Every Hawks blog post elicits the same two reader comments. The first: “We should have drafted Chris Paul!” The second, following close at hand: “Can we please stop talking about Chris Paul?”
Reader No. 2 has a point. The draft in question came in 2005. But a misspent pick of 5 2/3 years ago is the gift (to other teams) that goes on taking (from the Hawks).
History lesson: The Hawks entered the 2005 lottery with the NBA’s worst record (13-69) and stood the best chance of landing the first pick. They had had some good young wings but no center and no point guard.
The 2005 draft, as luck had it, included both a center (Andrew Bogut of Utah) and three point guards (Paul of Wake Forest, Deron Williams from Illinois and Raymond Felton of North Carolina) cut from high cloth. There was disappointment among Hawks brass when they finished second to Milwaukee in the lottery — everyone knew the Bucks would take Bogut — but they still felt they’d make out OK. And they should have.
Marvin Williams, a freshman forward who’d been North Carolina’s sixth man, scarcely missed a shot in his Atlanta audition, and general manager Billy Knight was smitten. On Draft Night the Hawks left the three point guards on the board, each of whom was snagged by the next three selecting teams. Thus did the Hawks spend their highest pick in 30 years on yet another forward. The team exited the draft as it had entered. Not getting a center was bad luck. Not finding a point guard was bad business.
Five and a half seasons later, the Hawks approach the trading deadline still on the PG prowl. They’ve since spent two first-round picks on the position (Acie Law IV and Jeff Teague) and made two trades importing point guards of a sort (Mike Bibby, Jamal Crawford), but they haven’t yet found the guy capable of running an NBA team in the way NBA team needs to be run.
Their reported/rumored targets this February? Point guards again — Ramon Sessions of Cleveland, Andre Miller of Portland and the recently dealt-t0-Denver Felton. Also included: Washington’s Kirk Hinrich, who has point-guard qualities. The Hawks have decided they can climb no higher with Mike Bibby, which is true now but wasn’t true when he arrived.
In his final act as GM, Knight acquired Bibby from Sacramento in Feburary 2008 at a time when the Hawks were in danger of missing the playoffs for the eighth year running. Bibby helped settle the younger Hawks, who slipped in as the No. 8 seed and carried the champs-to-be Celtics to a Game 7. That was when the Hawks stopped being losers, and it wouldn’t have happened without Bibby.
But Bibby is idiosyncratic: He doesn’t drive to the basket, and he guards nothing that moves. He’s skilled at distributing the ball on the break and he can make a three-point shot, but he couldn’t have been a starting point guard on a good team if that team didn’t have Joe Johnson. Those two like and trust one another, and Bibby doesn’t mind letting Johnson control the ball.
Thing is, Larry Drew’s new share-the-wealth offense features Johnson less, and the upshot has been that nobody is running this team. (Ergo, the offense often is rendered a fusillade of jump shots.) When Crawford enters, his mission is to score, and Teague, of whom much was expected, has delivered nothing.
The East keeps getting better. The Hawks, the No. 3 seed last season, are positioned to be the fifth seed this year. They need to make a personnel move, but it’s unclear if any of those players mentioned will mesh with Johnson. And if Crawford is included in any deal, the Hawks’ second unit becomes substandard. (Bibby as a sub wouldn’t have nearly the effect Crawford does.)
This could have been avoided had Knight made the right pick at the right time. Having Paul or Deron Williams — I preferred the latter, who was just traded to the Nets — would have made the Hawks a playoff team in 2007, perhaps in 2006. No, they wouldn’t have been drafting high enough in 2007 to land Al Horford, but they’d already have been a good team by then.
Without a real point guard, the Hawks wound up getting pretty good anyway. But their way was the harder way, and that way has reached the point of diminishing returns. Five years later, the Hawks still lack their Chris Paul.
By Mark Bradley