Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Decade of Hawks Aughts (and Aught-Nots)

We could take the time to break down the Hawks' breakdown against the Cavs in back to back games, but we've chosen a much darker place--a recap of the Top Events of the Aughts, The 2000's, or whatever history chooses to call this last decade, one which saw many changes for the Hawks, for good and bad.

First we'll list some of those that didn't quite make the Top 20---we call these the Best of the Rest:

  • Dikembe Mutombo, Roshown McLeod traded to PHL for Toni Kukoc, Theo Ratliff, Nazr Mohammed
  • Shareef scores 50 against DET on Thanksgiving 2001
  • Jason Terry scores 46, Dirk Nowitzki 40 in epic scoring battle in 2002 (Hawks lose)
  • Hawks trade Kukoc, Lorenzen Wright, and Brevin Knight for Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson
  • DerMarr Johnson critically injured in early morning Mercedes accident in 2002
  • Hawks use pick acquired for trading 2001 pick to trade with SAC; draft Dan Dickau
  • Jason Terry signs 3 year, 22.5 million dollar offer sheet with Jazz, Hawks match
  • Steven Jackson, Bob Sura, and company win big in April---and cost the Hawks draft positions while the Clippers tank in 2004
  • Stephen Jackson signed and traded to Indiana for Al Harrington
  • Peja Drobjnak signed, named smelliest player alive--literally
  • Hawks win (13) games in 2004-2005
  • Hawks sign Zaza Pachulia to 4 year, 16 million dollar deal
  • Hawks miss on Sam Cassell, sign Speedy Claxton to a 4 year, 24 million dollar contract
  • Hawks 2009 offseason a big success (draft Jeff Teague, resigned Bibby, Marvin, Zaza, sign Joe Smith. Hawks trade Acie Law, Speedy Claxton for Jamal Crawford)
  • Hawks start season 21-10, best start since 1997
Now, on with the countdown:

20. Philips Arena Opens

The Hawks had played the previous seasons split between the Georgia Dome and Georgia Tech and left homeless in the process.

As the 1999-2000 season opened, the Hawks had a new home where the old Omni once stood. Philips Arena is still one of its kind with all the luxury boxes on one side and with new locker rooms and practice court, the Hawks were finally home.

The arena would go on to host the 2003 All-Star game, Michael Jordan's last, and later ride the excitement of Josh Smith and others and get dubbed "The Highlight Factory".

19. Josh Smith wins the 2005 NBA Slam Dunk Contest 

Josh Smith, World. World, Josh Smith.

Fans were introduced to the Hawks high flying, exciting rookie when Smith slammed his way to the trophy. Smith dunks were great, but what folks remember most was when Smith donned a Dominique Wilkins throwback jersey and completed the signature windmill slam. It gave the Hawks a face for the franchise, even if it wasn't the best player on the team, he was the most noticeable and exciting, something that holds true to this day.

18. The 2007 NBA Draft

 The 2007 NBA was shaping up to be a good one. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant had declared for the draft, as had Mike Conley, Jr and Yi Jianlian. Adding to the flavor were the early entries of the back-to-back national champion Florida Gators, featuring Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, and Al Horford.

Despite the depth of the draft, the Hawks were on the verge of losing their pick, as they had to finish making good on the Joe Johnson deal with the Suns. If the Hawks didn't draw a top 3 pick in the lottery, they would lose the pick to the Suns and potentially miss out on adding another key piece to the mix.

Fortunately, the Hawks would indeed land the third pick in the draft and while it seemed for a while that there was a steep dropoff from Oden and Durant, the Hawks settled in on Horford, who gave the Hawks a low post presence on both ends they did not currently have.

Some fans weren't convinced, claiming the pick reminded them of the Shelden Williams pick from the year before, but it wouldn't be long before Horford would win everyone over with his fundamental play, athleticism, and hard work. Horford's rookie season was so impressive that he was a solid second place in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Kevin Durant.

17. Hawks "guarantee" playoffs for their season ticket holders

"Good afternoon, thank you for calling your playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks. How can I help you?"

This was an example of a greeting you would get for calling the Atlanta Hawks offices in 2002-2003. The team, led by coach Lon Kruger, decided that they would guarantee that the team would make the playoffs or offer a check or discount on the next season's season tickets.

Billboards were erected and mainstream media hyped it up, but mostly jokes were told at the Hawks expense. Expectations were high with the acquisition of Glenn Robinson in the offseason, and it was probably those, along with a cast of misfitting skill sets, that cost Lon Kruger his job in December as the Hawks were headed to a (35) win season---not enough to make the playoffs.

