(Note to my blog people: I wrote this back when I got on the beat in January but decided I didn’t have the cred to put it out then. I thought about freshening it up and posting it after Woody blew up at that shootaround in Milwaukee but decided to wait. Now after what happened to the Hawks in Game 5—beforehand the game I was taken aback at how nonchalant the players seemed in the locker room before such an important night—I decided now might be a good time to post this and see if it still holds up. It’s what I wrote back then except for editing a couple spots where I couldn’t think of the right word or hadn’t yet looked up some factual details at the time.)
I’ve been covering the Hawks for only two weeks. That’s not nearly enough time to form definitive opinions about the team, but readers have been asking me what I think the team needs to put it over the top. So with the caveat that I haven’t been around that long, I will draw on my experience covering the 2005-06 Heat and tell you what the Hawks need to be a real contender.
They need Alonzo Mourning.
Well, not the actual ‘Zo, who is comfortably retired after blowing out his knee at Philips Arena on Dec. 19, 2007. But the Hawks need someone like ‘Zo, who in ‘05-06 was a hardened veteran who had been through playoff battles and knew the kind of dedication and focus it took to win at a high level. He was a guy whose forceful personality commanded respect, and whose work ethic shamed players who weren’t 36 years old and fatigued by medication to rise to his level. And, just as importantly, ‘Zo still had something to offer on the floor that the Heat needed—even in the twilight of his career he was the most amazing shotblocker I ever saw in person, and that’s even after seeing Smoove do his thing.
The Hawks don’t have a ‘Zo. The Celtics do (Kevin Garnett). The Cavaliers don’t—LeBron is special but he’s not hardened yet—and couldn’t they have used a guy like that against the Magic in the 2009 East finals? The Magic doesn’t have a ‘Zo, either, and that’s what it means when you hear the complaints about Dwight Howard being too goofy (Stan Van Gundy had ‘Zo, so he knows). The Lakers, of course, have a ‘Zo type in Kobe, who is notorious for having little tolerance for BS from his teammates. The Spurs get that same effect from Gregg Popovich but that’s a unique situation because Tim Duncan is a superstar who accepts a coach riding him like that.
The Hawks don’t have that kind of locker room presence, and there are times when it shows. I’ve been to a few practices now where Woody walks the team through defensive situations. I’ve seen him tell guys what they need to do on pick-and-rolls, backdoor cuts, in transition, etc. And then the Hawks run through the play 10 seconds later and the guy who Woody just personally instructed messes up his assignment. “Where are you going?” is a common refrain from Woody in these situations. The atmosphere during these sessions tends to be loose, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a long season and the Hawks seem to be a group of guys who need to have fun. But there comes a time to be serious and there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the Hawks’ locker room to put it down like that. It’s what you get from a team that relies on so many young players or older guys without big personalities and/or roles.
These would be the times where ‘Zo would tell guys who keep messing up to pay attention. If guys goofed off when they should be focused, ‘Zo would tell them to knock it off. Now the other Heat players gave ‘Zo a lot of grief about being so intense and serious—he could be over-the-top with it at times—and he usually took the clowning good-naturedly. But when he spoke up his teammates paid attention because no one worked harder than ‘Zo. He was hungry for a title and he wasn’t going to let some nonsense get in the way of that. His intensity and toughness rubbed off on his teammates who could use it.
Now Woody critics might say that a coach with a better pedigree would be able to get them to focus better. There could be something to that because the NBA is a players’ league, but it’s not that simple. For one, it’s a long season and players get tired of hearing it from the coach. For another, Pat Riley got a lot of respect from his players because he’d won titles, sure, but also because he was the team president and backed by the owner. Unhappy players knew if they crossed him they could be shipped off to an even more miserable situation. But even that didn’t prevent Shaq from once nearly coming to blows with Riley in practice. ‘Zo, by the way, stepped between them and broke it up, good thing because who else was going to do it?
And Riley had his faults. He would arbitrarily enforce inconsistent fitness standards on players whom he was mad at for whatever reason. He once inexplicably suspended James Posey, a true pro, because Posey’s body fat percentage was a fraction above some standard that Posey suggested Riley had made up. He got personal with Antoine Walker, calling him out in the media, and while Walker’s game could be frustrating he wasn’t a bad guy. Riley could make the atmosphere too heavy for players. And if you think Woody doesn’t give enough love to young players, get a load of Riley. You basically had to be Dwyane Wade-good to be a young guy and get run with Riley.
The Hawks would be a different team with someone like ‘Zo. Mike Bibby certainly has the pedigree to be that guy but his role has diminished and he may not have the personality for it. Joe Johnson is the team’s star but he seems to be a quiet type. Smoove, Al, and Marvin are too young still.
From a talent standpoint, the Hawks actually match up fairly well with that ’06 Heat team. Wade obviously is an elite players, and Shaq at that time still changed defensive gameplans by commanding automatic double teams in the post. Those kinds of talents aren’t common. But then again the Heat didn’t have a J.J. type, a long wing who can get his own shot and defend multiple positions. ‘Zo was the closest thing the Heat had to Smoove, but ‘Zo couldn’t play big minutes because of his health—it was common to see him standing at halfcourt sucking wind while his teammates ran the break.
On that Heat team Jason Williams still pushed the pace at times and got to the rim, but usually his job was to bring the ball up and hand it off to Wade to initiate the offense and make the open shots that Wade created—sounds like Bibby, right? J-Will didn’t offer much defensively, either. Physically Marvin is a Posey type, long, athletic and able to guard multiple positions (though Posey was a veteran who had a knack for making just the right play at exactly the time the Heat needed it). Jamal Crawford is even better in his shotmaking role off the bench than Gary Payton was for the Heat.
So, on paper at least, this Hawks team could match up decently in physical talent with that ’06 Heat team. Keep in mind, too, the Heat stumbled into April and didn’t really start clicking until the final couple weeks of the regular season (unless you were there, you wouldn’t believe that this also coincided with ‘Toine replacing Posey in the starting lineup). The Bulls pushed the Heat in the first round, with a big game from Shaq and some big shots from GP turning the tide. Then the Heat got a sweet second-round matchup with the Wizards, whose soft defense allowed Wade to do whatever he wanted in the lane. The Heat swept the Wizards with Shaq sidelined by injury. Wade carried the Heat in the East finals against Detroit. Wade did the same in the Finals vs. the Mavericks (and the Heat doesn’t’ win without ‘Zo, who was possessed by then), but it’s also true the Dirk Nowitzki choked in Game 3.
The point is it’s not easy to win a title. It takes the right matchups. It takes some luck. It takes some time. And, from my experience, it takes someone like ‘Zo. The Hawks just don’t have that guy right now.