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Shaun Powell

Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Al Horford
The immediate future of the Hawks lies largely with (l-r) Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Al Horford.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

It's make up for lost time or break-up time for Hawks' core

Posted Dec 27 2011 10:10AM

In 2004 the Hawks drafted Josh Smith. The next year, they added Joe Johnson and drafted Marvin Williams. Two years later, Al Horford arrived.

That sounds like a reasonable blueprint, right? Well, Tuesday night the Hawks enter Year Five with that foursome as the core of the club. Those four have started and played more total regular season games together than Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum in L.A. And Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce in Boston. And Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry in Dallas.

Difference being, those teams won championships. The Hawks haven't.

The Hawks' four, as a group, is solid and capable, just not compelling or title-tested. Smith, Williams, Johnson and Horford can't draw big crowds to Philips Arena or even take the Hawks to the East finals, much less the NBA Finals. Nobody ever tagged them with the "Big" compliment, as in a Big Four.

And so Year Five could be a make or break-up year for this unit. A fickle fan base, along with an ownership group that tried and failed to sell the club last summer, are getting restless. The general consensus is the Hawks have maxed out with this crew even though they put a scare into the Bulls last spring. Another season with a short playoff life would give the organization the green light to break it up and start over.

"At this point, there's no excuses," said coach Larry Drew. "It's time to take the next step."

If the Hawks deliver the same-old, then staying the course beyond this season with a group that eats 75 percent of the salary cap would send another message, that the organization is content to make the playoffs and nothing more. That's the dilemma of the Hawks. A dozen teams would love to have their "problem." Really, Horford and Johnson were All-Stars the last two years. Smith is a borderline talent who may put it all together soon, if not this year, because he's only 26.

And yet, from a championship-contending standpoint, they aren't enough. None can carry a team into the summer, or sell tickets in winter in the tough Atlanta market.

"We can be better than what we've shown," Smith said. And even if that's true, how much better?

By refusing to re-sign Jamal Crawford, one of the league's better sixth men, the Hawks are gambling on getting a boost from a few other sources. Jeff Teague was a revelation in the playoffs when he took it to Derrick Rose. Kirk Hinrich can play both guard positions. Vladimir Radmanovich is a 40 percent shooter from distance who can spread a defense. And Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse are veteran scorers.

But: Teague needs to prove himself over a full season, Hinrich could be beyond his prime, Radmanovich is one-dimensional and McGrady and Stackhouse would be great if this were 2004.

It's really about a four-man core that's all but certain to be dismantled barring a trip to the East finals.

"I understand why people are impatient," Smith said. "We're impatient, too. We want to win together, too."

So this will be a season to watch for Smith and Horford, because Johnson (obscene contract) and Williams (classic underachiever) will either be tough to move or won't fetch value in return.

The Hawks have always weighed the merits of keeping, or moving, Smith and Horford. Both are tweeners. Horford is undersized at center but doesn't have a face-the-basket game for power forward. Smith has crazy athleticism and skills for someone 6-foot-10 but too often falls in love with 20-foot jumpers. Both are in their primes, so holding onto them much longer would hurt their trade value.

From a money standpoint, the Hawks must decide sooner on Smith. His deal is up after next season, which means the Hawks must either decide to extend him or trade him in the offseason. If Horford and a throw-in could fetch a legitimate center, the Hawks might go that route and then extend Smith. Or they'll package Smith and maybe Williams as a salary dump and get what they can.

Either way, the Hawks are officially on the clock. They took a step backward during the regular season a year ago but made amends in the playoffs when they eliminated Dwight Howard, a nightmare from years past. That first-round elimination of the Magic was the high point for the four players, given how Orlando embarrassed Atlanta a year earlier.

Which raises another point: Howard is approaching free agency and is an Atlanta native but didn't list the Hawks as one of his favored destinations. Neither did Chris Paul or Deron Williams (both bypassed in the 2005 Draft for Marvin Williams). A-list free agents just aren't big on Atlanta, and the reason lies with a mild fan interest in town (although Philips Arena sells out for big stars) and questions with ownership.

The owners now say they're in for the long haul. But that same commitment doesn't extend to the four-man core. Smith, Horford, Williams and Johnson are guaranteed only to start the season together Tuesday in New Jersey. Where the Hawks finish this year will tell us whether the core is finished.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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