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