HAWKSVILLE – I know that the NBA hype machine would have you believe that the NBA playoffs is basically a test of wills between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
If you let the networks tell it, we’re all just bearing witness to the crowning of the king or the validation of KB24’s reign as the heir to his Airness.
Count Magic superstar center and Atlanta native Dwight Howard among those who have heard just about enough. And the AJC’s own Jeff Schultz isn’t far behind Howard in the enough is enough line.
The only problem with all the Kobe/LeBron fuss is that arguably the two most critical guys on the floor thus far in these outstanding Eastern and Western Conference finals have been Lakers’ swingman Trevor Ariza and Orlando Magic super sub Mickael Pietrus.
As well Bryant, James, Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Pau Gasol, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and all the other major players have played during certain stretches, Ariza and Pietrus have been just as, if not more important to their team’s efforts.
Ariza’s made two game-clinching plays to seal wins for the Lakers, both defensive gems on inbounds plays. And Pietrus has not only been a lights out shooter against the Cavs, he’s played James as well defensively as any player I’ve seen in the last three seasons – and that includes defensive stalwarts Ron Artest and Bruce Bowen.
Now I’ll admit that my theory could be the product of viewing way too much playoff basketball the past month and counting, or an excessive amount of fumes to the dome from a long weekend spent over the top of my grill. But it seems like the contributions of these two role players will have as much to do with who plays in the NBA Finals as any singular effort from a superstar for any of the four teams remaining in this postseason.
Which brings me to our favorite topic ‘round these parts … the Hawks and their roster in need of major surgery this summer (more on that below).
Folks keep telling me about who needs to go to make this team better. And I keep thinking about what they need to add to this group to get better.
The Hawks need guys like Ariza and Pietrus to complete what they started with last year’s playoff appearance and continued this season with their Eastern Conference semifinal appearance.
Flip Murray and Mo Evans qualify, as does Zaza Pachulia. But of the three, only Evans is guaranteed to be in a Hawks uniform in the fall. Not only do the Hawks need to find ways to keep Murray and Pachulia in the fold, they need to find more guys like them (or better).
That’s where the Hawks greatest improvement will come next season (save a blockbuster trade), in the sum of their parts. And those parts have to improve down the roster.
Can you imagine the Hawks with an explosive scoring power forward like Charlie Villanueva (a restricted free agent this summer with a bit of a Twitter habit) or Chris Wilcox (another free agent this summer) coming off of their bench? And not as a replacement for Pachulia but as a running mate. That’s the kind of addition that helps recast the Hawks for next season.
If you’re serious about keeping the core together and still improving your roster, which is the theme we’ve heard from the Hawks non-stop since they were swept out of the playoffs.
DRAFT CHATTER is the favorite topic of many this time of year, and for good reason.
Spanish point guard phenom Ricky Rubio is the guy generating the most attention in the draft, for reasons good and apparently bad, per some folks.
The fine folks at TrueHoop did a bang up job detailing the luster and the risk of a player like Rubio, who is universally regarded as the best point guard “prospect” to come out of Europe in some time, and perhaps ever.
My most trusted source on all things Rubio is Lang Whitaker of SLAM Magazine, who has been on the Rubio bandwagon for years now. He’s the first person I can remember having seen Rubio play in person. And as best I can remember, he was the first writer to travel to Spain to interview and write about Rubio. So I’m going on his word that Rubio is going to be a star in the NBA.
“He is,” Whitaker said by phone Tuesday morning from his New York office. “The thing with Rubio is … did you see the gold medal game? He played great against Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Jason Kidd. I don’t know who else you want to see him against to convince you that he’s going to be a star.”
Lang doesn’t have to convince me. I’m willing to play along with the international charade as long as the player is as talented as Rubio (and I did watch the gold medal game. Rubio made some nice plays but he wasn’t what stood out to me).
But not everyone I’ve talked to is convinced.
“I’d much rather have Derrick Rose,” one Eastern Conference executive told me by phone Tuesday morning. “And it’s not even close in my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, Rubio is talented. He might have tons of potential. But seriously, how many times have we said that about one of these young kids and then he gets over here and we find out there are all these things about his game that just don’t add up in the NBA? That’s what worries me about Rubio. We’ve seen glimpses of him against NBA competition. It’s just like when you watch Rudy Fernandez and Linas Kleiza look unstoppable in international play and then they get to the NBA season and you realize it’s a totally different game. Rubio is going to find the same issues where his game is concerned.”
How that’s different from any other college player/prospect is beyond me. I mean, who knew Rose would be so good from the start? Actually, lots of people expected it. In fact, that’s what led the draft debate last year between Rose and Michael Beasley. There doesn’t seem to be the same sort of debate between the point guard and power forward this year (I’ve heard very few people discuss let alone advocate taking Rubio over Blake Griffin).