16. The Hawks Coaching Carousel

When the decade began, the all time winningest coach was at the helm. After the 1999-2000 season, Lenny Wilkens was gone and the Hawks were out to get a new coach. Byron Scott and Isiah Thomas were among those who were available at the time, but the Hawks set their sights on another big name coach.

Tom Izzo was offered a 5 year, 15 million dollar deal to leave Michigan State, but ultimately wasn't convinced he could succeed with a franchise in such disrepair. Jilted, the Hawks didn't pursue one of the successful former coaches available, but instead stayed on the college trail and brought in Illinois coach Lon Kruger.

Kruger was a good guy, but wasn't respected well on the professional level, despite the presence of strong assistants such as Eric Musselman, Rick Mahorn, and Gar Heard. Kruger also struggled with success, winning (25) games in 2000-2001, and (33) in 2001-2002.

Kruger was launched in December 2002, after starting the season 11-16 and seeing his team somewhat quit on him on a couple of games just before being replaced.

Terry Stotts, who became a lead assistant after Eric Musselman took the Golden State job, took over from Kruger and finished the season and coached the 2003-2004 season as well. Stotts was a firm believer in the establish-the-outside-and-that-will-open-up-the-inside coach.

In the summer of 2004, Billy Knight wanted to make a change and hired top assistant Mike Woodson away from the Pistons. Woodson took on a roster that was stripped down to the bone, with the exception of holdover Antoine Walker, who would be traded later that season.

After so much turnover, it's a wonder that Woodson has been kept ever since, starting with (13) wins and improving every season after.

15. Pete Babcock resigns, Billy Knight takes over as Hawks GM

There were many who celebrated the passing tenure of Pete Babcock, who had been the Hawks GM since 1990. Pete oversaw the end of the Mike Fratello era and all of the Lenny Wilkens era.

Pete had a flair for the trade or free agent signing, bringing in Dikembe Mutombo, Christian Laettner, Steve Smith, Mookie Blaylock, and the like--and was always an accessible figure in the organization, quick to claim ownership of any negative setback for the team.

Unfortunately, Pete also oversaw an era where the Hawks never quite got where the fans thought they should be with the Lenny teams, and the rebuilding effort in the early part of this decade which never did payoff with a winning record. More importantly to the fans of Atlanta, he also was "the one who traded Dominique Wilkins." and few of those folks were sorry when he stepped down.

14. Josh Smith signs an offer sheet with Memphis

Smith was a restricted free agent and Hawks GM Rick Sund was letting the market dictate the contract Smith could earn. The Sixers had shown interest, but they chose to pursue Elton Brand instead. Next were the Clippers, but they made a deal to acquire Marcus Camby and closed that door. The only team left were the Memphis Grizzlies if Smith wanted some substantial long term contract before the 2008-2009 season, and the team obliged, offering Smith a 5 year, 58 million dollar deal.The Hawks took nearly a second to match the offer and secure Smith through his mid-twenties.

13. Josh Childress moves to Greece

Childress saw low offers from a league that assumed the Hawks would match any reasonable number for the restricted free agent's services and made good on a threat to seek greener pastures elsewhere---even if that elsewhere wasn't even in the NBA.

Childress was a Billy Knight selection, sixth overall in 2004 ahead of Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala, but bristled at being relegated to bench status by Mike Woodson and what he felt like was inferior treatment from his teammates due to his being pigeonholed as "the energy guy". So when new Hawks GM Rick Sund wanted to let the market dictate proper compensation for Childress, Josh's agents did just that---in a league where there is no salary cap.

Childress made headlines for crossing over, and might still be the most interesting case of a player bucking the restricted free agent process. The Hawks maintain his rights by offering the same qualifying offer the last two seasons, but it seems that due to his personal reasons for not wanting to return to ATL along with the team's continued leverage in the situation, that Josh's return to the NBA will have to wait and will likely not be with the Hawks.

12. Dominique Wilkins comes back to the Hawks, Hawks retire Wilkins' number

After an acrimonious contract negotiation that led to his being dealt to the LA Clippers in 1994, Dominique Wilkins finally came back to the Hawks organization in many official (and unofficial) capacities.

After officially announcing his retirement from the NBA, the Hawks made plans to retire his jersey in January 2001, setting off a series of events surrounding the retirement, including a dinner in which THHB broke bread with Spud Webb.

