The Hawks fan base is a colorful lot, such that it is. When we’re not blaming our favorite targets for anything and everything, we’re busy trying to prove each other wrong and our own selves right. I’ll start this by saying that I don’t know if I’m right, and that it doesn’t matter either way. But…I do have an opinion, and a rather strong one. So do you, and I want to hear it, no matter how vehemently opposed it might be to mine or anybody else’s. But, let’s try and respect each other at the same time. Leave the insults to each other’s collective intelligences out of the conversation. After all, if we were all that smart and that good, we’d be running an NBA franchise. Right?
Here goes, and some of these thoughts have been fermenting for days, others for weeks, some for months, and still others for years.
With a collective bargaining agreement situation brewing, the possibility of no basketball next season is looming. However, I won’t dwell on this long, and the fact is that the NBA simply has to be paying attention to what’s going on with the NFL. Here’s the difference – the NFL is a 9 billion dollar business. Fans might be mad about the lockout, but as long as none of the games are missed, they’ll come right back and the NFL will STILL be a 9 billion dollar business. The NBA? Not nearly so lucky. David Stern is already looking for ways to keep things rolling. Two of the most powerful and popular teams (Lakers and Celtics) whether you hate to love them or love to hate them, have just fallen in this season’s playoffs, and it could very well be a while before they rise again. I’m betting L.A. gets back up off the mat before Boston does, but the point stands. The NBA can’t afford a black mark like a lockout, because they WILL lose significant business. Why? Although rising stars such as Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, and Kevin Durant make the game exciting, it’s just not enough at the moment. The Heat are not even remotely beloved the way the Lakers once were, and there is no presence like Michael Jordan in the game any longer. Jordan’s presence was such that transcended all sports. People that never had a basketball in their hands knew who he was. There is no such guy in the NBA right now. Not with that type of marketability. No Magic Johnson, no Charles Barkley, none of those guys. I say the lockout won’t happen. But enough of that.
What’s the future for the Hawks? Kinda murky, if you ask me. They won’t sink to non-playoff team level. But they won’t get farther than they did this year, either. Not if they stand pat and maintain their usual status quo. They have to make some tough changes, or their future isn’t going to be much of a future. It’ll be more like a limbo.
Larry Drew proved he was better in the postseason than Mike Woodson was. Was it enough? If the ASG doesn’t sell off the team and Rick Sund sticks around, my guess is “yes.” Should it be enough? Well, that can’t be truly determined without looking at the players as well. It can be hard to assign blame and credit when you just don’t know all the internal facts. Drew talked about accountability, but he had a very hard time enforcing it. Is that really his fault, or do we just want it to be? The man gets slain on the regular for his offensive schemes, his lack of defensive enforcement, and his substitutions and lineup choices. Yes, he spent six years with this team as an assistant coach. But, he was still a rookie head coach. Comparing him to other rookie head coaches could be rather unfair when you consider such factors as prior experience, assistant staff, GM and owner performance, and of course…who you have playing for you. Since the Hawks lost to the Bulls, it’s easy to compare Drew to Thibodeau. Well, consider the Bulls culture and then compare that to the Hawks. Yeahhhhh, not so favorable, eh? Now, consider that Thibodeau spent his most recent assistant job as the defensive mastermind on a team that not only stayed in the hunt for a championship for a few years, but actually won it. Suddenly, Drew’s assistant coach experience pales in front of Thibodeau’s. So comparisons aren’t going to be everything we want them to be. Then of course, there is the whole thing about Larry Drew and Jeff Teague. It looks to me like Drew is trying to cover himself just a bit when he says he intended all along to play Teague more against Chicago than he did against Orlando. Ok, maybe he did, but just how much more? Without speculating on that too long, I’ll just say it wouldn’t have been much more than he got in the regular season on a night-to-night basis. And here’s my opinion on Drew – the whole thing with Jeff Teague is both reasonable in the beginning (let him earn the starting job) and forgivable (not playing him enough) in the end. Why? Because Teague’s development did not make or break this season, although his presence in the 2nd round definitely helped us win 2 games we otherwise would not have, and remain pretty competitive.
Drew stays, and he won’t kill this team. But, there are questions. Can he coach this team to better heights if some personnel changes are made? Or will his own performance not get any better? Remember, this was his first year as a head coach. Is judging him conclusively at this time a wise thing? Drew is a part of this team’s culture. The question is this – is he a part that will hold the team back, or is he a part that can contribute to the betterment of this team? There is no neutral ground in the case of a head coach.