“A much better gauge is a guy who has dominated in Europe and then comes over here at the top of his game, like Pau Gasol did, like Manu Ginobili did and Luis Scola did,” the Eastern Conference exec continued.” They showed up ready to play because they weren’t just prospects, they were established players and really stars over there. The bottom line is this, the way you develop young players here and in Europe is vastly different. And it doesn’t always work best for young international players over here.”
An unabashed Hawks fan, Lang barked at me over a week ago about what he wants to see his hometown team do with the 19th pick in the June draft.
His email from last week:
Rick Sund’s last three first round picks? Robert Swift, Saer Sene and Johan Petro.
I really hope the Hawks draft Toney Douglas from FSU. We need to get his name out there. Dude can shoot, drives all the time, can play the 1 and 2 and was ACC defensive player of the year. And he’s from Jonesboro. I don’t understand why more people aren’t talking about him. Coach K said this at the ACC Tournament: ”He’s my favorite non-Duke player in the country. I love that guy. I talk about him a lot to our guys. They’re probably mad at me. He’s as good as there is in college.”
THE HAWKS AREN’T THE ONLY TEAM IN THE SOUTHEAST DIVISION stuck in point guard limbo with the draft and free agency fast approaching. The team the Hawks vanquished in the first round of the playoffs is in a similar predicament, though the Miami Heat already have one proven building block in Mario Chalmers.
My main man Mike Wallace of the Miami Herald points out as much in his latest blog, shouting out Hawks point guards past and present in the process:
And it makes you wonder. Why does every other team in the league seem to have a spare Flip Murray on the roster, yet the Heat goes two seasons without one? Shaun Livingston didn’t have the legs. Marcus Banks lacked the skills. And Penny Hardaway – dare we say – didn’t have anything left other than pleasant memories of when he used to be somebody in this league.
This Magic-Cavs series is stocked with serviceable, stop-gap type veteran parts at the point that Miami either tried to get and couldn’t, parted with too soon or probably should have pursued harder when it had the chance.
Orlando has three of them: Rafer Alston, Anthony Johnson and Tyronn Lue.
How crazy would it be to see the Magic make the NBA Finals with two point guards (Johnson and Lue for those of you who have just recently joined us here in Hawksville) the Hawks shipped out of town to get Mike Bibby on their roster?
And depending on what happens in July, Bibby could be joining them as ex-Hawks point guards.
The Hawks, of course, are in need of a starting material at the point. And that might come in the form of Bibby, if the Hawks can find a way to reel him back in from the free agent waters with the right deal, or someone else.
Speaking of Bibby, the good folks at Hawksquawk, threw some great questions my way about the team and where things might be headed. And as you can probably imagine, Bibby’s name came up several times.
We’ve discussed Bibby endlessly around here, so won’t go into detail about the tenor of the conversation they are having about him elsewhere. But I’ll share this one question and answer (and suggest you check out the rest of it on their site (which is pretty impressive, by the way):
Q. Was there a change in the locker-room demeanor since the addition of Bibby? Did he bring a playoff presence to the Hawks team? Is there any urgency (or perceived urgency) to resign Flip?
A. Bibby assumed a leadership position automatically, which is what the Hawks needed. He eased the pressure on Joe and Woodson as well, which needed to happen. And more than a playoff presence he brought a sense of accountability to the locker room, which was lacking before his arrival. He was the right personality and player at just the right time for the Hawks. It was almost like he added that “why not us?” factor to this team that wasn’t there before, a sense of they could do some things with him that didn’t really seem possible until he showed up. Flip proved invaluable this season and while I wouldn’t call it urgency, there’s certainly a need to make sure Flip is kept in the fold.
WITH SO MANY ROSTER QUESTIONS TO DEAL WITH THIS SUMMER it’s hard for me to imagine the Hawks’ brass taking too many days off between now and late July.
I know they’ve begun their predraft workouts, which unlike in years past are not open to the media. And the scaled down predraft camp has moved back to Chicago from Orlando this summer. It begins this week and runs into this weekend.
As far as the Hawks’ individual workouts, I’m not sure there will be much to talk about anyway. Astro Joe emailed a little while ago wondering if they’d begun and whether or not I’d seen anything worth talking about. I promptly relayed the story to him of Al Horford’s workout two years ago that left quite a few people scratching their heads as to what all the fuss was about.
Had the Hawks based their pick in that year’s draft on the workout alone, Horford might not have been the choice (luckily for us all Billy Knight stuck to his “gimme the best power forward type I can get at this spot” guns and made the right call).
Different teams value different things in the predraft process. Some want to see what a guy looks like on the hoof or how he tests out in various drills that have little or nothing to do with why you’d want a guy on your team.
Others want to see if he interviews a certain way, wanting to make sure they’re adding the right type of guy to their team. Me, I need to know a guy can play. And I’m positive I can tell more from watching him play in games than I can from anything he’ll do in a scripted workout.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t relay what I’m hearing leading up to the draft. After all, this is easily one of the Hawks’ most critical summers in a string of huge ones. What they do in the draft and free agency basically determines if they’re going to stay among the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference or slide back down to the playoff purgatory waters that they bathed in for years.