, but in general he hasn't had the meddling that a lot of GMs have to deal with and Knight has done a poor job. He did do good picking Horford and I though Law IV was a good choice when he made it, but his bungling is the reason the Hawks aren't as good as they could be.

And a message to Ivan Carter since no one else has neglected to mention this. But I am telling you, your Purple Jesus, your scattershot QB, your Major-Dad lookalike coach and your horn-wearing freaks in the stands: BRING IT ON! Because the Skins are taking down the Vikings Sunday night and it is going to be great!!!

Posted by: George Templeton | December 22, 2007 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Yea AB and BTH did not get a lot of minutes...but from what I saw, neither played with any energy whatsoever when they were in the game.

Can we blame EJ on that?

Posted by: | December 22, 2007 12:25 PM

Confucius say, two longs don't make a right.

Posted by: The Real Confucius | December 22, 2007 2:43 PM | Report abuse

With the Wizards having a difficult time scoring out of their sets because they're not making jump shots, and with Atlanta keeping the team off the glass, I think last night (and against the Bulls, frankly) was a perfect opportunity for EJ to go big. Play Haywood and Blatche and send them both crashing to the boards. Get those offensive rebounds and second-chance points. Sometimes EJ gets too stuck in his rotations. I think he's done a great job this year, and he's seriously undermanned, what with AD now out. But he should try some other rotations. I also thought the five-man squad of AB, NY, DM, AJ and DeShawn last night played some good defense. One of their better defensive units last night.

Posted by: Colin | December 22, 2007 3:53 PM | Report abuse

AB and BH did play for while together last night. The thing is, though, what to you do if they both get in foul trouble and you are thin in the frontcourt anyway.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 22, 2007 4:05 PM | Report abuse

If the Hawks have such a potent lineup, how come their avg. points scored is so low? They had the luck to catch the Wizards on a night when Caron was still trying to get over the flu and BTH and AB were apparently off on holiday break a few days early. Antawn was the only guy even trying to box out, which is why the Hawks got so many second-chance points.

Posted by: John Brisker | December 22, 2007 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Suggestion for Mike Lee:

Why don't you provide a mini-scouting report on game day for the opposing team?

The night before the Wiz lost to Chicago I watched the Bulls in action and saw that their rookie 7" 270 lb rookie center would give the Wiz match-up issues. I don't recall see an Insider post before the game the next day to allow anybody to post observations.

Posted by: Izman | December 22, 2007 5:55 PM | Report abuse

Izman has a pretty good idea there. Don't even actually need an advance scouting report from Mike Lee (although that would be nice); just need a forum where some fans could post a few predictions and talk about what we want to see, so we can compare that stuff after the game. Could be cool, right?

Posted by: Andy | December 22, 2007 6:06 PM | Report abuse

More bad news....Caron is not playing tonight....ankle injury.

Posted by: Lisa_R | December 22, 2007 6:28 PM | Report abuse

As far as the Hawks, I agree that the Marvin Williams pick was quite questionable, regardless of the hype. That said, Billy Knight is, at worst, an average GM when you factor in Josh Smith and this year's picks of Al and Law.

And as far as building championships with PG's and C's... ever heard of Jordan, Pippen, and the Chicago Bulls?

Posted by: JBird | December 23, 2007 7:59 PM | Report abuse

I will admit that we blew it with the Marvin Williams and Sheldon Williams picks but your logic is seriously flawed. I we had drafted Josh Howard who is very good but he is certainly not an elite player. He would have raised our game enough to miss all those other draft picks but not enough to be a contender. Sometimes things happen for a reason because I think Josh Smith has the potential to be so much better.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 25, 2007 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Great post George!! I love it!!


Posted by: Robin | December 25, 2007 12:30 PM | Report abuse

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