Who Stays, Who Needs to Go
Forget about Joe Johnson going. The Hawks signed him like he is the only face to this franchise, and unless a blockbuster deal is made for a team that wants to build something that can compete with the Heat, Thunder, Bulls, or whoever else figures to be at the top of the NBA pile, Johnson stays put. Having said that, rule nothing out. Chicago will find out that they probably don’t have quite enough talent/power out of their #2 guy, and they may be willing to do something to put themselves over the top. A clue to this will be how they do against Miami, so WATCH CLOSELY. I believe they are a true #2 player away from beating anybody in the League. Having said that, Joe strikes me as a guy who won’t hold this team back in a culture setting. If things beging to truly change, Joe can go with the flow. Especially if he becomes comfy with the idea of moving to the small forward position in the near future. As it is, he is still our best overall player and our most talented scorer. After watching how Joe played vs. how our supposed future team leaders played, you can’t tell me you want to trade Joe off for peanuts and a new pair of shoes. No way.
Marvin Williams is a guy a lot of people would like to get rid of, and after his nearly complete lack of a presence in this year’s playoffs, I can’t make a very strong argument for why we absolutely must keep him. Does he hurt us if he stays? Not unless we are forced to use him as a starter all the time. I think Marvin’s role is best as a guy coming off the bench now. If we can trade him away for good, useable value, I won’t cry. If not, then let him be a 20+ mpg bench guy. He doesn’t have to like it, he just has to be decent at it. On the other hand, if Damien Wilkins shows he still has a bit left in the tank, he’s a good “end of the bench” vet to have, as he can give better than “end of the bench” performances.
Kirk Hinrich just got here, and as long as he’s healthy, his versatility, smarts, and toughness aren’t easy to replace. Trading him is only something we should do if it’s a deal that really makes sense. Otherwise, he’s a good backup to both guard spots, especially at the point. I believe that Jeff Teague should be our starting point guard, especially if he comes back and plays the way he just did against Chicago. The future is fairly bright, all he needs is a better jumper with a higher release, nothing some intense summer training with a pro won’t fix. Pape Sy is a guy who intrigues me a bit. He seems smoother than Mario West was (but maybe just as energetic), obviously with more size, and he could be a solidly developing 2 or 3 for us next season. We shall see.
Who knows what will happen with Jamal Crawford. The guy is a gunslinger by trade, and that’s what you are buying when you hire him. The problems with Crawford begin when you try to use him as a point guard too much, let him have too much free rein with the offense, or leave him on the floor when perimeter defense is needed badly, or is needed far more than scoring. Otherwise, you should know what you’re getting when you pay for his services. Crawford is good to have, but maybe no longer for this team. Why? Because as the playoffs showed, we rely too much on our guards scoring, and relying on Crawford as the #2 scoring option has obvious side effects, as discussed a couple of sentences ago. The Hawks have to get past this and become a team that can score inside as well (or nearly as well) as they do outside. For that reason and no other, it may be best that Crawford moves on. Let me say that another way to avoid misunderstanding – Crawford is not a guy I see as a problem for this team. I see the use and the dependance upon him as a problem. There is a difference.
In the frontcourt, let’s start with the reserves. Etan Thomas was barely used and Josh Powell is just not consistent or physical enough. Both can go. Hilton Armstrong is a guy I still wonder about. I can see why he has floated from one team to another, but he’s another end of the bench guy. He can go too, but somebody has to be at the end of the bench. It’s either him or Thomas, most likely. Magnum Rolle (I still don’t know what he looks like) won’t figure into the conversation. Jason Collins has shown his usefulness and isn’t a bad person to keep around. He knows how to play his role and plays it well. As for Zaza Pachulia, much maligned as he was at times during the season….he’s a keeper. On a team like this that needs smart big men who aren’t afraid to get physical with anybody and who like rebounding? Trading him is something you do ONLY if you know that what you’re getting back is better. Otherwise, it’s plain stupid. Pachulia has proven himself yet again, and I think anybody would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise. Take a look at the game 6 boxscore and you’ll see precisely what I mean.
Now we come to the crux of it all: Al Horford and Josh Smith. There are going to be some truly hot opinions where this is concerned. I’ll go ahead and get this out there first – I believe that Josh Smith has to be traded. Why? Because it’s either him or Al Horford, but something has got to give. Let’s look at each guy and I’ll explain it.
Al Horford – Some people claim that Horford has better trade value and that may well be the truth. I find it ironic that those who want to trade him are going to base their arguments off of his performance, more specifically his playoff performance. Really? Then how do you reconcile that performance with him having a higher trade value? There must be substance for there to be a high trade value, and if there is significant substance, why would you want to trade that away? The problem with Al is mental, but it’s different than it is with Josh Smith. Al began the season wanting to move to power forward. Oh, he wouldn’t come right out and say it, but both he and his head coach talked about it plenty. He also began to play like it. And in the playoffs, it got worse. However, here is why you don’t trade Al Horford:
1) Despite Al’s sudden aversion to being the team’s tough guy, he still made the all-star team, and he also made the All-NBA team. Let me say that again – he made the ALL- NBA TEAM. Yes, it was the third team, but that still means he was named as one of the 15 best players in the League. You’re going to trade that away in favor of somebody who has yet to figure out how to make an all-star team? You better be getting an all-star back. And it better be a low post player. A center. Horford is substance, and not unrealized potential. Right now his learning curve is in the area where he has to learn how to maintain all-star level play, even in the postseason. He has to learn how to raise his game in the postseason.
