The annual chorus is in fine voice. “The Hawks,” goes the full-throated refrain, “won’t get any better until they find a superstar [meaning LeBron James or Kobe Bryant] or a true center [like Dwight Howard].”
And there’s no rebuttal. Sure, the Hawks would be better with LeBron/Kobe/Dwight. Any team would. But the cold truth is that the Hawks won’t find such a transcendent talent unless Dame Fortune smiles an outrageous smile. That’s the way of the NBA.
“You don’t trade for superstars,” says Rick Sund, the Hawks’ general manager. “You draft them.”
The lottery is, by design and definition, pure luck. The Hawks were participants in 2003 (LeBron’s year, when their No. 8 pick was made by Milwaukee as part of the Glenn Robinson trade) and 2004 (Dwight’s year, when they settled for Josh Childress with the sixth pick), and both times went unblessed by the ping-pong balls. There’s no strategy involved. It’s the bounce of ball in a hopper.
A little exercise: Take one player – any one, from Josh Smith to Speedy Claxton – off the Hawks and replace him with LeBron/Kobe/Dwight. Know where the Hawks would be? Preparing for Game 1 of the NBA finals. This is a very good team that lacks only one great player, but that’s a massive lack.
We tire of the NBA’s blather about its stars, but nobody can deny that it’s a star’s game. And stars are hard to get. Of the 15 men who comprised the 2009 All-NBA teams, 13 were top 10 draftees – the exceptions are Kobe Bryant, taken No. 13 when high schoolers weren’t yet the rage, and Tony Parker, who arrived from France as the 28th pick in 2001 – and 10 went in the top five.
Only three of the 15 have changed teams since their NBA debuts. (The three: Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol and Chauncey Billups.) Moral of our story: If you find a star, you keep him. And if you have a chance at one and you whiff … well, you wind up being the Hawks, forever chasing the game.
They couldn’t have had James in 2003 or Howard in 2004 because they didn’t win the lottery. But they had a shot at Chris Paul (second team All-NBA) in 2005, and they had another at Brandon Roy (also second team) the next year. To harp on those dire drafts is to flog a horse deader than Man ’o War, but the Hawks haven’t yet — and might never — outrun those lapses.
They could have had a backcourt of Paul and Joe Johnson way back in 2005. No, they wouldn’t have landed in the 2007 lottery and wouldn’t have Al Horford, but they’d have made the Eastern Conference finals by now and still had Mike Bibby’s money to spend on a big man.
Billy Knight deserves credit for building a 69-loss roster into a robust entity, but the best player he acquired — Johnson — hasn’t made the All-NBA team. Twice Knight had the opening to draft a star, and twice he took a guy named Williams. (Though not, alas, Deron Williams.) And even now, as the Hawks come off their finest season in a decade and Sund seeks to model his club after the starless 2003-2004 Pistons, those failures are the horse that keeps on dying.