On Jan. 18, 2010, the Hawks met Oklahoma City in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day matinee. At the time, the Hawks had the better record and seemed the more advanced team. They won a playoff series the previous season, while the Thunder had gone 23-59. But OKC was clearly seeking to do as the Hawks had done: Amass a slew of high draft picks and let them grow together.
Mike Woodson, then the Hawks’ coach, called the Thunder “a mirror of our team.” Al Horford, drafted one spot behind Kevin Durant in June 2007, called OKC “definitely as athletic and as talented as we are.” Jamal Crawford, then the sixth man, said watching the visiting side “was like looking at the Hawks of a couple of years ago.” (For the record, the Thunder won that day 94-91.)
A couple of years later, the Thunder have crashed the NBA finals, while the Hawks haven’t gone beyond Round 2. (This year they lost in Round 1.) And now we ask: If OKC took the Hawks as a model, why has Version 2.0 succeeded where the original has stalled? We start with the obvious.
1. The Thunder drafted a superstar. The aforementioned Durant became OKC’s cornerstone. (Though technically he spent his first NBA season as a SuperSonic; the franchise moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008.) Durant was the second player drafted in 2007. The Hawks held the No. 2 pick in the 2005 draft. They could have had a superstar, but they drafted Marvin Williams — as opposed to Chris Paul or Deron Williams. Seven years later, the folly of that pick cannot be overstated.
2. The Thunder drafted a point guard. They took Russell Westbrook, who hadn’t been a point guard at UCLA, with the fourth pick of the 2008 draft. Some insist he’s still not a point guard — he finished 18th this season in assists and he shoots an awful lot — but he does man the position and is demonstrably one of the NBA’s 10 best players. The Hawks had to wait until February 2008 to find a point guard to round out their Core Four, and Mike Bibby was already in decline when he arrived via trade from Sacramento.
3. The Thunder did not whiff. Over a three-year span, Oklahoma City made these first-round picks: Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka (24th overall in 2008) and James Harden (third overall in 2009). Harden was just named the NBA’s top sixth man; Ibaka has become the Thunder’s defensive stopper. This list should also include Jeff Green, taken by Boston with the fifth overall pick in 2007 and traded to Seattle that night. Those peak drafting years yielded peak results. Meaning: No Marvin Williams and no Shelden Williams (taken by the Hawks with the No. 5 pick in 2006).
4. The Thunder weren’t afraid to tamper with the core. In February 2011, OKC traded Green to Boston for center Kendrick Perkins. Green had become such an integral part of the Thunder that general manager Sam Presti wept when announcing the deal, but Presti also knew he needed interior defense above a wing — even if that wing was averaging 15 points a game. Contrast this with the Hawks, whose Game 6 starting lineup in Boston’s TD Garden this spring included four players who started Game 7 in the same building in 2008. (The only change: The 32-year-old Bibby was shipped out in February 2011 for, er, Kirk Hinrich.)
5. The Thunder made inspired managerial hires. Presti was 30 when tapped by Seattle as GM in June 2008. Presti replaced Rick Sund, who presided over two winning seasons in six years with the SuperSonics and whose final three Round 1 picks were centers Mouhamed Sene, Johan Petro and Robert Swift. Presti had apprenticed with San Antonio, which is the gold standard for NBA organizations, and was clever enough to hire Troy Weaver from Utah to help run the draft. (Weaver is credited with lobbying hard for Westbrook and Harden.) As for Sund: He has been the Hawks’ GM since 2008 and has been an creditable caretaker.
Conclusion: The Hawks went from 13-69 in 2004-05 to being good enough to win a playoff series three years running. The Thunder have taken the Hawks’ build-via-the-draft method and done it better, adding needed pieces (Perkins last year, veteran guard Derek Fisher this time) as they went. For all their progress, the Hawks have been unable to override Billy Knight’s picks of guys named Williams in consecutive drafts and, more recently, to overcome a front office that deals in half-measures.
“We had to wait our turn,” Durant told reporters after OKC, which lost to Dallas in the Western Conference finals last season, eliminated San Antonio on Wednesday. Which sounded kind of funny, given that Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and Durant himself are all younger than Jeff Teague, who’s the Hawks’ youngest starter. So what happened to the Hawks’ turn? Has it come and gone? Is this all there is?
By Mark Bradley