Sunday, August 06, 2006

Why I still don't especially care about the Hawks

One last summer rant before serious Auburn football blogging gets underway later this week...

It happens every time. Angry fans start giving a GM or coach the requisite Burger King™ flame-broiling after another decision that most invertebrates would have gone the other way on (“Well, Jim, I’m only a starfish. I mean, I have to extend my stomach outside my body to eat, for crying out loud! But to answer your question, no, I do not think the Broncos should use this third round-pick on Maurice Clarett”), and down comes the inevitable “If the fans think it’s so easy, why don’t they come try to do my job for a while” comments.
Of course, the thing is, there are many, many recorded instances of the fans’ collective wisdom being exponentially better than the GM or coaches’ alleged expertise. Very, very few Detroit fans, even standing in the crucible of an NFL sideline with the wind gusting every which way, would have chosen to kick away to start overtime as Marty Mornhingweg did a couple years back in a Lions loss. Safe to say that the few Trail Blazers fans that were excited about the NBA draft in 1984 were less excited about the hotshot gunslinger that had won a national title at UNC than they were for a hobbled center they’d never heard of. And this is one Braves fan who still remembers reading that Bobby Cox had decided to start Charlie Leibrandt in Game 1 of the 1992 World Series, because he was “experienced,” and knew the Braves were “screwed.”
Then there’s Billy Knight, the Atlanta Hawks, and the 2005 NBA Draft. The Hawks, you’ll recall, were sitting in the No. 2 spot and were going to have their pick of Andrew Bogut (no worries game, mate), Marvin Williams (couldn’t start for his college team), and Chris Paul—the best prospect in years at the Hawks’ position of greatest need (point guard) and, arguably, the most important position on the court. A quick survey of halfway knowledgeable Atlanta fans, one of the possible draftees, one raving lunatic, and one Hawks exec on the day of the draft would have gone like this:

Q: Who do you think the Hawks should draft?

FAN 1: Chris Paul.
FAN 2: Chris Paul.
THE JCCW: Chris Paul.
CHRIS PAUL: Chris Paul (the first top-notch prospect in years to express a preference for Atlanta)
FAN 3: Chris Paul.
DICK VITALE: Chris Paul. (Said so during the draft telecast.)
FAN 4: Chris Paul.
BILLY KNIGHT: Marvin Williams.

Of course, Paul went on to have the greatest rookie season for an NBA point guard since Magic Johnson and won Rookie of the Year, while Williams failed to average 10 points a game. Good work, Billy.

To be fair, Atlanta fans were happy after the draft. But that was because word was Knight was going to take Bogut if Williams was gone. Knight’s defenders will also point out that Williams looks very likely to become a quality player, perhaps even an All-Star. But as rare as sweet-shooting athletic forwards are, they’re still dime-a-dozen compared to a bona fide pass-first X-Ray vision court general like Paul.

So, naturally, as Paul took the league by storm and it became clear Knight had shown the kind of foresight associated with Y2K bunker builders, both the Atlanta and national media called him out. Hawks fans (all, what, 37 of them) followed suit, called a spade a spade, and voiced their displeasure--but I don’t think many called for Knight’s firing. One mistake from a guy who inherited a mess of Atlanta rush-hour traffic proportions does not a dismissal make. Nonetheless, Knight had this to say in the run-up to this year’s draft:

Guys are running around saying, 'Point guard, point guard.' But what if I don't agree with that? ... I find [such talk] a little humorous and entertaining ... I always take talent. ... I like good basketball players, and there are a lot of 6-foot-8 players in the draft. And 6-8 is the ideal size …I hear people on sports shows, and I think that person has as much business talking about basketball as I do running the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Well, Billy, no offense, but if the Chairman of the NRC chose “Let nuclear waste spill all over the place” over the “Keep nuclear waste safely locked away” option, I hope you’d still feel justified in criticizing him. Also nice to see you consider the opinions of the precious few Hawks fans that still give a crap as “humorous and entertaining,” a phrase measuring a perfect 10 on the Condescend-O-Meter. Isn’t it cute how the unwashed masses just go on having their own opinions? Silly things.

But the best quote in this batch of gems? “I always take talent.” This brings us to the 2006 draft. The Hawks promised Duke big man Shelden Williams they would take him with the fifth pick of the draft if he was available, and did so. Amidst the biggest flurry of draft night trading in league history, with bushels of players and draft picks changing hands, the Hawks stood pat. Knight then used their second-round choice on 6-10 center Solomon Jones from South Florida.

