Even in losing, the Hawks felt flattered. What they’ve done is what Oklahoma City is endeavoring to do. “A mirror of our team,” Mike Woodson said afterward, and when was the last time anyone else in the NBA regarded the local franchise as anything to be emulated?
Not many teams can match talent with the Hawks. The Thunder did it Monday and left a three-point winner. “That’s a great young team over there,” said the ancient Josh Smith, who’s all of 24 and who nearly generated a triple double. “They’ve been able to have a lottery pick and get a marquee guy every year.”
The past three Thunder drafts (the first coming when it was based in Seattle): Landed Kevin Durant with the second overall pick in 2007 and traded for Jeff Green, who was the fifth pick; drafted Russell Westbrook with the fourth overall pick in 2008; drafted James Harden with the third overall pick in 2009. They have 12 first-rounders on the roster, six of them lottery picks.
The Hawks likewise boast six lottery picks. And if it weren’t for the improvement shown here these past few years, Oklahoma City might well be charting a different course. “People are starting to copy that model, instead of panicking,” Woodson said, speaking before Monday’s MLK Day matinee. “I think more teams will do it.”
The idea: Accumulate young talent and hope it coalesces. The Chicago Bulls tried — at one point they had Jamal Crawford and Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler and Brad Miller and Ron Artest under contract — but got antsy and started dumping players. Said Woodson: “They were spoiled [from the Jordan Era]. They didn’t have the patience to wait.”
It took the Hawks four seasons from the drafting of the Joshes — Childress and Smith — to make the playoffs, a fifth to finish above .500. But the team that went forever without winning awoke Monday atop the NBA Southeast, and the Hawks’ method has opened eyes across the league. Both Oklahoma City and Portland are trying the build-with-youth method, and it’s working even faster both places.
Woodson: “It wasn’t easy, man. I took a lot of shots [many from this correspondent] … We had our bumps along the way, but we’re winning now, and a lot of that has to do with the fact we held our core together.”
Well, yes. For acquiring so many good players, Billy Knight deserves credit in absentia. (He resigned as GM in 2008.) But watching the Thunder trip the Hawks, an old feeling came rushing back. With the second pick in the 2007 draft, the Thunder (then the Sonics) took Kevin Durant, who’s one of the 10 best players in the sport. With the second pick in the 2005 draft, Knight chose Marvin Williams, who’s of the 10 best players on his team.
“We always got smacked in the face for not drafting [Chris] Paul,” Woodson said, but it’s the whiff that keeps on missing. Even with a new contract, Williams remains inessential. He’s averaging 10.4 points and 5.1 rebounds, both marking significant sags off last season’s yield. On Monday he played 21 minutes, scored seven points, took two rebounds and managed no assists. (Durant: 29 points, five rebounds, five assists.)
Durant was the difference Monday even when he didn’t touch the ball. The Hawks keyed on denying him an inbounds play with 19 seconds left, but Green took the ball at the top of the key and got Smith leaning and drove for the clinching dunk. Not many people dunk on Josh Smith, but Green did it with vigor.
Said Al Horford, drafted one spot after Durant in 2007: “They’re definitely as athletic and as talented as we are.”
And this day the Thunder was a tad hungrier. “They play hard,” said Crawford, who took almost the same shot to tie Monday as he’d hit to beat Phoenix on Friday but saw this one roll off. “They compete.”
Here he smiled. “It’s like looking at the Hawks of a couple of years ago.”
That brought some consolation. If other folks are doing as the Hawks did, it means what the Hawks did is working.