The future of the
Atlanta Hawks, as well as general manager Billy Knight's own tortured
investment in the league's youngest team, was at stake when the NBA held its
annual draft lottery on May�22, and Knight was in no mood to sit in front
of the TV and feel his heart valves clenching. On behalf of his sanity, he
turned off his phone and took his four-year-old German shepherd, Neko, for a
90-minute training session in the woods near his Atlanta home. � "I didn't
want to go through the ups and downs of [watching]," Knight says. "I've
trained German shepherds for dog shows before--obedience work, tracking work,
protection work--but this dog is the best dog I've had. I just haven't had time
to train him."
He chose a fine
evening to make time. After spending more than an hour working patiently with
Neko, Knight returned home and turned on his BlackBerry. His voice mail was
full and his in-box was flooded with the kind of news that is worth waiting
for: The Indiana Pacers, whose pick was protected in the top�10, had
instead drawn the No.�11 slot, which meant the choice now belonged to
Atlanta as part of last summer's trade of forward Al Harrington back to the
Pacers. Even better was the news about the Hawks' own selection, which at
No.�4 or worse would have been forwarded to the Phoenix Suns to complete
Atlanta's 2005 acquisition of Joe Johnson. But the luck of the Ping-Pong balls
moved the Hawks up one spot to No.�3, allowing them to keep the pick.
Instead of losing
both choices, Atlanta emerged as the only team with two lottery picks heading
into the deepest draft since 2003, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris
Bosh and Dwyane Wade all entered the NBA. With Greg Oden and Kevin Durant
assured of going first and second to the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle
SuperSonics, respectively, the fickle course of the June�28 draft will
depend on whatever Knight decides to do with the Nos.�3 and 11 picks.
"Gary Fitzsimmons [the Hawks' assistant G.M.] called me that night
wondering why he couldn't get ahold of me, because I hadn't told him what I was
going to do," says Knight. "Then he said, 'We've suddenly become very
It's true: Ever
since that night the phones in the Hawks' normally sedate offices in downtown
Atlanta have been ringing like alarms, with teams making inquiries about the
picks. "It's probably down to four or five [players] for the No.�3
pick," says Knight, and while he won't name names, the best guess is that
the group includes the national championship trio of center Joakim Noah and
forwards Al Horford and Corey Brewer from Florida, as well as North Carolina
forward Brandan Wright and Ohio State point guard Mike Conley�Jr. Knight
also says, however, that he may trade one or both choices for experienced
players to fill out the league's third-youngest roster, knowing he has the
luxury of $4.6�million in cap space to help facilitate a deal.
One or two
inspired choices could get the Hawks back to the playoffs next season for their
first appearance since 1998-99--while also restoring their G.M.'s credibility.
Few league executives have been second-guessed more than Knight, whose team has
gone a league-worst 103-233 since he replaced Pete Babcock in April�2003,
hurt in part by questionable drafting. Though all of Knight's first-round
choices (forwards Boris Diaw, Josh Childress, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and
Shelden Williams) have turned into reliable contributors, none have emerged as
an elite player. Still, upon closer inspection, his major moves at least seem
? Knight was
ripped for handing Rasheed Wallace to the Detroit Pistons in
February�2004, which enabled them to win the NBA title four months later,
but the trade netted a first-round pick that Knight turned into Smith, who, at
age 21, was second in the league in blocks (2.88 per game) this season while
also averaging 16.4 points and 8.6 rebounds.
?Given the Hawks'
long-standing need for leadership at point guard, Knight is routinely crucified
for passing on Deron Williams and Chris Paul in 2005 in order to use the
No.�2 pick on North Carolina freshman forward Marvin Williams. But at the
time Marvin Williams was seen as a potential No.�1 overall choice, and
Knight would have been scorched for not taking him. (The second-year forward
averaged 13.1�points and 5.3 rebounds this season.)
?In August 2005
Knight sent Diaw and a pair of future first-round picks to Phoenix as part of a
sign-and-trade for Johnson, resulting in an ongoing court battle between lead
owner Steve Belkin, who fought the trade, and his fellow owners, who supported
it. (It's widely thought that if Belkin regains control of the team, he will
fire Knight, who refused to shake hands with him before a court hearing that
same August.) Johnson averaged a breakout 25.0�points this season; the
2006 pick Atlanta sent to Phoenix was then dealt to Boston, which used it to
draft point guard Rajon Rondo at No. 21. " Joe Johnson is an All-Star,"
says Knight. "But the player Boston got wasn't an All-Star, and Boris
isn't, and we don't think this pick that Phoenix is going to get [an
unprotected first-rounder next year] is going to be."
Knight is counting on turning the corner, after going 30-52 this season, and
finally putting an end to the losing and criticism in Atlanta. "I know he
internalizes it, but he doesn't really allow it to change him, and he hasn't
become panicky," says Pacers CEO and president Donnie Walsh, under whom
Knight served for five years as an executive. "Billy's doing it with a lot
more patience than I did: He hasn't added veterans to improve the record of the
team each year."
That may finally
change this summer. To predict how the draft might turn, one must consider the
two pieces Knight needs in order to build his young team into a winner next
season: a big man to complement Smith and leadership at point guard.
Unfortunately, this incoming class is top-heavy at a position in which the
Hawks are already well-stocked. "I think they're gun-shy about taking
another forward," says a rival executive who has talked trade with Atlanta.
"The Hawks are a real wild card."