By Shaun Powell, for NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2009 1:25PM
The question posed to Dominique Wilkins: Do these Hawks, young and hip and hungry -- even entertaining some nights -- remind you of your group?
The greatest Hawk of all time (sorry, Pistol) rubbed his chin, thought about it, thought about it some more, then finally said, "Um, maybe a little." He cited a few differences, nit-picky things, but didn't really want to come right out and say it.
So here it is: This team has no 'Nique.
Talent? Oh, there's talent. Real, legit talent. You can start with Joe Johnson, a feared scorer who's gunning for a contract. There's Josh Smith, who can dunk with the force of Wilkins and swat shots to the luxury suites. Al Horford could be the best young power forward in the game, except he finds himself playing center. Mike Bibby can still shoot a little and Jamal Crawford, given the chance, will shoot a lot in his first season in Atlanta.
But there's a little somethin'-somethin' that separates the Celtics, Cavs and Magic from the Hawks in the East. There's nobody to take over games in May. The conventional thinking in basketball says you must have one genuine star, or better yet two, before you can even think about challenging for a title. Each of the Big Three contenders in the conference has what the Hawks lack, and that's why they've been to the conference finals and the Hawks haven't.
Figure that the coming season will have much in common with the last. The Hawks bear the look of a 50-game winner, a testament to their makeup and gradual growth of late, but they still might be a player shy as they travel through the postseason. The Hawks don't want to hear it. They cite the championship-winning Pistons of 2004 as their role models. That Detroit team played as a complete unit, made wise decisions on the floor and the players all knew their roles. None, with the possible exception of Chauncey Billups, is headed to the Hall of Fame.
"Our success," said Rick Sund, the Hawks' general manager, "is going to be the sum of all our parts."
The Hawks missed a golden chance to add a star when, prior to Sund's arrival, they took a pass on Chris Paul and drafted Marvin Williams instead. Now, Williams has turned into a pretty fine player, and could be on the verge of a breakout season. But he's no Chris Paul. Those are the kind of mistakes that the Hawks, who don't have money to burn on free agents, can't afford to make. A decision like that can cause a franchise to take a step back or, in Atlanta's case, prevent one from taking a step forward.
That's ancient history now. The Hawks will ride out the Johnson era, if he chooses to sign elsewhere next summer, and hope his salary drive gives them a big boost. They're also ready to find out if Smith will show more to his game and rise toward star status. All told, the Hawks are quite content to be who they are, while hoping another season together will pay off in the end.
"This team is starting to grow," said coach Mike Woodson. "We're a young team that's gotten a little older. The Eastern Conference finals and the Finals, that's our next step. A lot of it is just maturity and being there before."
Smith, in particular, anxiously awaits the near future. There aren't many players more athletic. Of all the young players on the Hawks, he's the biggest tease, someone who can be better than he is but hasn't done it yet.
"They want me to do the intangibles," Smith said. "That's what's missing. I want to be an All-Star, so I've got to go the extra step and help us win more games. I have to go out and prove myself. If we win lots of games, that must mean we have stars."
Last season, the Hawks broke down late and couldn't sustain any momentum in the playoffs. They addressed their depth problem by adding Crawford, who can play two positions and any tempo. What they didn't do was find a low-post scorer; Horford, undersized at 6-foot-10, must do at center for now.
It could be that the Hawks may wind up a player short of their ultimate goal.
"Sure, I think every team would love to have a superstar," said Sund. "But what our players have to do is feed off each other and make winning the priority. Everything will take care of itself."
1. STAY HEALTHY UP FRONT
Hawks have little depth behind Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia in a conference with Shaq, KG and Dwight Howard.
2. CREATE HOME-COURT ADVANTAGE
Historically, Hawks have had one of the softer atmospheres in the NBA.
3. FIND ANOTHER CLUTCH SHOOTER
Johnson may be the only player on the roster who can score 30 points if absolutely needed.
-- Shaun Powell
LAST YEAR: 47-35, second in Southeast
FINISH: Lost in Eastern Conference semifinals
2008-09 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2008-09 Stats|
MIKE BIBBY, GUARD
14.9 PPG | 5.0 APG | 1.2 SPG
On the downside of career, will share ball handling at times with Johnson.
JOE JOHNSON, GUARD
21.4 PPG | 4.4 RPG | 5.8 APG
Led Hawks in scoring and assists, but not a top-shelf star.
MARVIN WILLIAMS, FORWARD
13.9 PPG | 6.3 RPG | 80.6 FT%
Good rebounder for small forward, still has upside and much to learn.
JOSH SMITH, FORWARD
15.6 PPG | 1.61 BPG | 1.4 SPG
Flashy and exciting player needs a better handle on fundamentals and court savvy.
AL HORFORD, CENTER
11.5 PPG | 9.3 RPG | 1.4 BPG
Worker bee who makes up for lack of size with grit and toughness; lacks a money move.
|J. Crawford||6-5||200||G||Athletic shooter can score in bunches, but has questionable shot selection.|
|Joe Smith||6-10||255||F||Former first overall pick, now journeyman at 34, will bring leadership if nothing else.|
|Jeff Teague||6-2||180||G||First round pick must mature quickly in order to get quality minutes off bench behind Bibby.|
ADDED: Jeff Teague, Sergiy Gladyr, Joe Smith, Jason Collins, Jamal Crawford
LOST: Solomon Jones, Acie Law, Speedy Claxton, Flip Murray
MIKE WOODSON, COACH
Mike Woodson has led the Hawks to the playoffs the last few years after his job appeared to be in jeopardy. The Hawks are poised for another winning season and playoff appearance. However, they haven't committed long-term to Woodson, who once again finds his coaching future uncertain. Plenty will depend on whether the Hawks pull a postseason surprise or if the organization believes a different voice is needed to take the Hawks to the next level.
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