Let’s go over exactly how levels on which this was an awful draft for the Hawks:

1. Billy Knight takes talent? Not this time he didn’t. Williams will be a solid enough player; he’s a poor man’s Carlos Boozer, a Coach K-trained physical banger that will grab his share of rebounds and (hopefully) putbacks if he can stay out of foul trouble. But saying he’s the fifth-most talented player in the draft is a joke. Everyone knows it. Knight admitted as much, mentioning how poorly the team’s interior defense and rebounding were and saying they took Williams to “help us in those areas.” So which is it, Billy? Do you draft for needs in “areas,” as you did with Shelden, or on talent, as you did with Marvin? The bottom line is that Knight doesn’t really appear to have a draft strategy one way or the other: he’s just grabbing whatever player he happens to take a shine to. First it meant passing on Paul. Now it’s meant passing on a number of guards that would have been more useful.
2. Why on earth would you promise to draft anyone? Someone let Knight know that this isn’t college recruiting, where Williams gets to pick which of several teams that drafted him he’ll sign with. The only thing this accomplished was letting the teams behind the Hawks know they didn’t have to worry about Knight stealing their guy. Kind of you, Billy. ESPN guru Chad Ford had this to say June 15: "The buzz around Orlando on Friday was that the Hawks had cut a deal with Shelden Williams. However, that makes almost no sense. Why cut a deal with a guy this early in the draft, especially one who has a 99.9 percent probability of being there at No. 5?" In other words, he didn't have any proof that the Hawks made such a promise, but still didn't want to accept it as fact because of how mind-bogglingly pointless it was.
3. If Knight was set on Williams, why didn’t he trade down and then take him? None of the other teams in the top 10 were rumored to even be seriously looking at him. (Ford mentioned that the Celtics liked him, then added it could have very well been a bluff to keep the Hawks away from Brandon Roy.) The Hawks could have traded down a good three-to-five spots and still easily snapped Williams up. Knight had the chance to add another asset, and didn’t, for reasons I can only assume are a projection problem: he liked Williams, so he assumed everyone else did, too, despite all evidence being to the contrary.
4. Perhaps Knight would have filled the team’s beyond-glaring need at point guard if there had been a prototypical PG that made sense at No. 5. Admittedly, there wasn’t; UConn’s Marcus Williams was the best of the lot and no one expected him to go before the mid-to-late teens. But because Joe Johnson is such a terrific playmaker, the Hawks don’t necessarily have to have a Paul-like distributor. It’d be nice, but NBA teams can win without one (see the Mavericks, Pistons, Cavs, Spurs, etc.) and there were not one but two outstanding, polished combo guards available that would have paired brilliantly with Johnson: Brandon Roy (more of a 2) and Randy Foye (more of a 1). Knight passed on both and eventually signed a career backup who just spent last season playing behind—you guessed it—Chris Paul. Speedy Claxton’s an improvement, but if I’m an opponent I’m much more worried about the combination of Randy Foye and Joe Johnson than I am the combo of Speedy Claxton and Joe Johnson. Not to mention, of course, that Knight likely could have just had them both.
5. I can admit that Knight has a point when he says his frightfully young team would do better with a veteran as the floor leader. He might be right. But it’s not like the Hawks have one OK point guard and need to upgrade; until the Claxton signing, they had no NBA-quality point guards at all. (Unless you count the useless-at-best Tyronn Lue.) Why not draft a prospect and let him learn behind the veteran? Especially when the prospect is one as tantalizing as Marcus Williams, for the JCCW’s money the best non-Florida player in the NCAA Tournament, and he’s right there for the plucking. Williams slid and slid and slid and still Knight sat on his hands. Eventually the Suns simply put the 21st pick up for auction, with Williams still on the board—and the Hawks watched the Celtics buy it and Williams finally go to the Nets at number 22. Hope Claxton enjoys playing 45 minutes a game. And remember—because of the Hawks’ owners fighting in the War Room, it’s much easier for the Hawks to acquire players via the draft than free agency or trade.
6. The Jones pick … really, does Knight just have something against picking guards?

So even assuming Knight finally ships off Al Harrington one of these days, this is what the Hawks have in the frontcourt: F Josh Childress, F Marvin Williams, PF Shelden Williams, F/PF Josh Smith, and C Zaza Pachulia, all of whom are good enough to start. Bad news, Billy: only three of those guys can start at once. Sure, it’s nice to have a little bit of depth, but the Hawks barely have two starters in the backcourt and you don’t spend a No. 5 pick on a guy who will, in all likelihood, do little more than back up Pachulia and Smith for at least a year and maybe two. In the meantime, Claxton and Johnson are going to wear themselves out—while Marcus Williams, Randy Foye, and Brandon Roy, I’m sure, tear up the league.

To be clear, Knight isn’t an idiot. Smith was a steal. Picking up Pachulia was a nice move. It’s not Knight’s fault that Mike Woodson didn’t know what to do with Boris Diaw. Childress is better than given credit for. But when even the most intelligent parts of your fan base are heralding an injury-prone never-been-a-regular-starter player as a savior, you’re doing something terribly, terribly wrong. And when you have the gall to suggest that your fans’ dissatisfaction is a matter for your own amusement, well, you’ve lost me.

See, I ought to want to follow the Hawks. These days, I like the NBA better than I do the NFL or MLB. And I follow the Braves and Falcons pretty closely (Schuerholz has lost his mind, btw.) I don’t really follow the Hawks—I catch bits and pieces while I keep up with the league as a whole. And until Billy Knight admits that fans who simply want a decent point guard aren’t qualified for a jester’s cap and bells, things are going to stay that way.

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