Fittingly, the retirement ceremony took place on the night the Hawks played against the Clippers, and the fans lustily booed President Stan Kasten for his role (and Pete Babcock's) in dealing the legend away all those seasons ago.

Wilkins took the podium and told the fans how he'd taken his status in the city for granted, thanked the organization for welcoming him back, and seemed to soak in the fact that he was back in the Hawks fold. His jersey rose to take its place next to Bob Petitt and Lou Hudson in the Philips Arena rafters.

It just felt right having 'Nique back and it seemed good karma was following as The Namesake when to New Jersey for the 2001 Draft Lottery and pulled the Hawks the third pick overall.
Since then it has been a joy seeing Wilkins around the franchise and is fantastic filling the analyst role in the Hawks telecasts. Wilkins is just a tremendous ambassador for Hawks basketball and we would have missed a lot if Kasten and company hadn't reached out to 'Nique in 2000.

11. Hawks get back into the winning record business, wins first playoff series since 1999

They hadn't had a winning record since the short season of 1999, nor had they advanced in the playoffs since they sent Joe Dumars packing for good and then got blitzed by Latrell Sprewell and the Knicks that year.

They started 6-0 for the season, then rode that out to a (47) win season and matched up against the dangerous and hot Miami Heat, led by Dwyane Wade. It what was the most bizarre playoff series of the season, both teams took turns playing awful until Joe Johnson hit some huge shots in Game 7 and sent the Heat packing.

10. The 2001 NBA Draft

Pete Babcock posed the question, "If you thought you could draft a guy who you thought might end up an All-Star or trade that pick for a young guy who is an All-Star, shouldn't you do it?"

And there, in a nutshell was the reasoning behind trading the #3 pick in the 2001 draft to the Memphis Grizzlies for Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the #27 pick in the draft.

That the Hawks passed on Pau Gasol or Shane Battier to land Shareef was only part of the legacy of this draft. The other was in the pick that the Hawks didn't ever use.

The #27 pick was earmarked for a point guard, of which there were a number of solid choices available in this draft. Babcock said that he would use the 27th pick as long as "his guy" was still on the board. As the draft wore on, point guards were not coming off the board and by the time the 27th pick was up, only little known Raul Lopez was selected from the point guard pool (Jeryl Sasser was also selected by considered a SG by many).

Certainly Babcock's "guy" was still on the board as choices such as Iowa State's Jamaal Tinsley and Arizona's Gilbert Arenas. But when the time came, the Hawks passed and dealt the rights to that pick to Indiana, who scooped up Tinsley. So went the chance for the Hawks getting a point guard, a legacy that would see more heartache later.

Later, Babcock would tell us that his guy was indeed still on the board---France's Tony Parker. And the reason the Hawks missed on that tremendous talent was that he just didn't get enough from his scout abroad that Parker could handle the NBA game.


9. Billy Knight Starts Over

As Knight took over full time after the departure of Pete Babcock, he intended to rebuild the roster based on his vision of what a roster should be. He took over a team that was over the cap, talented, but with lottery results.

He soon divested the team of all functional parts, taking back picks or expiring contracts in his quest to start over.

First Glenn Robinson was sent packing for the insurance controlled contract of Terrell Brandon and a future first rounder.

Next, Shareef Abdur-Rahim ,Theo Ratliff, and Dan Dickau were headed to Portland for Rasheed Wallace and Wesley Person. 

Then, after one game in New Jersey, Wallace was packaged to Detroit for Bob Sura, Zeljko Rebraca, Chris Mills, and a #1 pick.

Over the next summer, Knight would send complete the purge, sending Jason Terry and Alan Henderson off to Dallas for Antoine Walker and Tony Delk. Walker would be sent out at the trade deadline to Boston for another future pick.

Whereas Babcock tried to stay competitive while retooling the roster earlier in the decade, Knight tore it all down and started from scratch, and those deals laid the groundwork for Knight's vision.

8. Hawks trade Shelden Williams, Anthony Johnson, Lorenzen Wright, and Tyronn Lue to Sacramento for Mike Bibby

The Hawks were a young, growing team in need of direction. The Hawks had been searching for a true point guard since dealing Mookie Blaylock. In what would be Billy Knight's last bold move as Hawks GM, he swung this trade deadline deal, stealing a player that would soon be a catalyst for the Hawks playoff runs to come.

When Bibby joined the team, all things clicked and, despite not being completely ready physically to play the minutes needed, the team took shape and flight and drove the Celtics to that seven game limit.

The next season, with the veteran point guard in for an entire camp and his body ready to go, the team took another step forward to their first winning record in almost a decade.

