When Al Horford said earlier this summer that the Hawks needed to add an “impact center” to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference, I’m going to guess he wasn’t talking about Jason Collins (who had no impact for the Hawks last season) or Etan Thomas (whose impact lately has been blunted by injuries).
Yet as training camp approaches that’s what the Hawks have behind Horford and Zaza. They re-signed Collins early, struck out with Shaq (who had endorsements from both Al and Smoove) and Brad Miller and today added Thomas.
I bumped into Al at Philips today and asked him if that’s going to be enough to help the Hawks break through the ceiling that for this franchise has been short of the East finals for so long.
“I am going to war with who I’ve got,” Al said
What he’s got at center is Zaza, who came on at the end of last season and stacks up favorably against other NBA backups though he isn’t a stout deterrent at the rim; a leaner and apparently more-motivated version of Collins; and Thomas, a tough banger in the post who will try and show that injuries have not robbed him of his rebounding and shot-blocking ability.
Those three players plus Al, Smoove and Josh Powell will make up Atlanta’s frontcourt. That rotation, with L.D.’s plan to play Al at power forward and Smoove at small forward at times, is going to have to be enough.
Horford had hoped Atlanta would add an impact center who could split minutes with him at center and shore up the interior D against the likes of Dwight Howard and Boston’s frontcourt (and that was before the C’s added Jermaine O’Neal and Shaq). Now he will roll with Zaza, Twin and Thomas.
“I haven’t seen him, but I know that Jason Collins is coming in in great shape and has really worked,” Horford said. “He is a guy who could have been utilized a little more last year. And we’ve got Etan Thomas who will be here soon and he will be a great help, as well.”
After a long day of physicals with Atlanta’s medical people, Thomas had to smile when I asked him about his health. If he came through all the poking and prodding with passing grades, he must be good to go. “Everything is fine,” he said.
Why did he choose to sign with the Hawks?
“This is a great situation,” he said. “I was with Larry Drew in D.C. and I have a lot of respect for him. I like what he is doing here.”
Thomas said Drew made “no promises” about his role and just told him to be ready. Does Thomas think he still can provide the physical presence the Hawks are looking for?
“That’s what they brought me here for,” he said. “I’m going to put in a lot of hard work.”
Thomas, who will wear No. 36 for the Hawks, has earned a rep for physical, high-energy play around the basket.
“We need that inside toughness in here,” Al said. “The more that we have, the better.”
Jamal Crawford’s pending pay-me-or-trade-me request notwithstanding, it looks like Atlanta will send out the same top nine for 2010-11 as they did for 2009-10.
So how can the Hawks improve on No. 3 in the East and the second round of the playoffs, particularly with Boston still Boston, Miami shooting past them on paper, Orlando’s so-far unconquerable core still intact, and Chicago and Milwaukee creeping up from behind?
“I know that I’m excited personally with what Coach Drew has been talking about,” Horford said. “He wants to change the offense a little bit and do things a little differently. Having said that, it all depends on the kind of level that our key guys like Joe Johnson and Josh Smith [reach] coming in. Mentally, I think that’s going to be a part of how good we are as a team.
“I think there is room for growth. There definitely is. We have to work harder if we want to be any better because, man, the East. Milwaukee is better. Chicago is better. Miami is better, it goes without saying. It’s going to be an interesting year for us.”
The same can be said for Al, who is heading into the final year of his rookie-scale contract fresh off his first selection to the All-Star game. The Hawks can extend him for up to five years and $82 million by Oct. 31 or tender him to make him a restricted free agent next summer.
Indications are that the Hawks plan to make an aggressive push to sign Al to an extension but that process hasn’t started.
“I haven’t heard anything yet,” Horford said. “I think anything will start coming once training camp gets going. I am just kind of leaving to that to the owners and my representation and just seeing what happens. I am going to keep working hard and keep doing what I’ve been doing.”