Posted: Monday November 20, 2006 4:45PM; Updated: Monday November 20, 2006 5:03PM
Since coming from Phoenix, Joe Johnson has brought some excitement to the Hawks.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
LOS ANGELES -- Sunday night, I watched as two of the NBA's "elite" teams squared off, as the Lakers hosted the Bulls. The game was broadcast nationally on ESPN, narrated by a bustling three-man announcing team, with celebrities courtside from Jack Nicholson to Daisuke Matsuzaka. The court inside the Staples Center was lit dramatically, as part of the new Lakers' "Lights Out" campaign, in which they save money by not turning all the lights on during the games. There were even two breathtaking dunks, including Kwame Brown soaring in from the free-throw line. It was everything the NBA wants the NBA to be.
But the whole time I found myself thinking, "You know, the Atlanta Hawks could beat both of these teams."
Three years ago, that sentence would have been enough to get me fired from my job at a basketball magazine, or at the very least probably committed. To understate, the Hawks have struggled of late. Since the lockout-shortened 1999 season, the closest Atlanta has come to a .500 season was their thrilling 35-47 season in 2003. I say thrilling because to the few proud members of Hawks nation, of which I consider myself a committed citizen, it was pretty exciting, by comparison. That team was led by Glenn Robinson, who despite being unable to bend at the waist (which pretty much ruled out defending anyone or catching any low passes) averaged 20.8 point per game. The next year, Terry Stotts led the team to a customary miserable start. Once the Hawks were out of the playoff chase, instead of packing it in and losing enough games to put them in position to draft local boy Dwight Howard, Stotts continued winning the occasional game. The Hawks ended up getting the sixth pick in the draft and selected Josh Childress, who is a great kid but no Dwight Howard.
Since then, it's been perpetual promise in Atlanta. General Manager Billy Knight has slowly added solid players, from Childress to Josh Smith to Marvin Williams to Zaza Pachulia. The biggest move was trading about 10 draft picks and Boris Diaw to Phoenix for Joe Johnson, who last season proved himself an elite player. He is the best shooter and defender on the Hawks, and coach Mike Woodson has already started lobbying for Johnson to make this season's All-Star team. As Mike Krzyzewski said after coaching Johnson on this summer's U.S. Senior Men's National Team, "I didn't know Joe Johnson, and I don't know if there can be a more solid player. I mean, he can play four positions, he shoots, he defends and he doesn't say peep."