2) Horford is coachable. Whatever his issue is mentally, it can be dealt with. Horford was a virtual beast his first three years. He can get that back. If one subpar playoffs is all it takes to throw a guy out, then there are a lot of guys who should have been traded a bunch of times. The man is a winner and a hard worker. He’ll look at how he played in this postseason and vow to never have that happen again. He’ll take the criticism, he won’t refute it or argue against it. He’ll own it. And he will do better. He will also do what his coach asks him to do.That is Al’s personality, it’s who he is. He’s not a dominating shot-blocker or an intimidating presence at the rim. He has weaknesses. He’s an all-star who didn’t play like an all-star. But he can fix it. He will fix it.
3) Horford has true leadership abilities. There is no substitution for that. The Hawks need true floor leaders, and Al is one, even if he failed at it this postseason. Some successes aren’t possible without the experience of failure first. Trade Al away, and you lose a leader.
Josh Smith – The mercurial forward has the uncanny and rare ability to change the game for his team on either end of the floor. He has more potential and capability to do this than any of his teammates. He’s the most dynamic defender, and one of the game’s most dangerous finishers on the fast break. All of this ability, and Josh just cannot seem to harness it for more than what sometimes feels like mere moments. Though it pains me as a long-time Smith supporter to say this, here is why Josh Smith needs to be traded:
1) All that potential and ability. After seven years, the best argument we have in his favor is that he was snubbed by the all-star voting. Some worry that if Smith leaves here, he becomes an all-star elsewhere. I call BS. Smith has the perfect and best opportunity to be an all-star here, but he just hasn’t bridged the gap. And guess what? He won’t. Josh will not play to his strengths long enough to help himself out, much less his team, on a consistent basis. For years we’ve said that Josh’s positives outweigh his negatives. That’s been true, and it’s been good enough for the “development and potential” years. That was good enough for the first 4 or maybe even 5 years. But it hasn’t been good enough for the last two years. It just isn’t good enough anymore. His negatives may be fewer, but they are hurting his individual game as well as this team’s performance.
2) This one hurts as well – Josh is not coachable enough. Maybe it takes a different coach, I don’t know. I’d love to say that Smith would succeed under a Gregg Popovich, a Phil Jackson, a Larry Brown, or maybe a Doc Rivers. But I just can’t prove it. Smith isn’t listening to anybody that is telling him what he doesn’t want to hear, and there are just too many interview or post game comments that make this obvious. As mentioned before, he just won’t play to his strengths enough, and as some have noted, he seems more interested in proving that his weaknesses aren’t weaknesses. What kind of team captain consistently ignores his coach? What does that do to the culture of a ballclub? Smith is intent all too often on playing the game the way he thinks he should play it, despite the overwhelming evidence that should show him otherwise. He doesn’t see it. He won’t see it. Smith is just too comfortable here, where he can claim seniority amongst his peers as a Hawk, where he isn’t shouted down by his non-confrontational teammates, where he was named a co-captain (a backfired plan). It’s not that good players don’t contend with their coaches. This happens plenty. But good players, especially the best ones, have a strong relationship with their coaches. One that works on the professional level, even if they never spend a minute together away from the court. And the best players can also back up their disagreements with production, while accepting the consequences of their actions. Josh doesn’t produce at his best when he plays how he wants to play (as opposed to how he SHOULD play), and he is also not very accepting of the consequences.
3) The hometown kid and highlight factory excuse is done. I understood the fear that any owner or GM would have in trading away a local hometown kid, especially if he was a key component to the team. Especially if they thought he might develop into a true star when traded away. Especially if his going took away an element that the team simply could not live without under any circumstances. But that is not the case here. Josh still makes the most electrifying plays in a Hawks uniform at Philips Arena. But they’ve been too few and far between. Disagree? Well that’s fine, but I’ll tell you right now – there is a reason why I’m convinced of this – when the vast majority of the home crowd in your arena groans, screams, or otherwise voices its collective disapproval every time you wind up for a jumpshot, you have just lost the hometown/local kid mystique. Sorry, but it’s over. People will miss the dunks. They’ll miss the blocks. They’ll even miss the full court passes. Until somebody else starts doing it. As it so happens, a 2nd year point guard is beginning to be known for his dunks and blocks. There will be more where that came from.
So there you have it. Change the culture, change the look, change the core. Trade Josh Smith, and the Hawks will accomplish all three. Having said that, trading him for the wrong person will make it look like a bad move. But it’s a move the Hawks have to make, I believe.
Fire away folks….
Big Ray, Hawks Fan Nest Blog