7. Hawks use pick from the Rasheed Wallace trade to select Josh Smith.

It was the ultimate hit or miss pick. Josh Smith, who had been slated in the top 10 in most mock drafts for the previous season, had started to slip based on the raw nature of his talent. Smith, entering the draft as a high school senior, had been talked about with the Hawks #6 pick in the 2004 draft (Knight chose Stanford's Josh Childress) and when the chance came to take him with the #17 pick they owned, Knight grabbed the local product.

From the very beginning, folks could see that Smith had athletic gifts that the fans hadn't seen since Dominique was a Hawks, but lacked a lot of basic skills.  Over time and not without a lot of "why does he do that?" questions from fans and coaches alike, Smith has proven to be a special talent, one capable of winning or losing games based on his level of play.

6. Hawks sell to David McDavid, wait, no--to the Atlanta Spirit Group

In 2003 AOL/Time Warner was interested in divesting itself of the Hawks, Thrashers, and Philips Arena and looked like they had the person to sell it to---Texas auto dealership tycoon David McDavid. But through a loophole in the letter of intent deal with McDavid, AOL/Time Warner instead sold to a group that was thown together to take advantage of a very small purchasing window, a group that consisted of ownership groups from at least (3) different geographical locations.

At the press conference, there were smiles all around as the Atlanta, Washington DC, and Boston groups all were giddy over their sudden entry into the NBA and NHL. Bostonian Steve Belkin bragged of "deep pockets" to us when we asked how the franchise would pursue top free agents and if they would be hesitant to go over the cap.

The honeymoon would be short, however, as quickly rumors of discontent between the groups began to spread and would ultimately show itself to the public--causing harm and humiliation to fans and staff for both clubs.

5. Hawks trade Boris Diaw and (2) first round picks to Phoenix for Joe Johnson; bring down the ownership curtain for all to see.

This deal was huge for two reasons. One, it brought an all-star level talent to the Hawks to build around--and whether you believe that Johnson is or isn't a franchise player, he was a player that the Hawks could build around until their draft picks developed.

The other was that it brought to the forefront something that had been discussed since the Hawks were sold two seasons before---that the multiple owners in the ownership group didn't get along, and that those problems were ultimately hurting the franchise from within.

As soon as Knight was ready to do the Johnson deal, NBA governor Steve Belkin wanted to nix it, citing the price to pay was too heavy as Hawks were going to spend the picks plus a max contract for Johnson. The other owners sided with Knight as this was a needed move and that they had to overpay contextually to get it done.

What happened next was a series of lawsuits and power plays that left the Hawks (as well as the NHL's Thrashers) in court and in financial limbo. The classic photo of Belkin offering his hand to Knight after a particular courtroom episode and Knight choosing to not look at Belkin and certainly not shake his hand was symbolic of the discontent that was prevalent.

T3. The 2005/2006 NBA Drafts

Billy Knight made a lot of good choices during his run as Hawks GM. He successfully stayed away from franchise crippling deals (Kenyon Martin, Erick Dampier) and built a team of long, athletic players which make for tough matchups for most teams that has proven to be successful.

But in many circles, he will be known for his draft choices or, better stated, who he didn't choose as well was who he did.

In 2005, the Hawks were coming off their abyssmal 2004-2005 campaign which had seen the Hawks win a putrid (13) games. The Hawks had long been characterized as having no point guard since the trade of Mookie Blaylock and had since dealt Jason Terry to the Mavericks. So as the Hawks approached the 2005 draft with the #2 pick, and with number one Milwaukee choosing between Utah's Andrew Bogut or North Carolina's Marvin Williams, it looked as if the Hawks were home free in their pick of a really good point guard litter, Wake Forest's Chris Paul, Illinois' Deron Williams, or North Carolina's Raymond Felton.

But it should of come as no surprise that Knight turned away from that position and selected another long, athletic forward (he had drafted Josh Childress and Josh Smith the season before) in Marvin Williams, rather than look to fill a position of need (and talent) as the point guard position. Knight implied that he gone for the best player available with the pick.

Knight had long noted that "guards are guards" and had no need for labels such as "the 1, 2, 3, or anything". Maybe he felt empowered because they were scoping out Joe Johnson at the time and felt this wasn't actually a need, but whatever the reason the Hawks missed out on drafting a floor general.

Almost immediately Hawks fans knew their franchised had missed. Williams looked like an underclassman who needed a lot of work to realize his potential, and Paul and Deron Williams looked strong from the get-go, especially Paul, who showed leadership and a flair for making plays for himself and his teammates.

