Can Hawks evolve into contender?
The Hawks are hoping internal improvement can move them into the elite
Atlanta re-signed Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia this summer
The Hawks lack a big-time star and a veteran with playoff know-how
The problem with evolution as a way to build something is that it takes so darn much time. If the general manager of an NBA team could move his club in just two or three seasons from the league's primordial slime stage to Homo erectus, everyone would subscribe to the theory. Typically, though, it takes more direct intervention -- divine, you might say, when it leads to a championship -- than just sitting back and waiting. Identifying needs, plugging roster holes, imposing a pecking order by who stays and who goes, all of that is straight out of a GM's creationism playbook.
Look, even Noah made sure he was two-deep at every position, flexing a bit of Old Testament intelligent design that some fans of the Atlanta Hawks are getting antsy for.
The Hawks, for the most part, have had a "stay-cation" summer. With Rick Sund passing his one-year anniversary as GM this offseason, Atlanta diligently has kept intact the nucleus assembled by predecessor Billy Knight. Marvin Williams ($37 million contract), Zaza Pachulia ($19 million) and Mike Bibby ($18 million) all have been locked in this summer for what in the NBA qualifies as the long term. (Another mainstay, Josh Smith, received a $58 million deal last offseason.) And Sekou Smith, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's stellar beat writer, has been reporting that the Hawks are getting closer to an extension for leading scorer Joe Johnson that might add another $64 million to the mortgage.
It seems only right. The Hawks dutifully gathered a bunch of talented players in the early years of this decade, the way teams are supposed to when they reel off eight consecutive lottery finishes and go 220 games under .500 for four different coaches. That crew has developed nicely, taking baby steps first from 13 to 26 to 30 victories as the principals came aboard, to toddling full throttle through the league more recently. The Hawks won 37 games and reached the playoffs in 2008, pushing eventual-champion Boston to a surprising seven games in the first round. Last spring, Atlanta jumped up to 47-35, good for the No. 4 seed in the East, and beat Miami in seven before getting swept from the second round by Cleveland.
Sund talked after that elimination about injuries, notably to Williams (wrist) and Al Horford (ankle), that stymied the Hawks against the Cavs. He was encouraged by their modest success against the four conference finalists (4-8 vs. Cleveland, Orlando, Denver and the Lakers). And he felt the team was poised to take another big step. "Yeah, I like our club," Sund told the AJC. "The only reason I say that is there's still growth from within. ... I think you still need to tweak if you can."
That's where the apprehension comes in. Taking a team from 13 to 47 victories, from lottery oblivion to the league's final eight, is one sort of task. Getting it from there to serious championship contention, to the point where excellence is expected, is a wholly different one. And doing it without a significant acquisition, the plucking of a proven difference-maker off someone else's roster, is one of sports' loftiest ambitions. At that point, you're relying on natural selection, genetic synthesis and the hope that you're already fit enough to survive.
Remember, while the Hawks were taking care of their own this summer, the league's elite teams were escalating the arms race, adding potential game-changers such as Rasheed Wallace (Boston), Shaquille O'Neal (Cleveland), Vince Carter (Orlando), Ron Artest (Lakers) and Richard Jefferson (San Antonio). Hawks coach Mike Woodson marveled recently at the moves made by the competition, while believing that his club could keep up with the Joneses. "Hell, I'd love to do the same things," he told the AJC, "but we're committed to what we're doing and it's worked for us, so I don't see any reason to change now."
Fans and critics do, at least in a couple of spots. The Hawks need a reliable big man, either to start ahead of Pachulia or at least share the center spot with him. That would allow Horford to shift to his natural position of power forward, where his size and strength would be in surplus rather than deficit. The other way to achieve that is equally shaky at the moment, dependent on third-year center Randolph Morris or some late-summer signee (Joe Smith, another shifted power forward?) to back up Pachulia.
Atlanta's other obvious need is for an alpha dog. Johnson is a scorer -- he has averaged 20.2, 25.0, 21.7 and 21.4 points since joining the Hawks in 2005-06 -- but that doesn't make him a leader. His 16.4 scoring average on 41.7 shooting in the playoffs had skeptics wondering if Atlanta had gone as far as it could with Johnson as its best player. Josh Smith, at 23, remains more of a raw talent than a polished pro. And guard Jamal Crawford, the best-known addition this summer, is another scorer with, after nine years in the league, an ominous "No Data" on his bio page where playoff experience is supposed to go.
"I think they're a middle-tier team again," an NBA scout said. "Still have a lot of talent but if you're counting on [Josh] Smith and Williams, you're only going so far. I like the Florida kid [Horford], but how many of those other guys have done anything with a team? Bibby played in good systems in Sacramento and [in college] at Arizona, but most of them spent a year or two in college. Or none [Smith]. When most of your experience is from AAU teams, it doesn't matter whether you win or lose."
It's more than just college rings, too (for the record, Horford won two NCAA titles with the Gators, Williams was a part-timer on North Carolina's 2005 winner and Bibby's Wildcats won in 1997). Personalities, pro accomplishments and age factor into a team's pecking order, too, and the Hawks look challenged in those areas as well. Horford, also 23, seems mature beyond his years. Bibby, 31, has been around several blocks. But Atlanta's core is clustered between 23 and 28, and they have taken these promising but modest steps together. They would benefit immensely from a still-lively veteran with Finals know-how.
Detroit, when it won the title in 2004 and reached the conference finals six years in a row, has been cited by Sund as a deep-but-starless team that got it right. But the danger always is getting stuck in the middle, dragging your feet as your core ages. The list of NBA champions, even when no players' names are attached, otherwise screams out future Hall of Famers. Working backward: Bryant in '09, Garnett, Pierce and Allen in '08, Wade in '06, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili three times this decade, Bryant and O'Neal three times before that, then back to Jordan, Pippen and Olajuwon. Waiting for someone like that to emerge from the ooze, stand up tall, grab a ball and take it strong to the rim can be a long, and futile, wait.
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