Compounding the pain of that miss was that the Hawks next draft in which they had the fifth pick overall. Not as snazzy as the previous class, and void of an obvious point guard selection, Knight selected Duke's Shelden Williams to the surprise of many draft experts and Hawks fans, who had been hoping for the best player available in their minds, Villanova's Randy Foye or Washington's Brandon Roy. After the draft, Knight raved about Williams' makeup and how it fit the Hawks need for a big man up front, a 180 degree turn from the previous draft.

Once again Hawks fans felt immediately that their team had again missed. Williams looked very shaky in an NBA frontcourt, almost instantly showing bench player potential only, no matter how good a guy he seemed. Roy, who meanwhile had ended up in Portland, showed All-Star caliber play from the first game.

2. The gutting of the last Lenny Wilkens Playoff Team

True, this began after the 1999 short lockout season, in the summer,  but since the last season bled (appropriate word chosen) into 2000 we're counting it.

After being swept by the Knicks in the '99 playoffs, looking old and nonathletic in process, then-GM Pete Babcock decided it was time to nuke the aging bunch, which had seen a number of good seasons and playoff visits, but never threatened to go deep in the playoffs and lacked anything that resembled pizazz.

Beginning in the summer of '99, Pete launched Mookie Blaylock to Golden State with their own first round pick in return for the Warriors pick, which was #10.

Then Babcock traded two more #1 picks to LA (no, the Clippers) for a sign and trade deal for young PF Lorenzen Wright. Wright signed a 6 year, 42 million dollar deal as a part of the trade.

Finally, the coup de gras, Babcock made what he later said to be "the biggest mistake of my career" by sending crowd favorite Steve Smith to Portland for Jim Jackson and Isaiah "JR" Rider.

Blazer employees were said to be celebrating the fact that the oft-troubled Rider would now be Atlanta's to deal with, and from the very beginning, the Hawks found out why.

First, Rider missed the team plane to camp because he didn't want to fly on a prop plane and it went downhill from there. He missed practices when he lived in the hotel inside CNN Center, reportedly got caught smoking pot in a hotel, and so on until his release from the team in March 2000 and impromptu press conference afterwards where he sported some hat that looked straight off the Gorton's Fisherman's head.

All of which led to the poorest Lenny Wilkens coaching performance of his tenure in Atlanta and, ultimately, his exit--setting the stage for the decade to come for Hawks basketball.

1. Hawks make playoffs for first time since 1999, play epic seven game series with the Boston Celtics

Despite the fact that the experience was used far too much in the next season as grounds for improvement, this was still the biggest happening for the Hawks in the past decade.

This series had it all---drama, unlikely survival, the eternally fantastic Zaza Pachulia/Kevin Garnett episode, Al Horford telling Paul Pierce that he would be best off staying on the Philips Arena floor, Mike Bibby calling out an entire city (that would be Boston), and a Dominique guaranteed Game Seven.

Most of all it signaled that the Hawks, who had made the playoffs by the skin of their sub .500 teeth, could compete with the biggest of the big boys (The C's were a juggernaut and did win it all, after all.) even in the playoffs. They got throttled, forgotten, and then clawed their way back.

We can still remember the feeling of making the playoffs and the rush of forcing the overwhelmingly favored Celtics to go the full seven games. It signaled the return to relevance for Hawks basketball and bolstered the maturing core's confidence, a pivotal step to where the team resides today.

THHB wishes to thank all involved with us over the past decade. Special thoughts go out to Arthur Triche, Jason Roose, and John Steinberg, as well as Pete Babcock, Billy Knight, Steve Holman, Bob Rathbun, and all the coaches and players that put up with our questions and our general lack of knowledge. And special thanks to The Namesake, THHF, Dominique Wilkins for always taking the time to talk to us and for all the years, energy, and passion he has dedicated to the franchise.


maxxj3 said...

Great column! It's almost laughable, and it is, that the hawks made the decisions they did. But if they learn from these debacles than we have hope.

Jason Walker said...

Well---somebody learned, because the coaches, GM, and even owners have changed over the years.

Thanks for the atta boy---it is sad that too few of the Top 20 involve on the court success, but that was the decade that was---and you're right, at least by the end of the decade, the on-the-court part was significantly better!

dstdeelite said...

Good stuff. That Boston series will forever be etched in my mind.

Maroussia said...

It will be great to watch Golden State Warriors, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.

yogi said...