While Others Stumble, Hawks Soar
ATLANTA -- Trading Tyson Chandler, mostly for financial reasons. Firing Byron Scott, mostly for stupid reasons. (Whatever those reasons were, they were a couple of fast breaks behind the two trips to the NBA Finals on his coaching resume). Yeah, this column is for you, New Orleans Hornets.
To paraphrase noted philosopher Shaquille O'Neal, the Hornets are among the true masters of panic. The same goes for the New York Knicks, the Golden State Warriors and the Chicago Bulls.
If those teams aren't interested in the reason for the pro basketball miracle deep in the heart of Dixie, they should be. So should all of the other NBA franchises who are clueless on how to build a contender out of nothing.
The Atlanta Hawks got it right, which means they are a rarity.
Actually, they are unique. Never in NBA history has a previously sorry franchise developed a long-range plan to dribble into prominence, and then stayed with that plan no matter what, watching its team gradually become significant without the lottery likes of a LeBron, a Dwight or a Dwyane.
In case you haven't been paying attention, the Hawks have spent the last six years going from 13 victories during the regular season to 26 to 30 to 37 to 47 and to 53. They made the playoffs two seasons ago for the first time in nearly a decade, and they nearly shocked eventual champion Boston in the opening round.
Then came last year, when the Hawks reached the second round, only to lose to a superior Cleveland team with that LeBron guy.
Now the Hawks lead 1-0 in their first-round playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks heading into Tuesday night's game at Philips Arena. They are doing so with an athletically gifted roster of young players who were allowed by ownership to grow as a unit. They also are doing so with Mike Woodson, who never had been an NBA head coach, but who was allowed by ownership to become a veteran NBA head coach.
This is wonderfully crazy.
"It's not complicated," said Michael Gearon Sr., among the league's hidden wise men after 30 years in various capacities with the Hawks. He joins his son, Michael Jr., as part of the franchise's nine-man ownership group. Added Michael Sr., "We put together an assemblage of good people, and the strength is in the team and not in any one, individual guy. We started out with the idea that it's going to take a long time.
"It's sort of like you can plant bananas, and they grow in a year, and then you harvest them. You plant a good, strong hardwood crop -- let's say coconuts -- and it takes you 20 years, but eventually you don't have any competition. You're the only guy out there.
"But you have to be patient, based on the business you're in."
The Hawks owners were patient, all right, and they were rewarded. Not only that, Gearon said there isn't a reason to think that Woodson won't be rewarded by the Hawks for his "tremendous loyalty" throughout this rebuilding process. "I can't think of one coach who could have handled the situation any better than Mike, so I don't see why anybody would think that we wouldn't be loyal to him," said Gearon, referring to Woodson, whose current contract expires after this season.
None of this makes sense. If any NBA franchise ever had a reason to panic with their coach and everybody else after a year or so, it's the Hawks.
• They had one starting player out of high school (Josh Smith) and another one that was a year removed from high school (Marvin Williams), and they both showed their youth on and off the court.
• They had that rookie NBA head coach. Not only did Woodson have to function as a babysitter and taskmaster with those teenagers while not losing them or the rest of the locker room, he had to evolve into somebody who could match X's and O's with his more seasoned peers.
• They had an already apathetic fan base that made Philips Arena become even more barren on game days during the early years of their plan.
• They had more than a few folks in print and on the airways urging ownership to fire its management and its coaching staff and then itself.
• Speaking of ownership, the Hawks had to overcome one of the most dysfunctional ownership groups in sports history -- at least on paper. One of the owners (Steve Belkin) is suing the others over what he calls a breech of contract, and the ongoing legal proceedings are in their fifth year.
Still, the Hawks have prospered, mostly because everybody in their ownership group agrees on the most important thing: You hire the right people -- and then you get out of their way. For instance: When former Hawks general manager Billy Knight blew up the old roster within months, ownership yawned. He used draft picks for what he called "long and athletic" players, and then he sprinkled in a few free agents around several trades to trigger the Hawks' climb upward.
Knight did make mistakes. Huge ones, too, when he didn't draft either Chris Paul or Deron Williams, both destined to become all-everything point guards, and everybody knew that the Hawks needed a point guard.
Ownership stayed with the plan.
"We gave the GM the latitude to make his decisions. We didn't all get involved, and we didn't question one decision he made," said Gearon, of Knight, who eventually came to his senses two seasons ago when he traded for point guard Mike Bibby. The Hawks turned into a playoff-caliber team in a flash, but Knight resigned courtesy of a slight shove a few months later. He was replaced by Rick Sund, who made the Hawks even more potent by trading for Jamal Crawford (right), their unofficial MVP this year and the NBA's likely Sixth Man of the Year.
Said Gearon, "Rick has done a superb job. He immediately got a lot of heat when Josh Childress went to Greece, but, really, we offered Childress more money than we probably should have, and he turned it down, which may have been a benefit to us. We saved money, and we got Mo Evans and Flip Murray (now with the Bulls) and actually they played better than Josh.
"[Sund] also got good contracts we could live with. And then when he made the deal for Crawford, that was a deal that got us in effect another super player, and a person who is exceptional at the end of a game."
Patience. Is anybody listening out there?
Others around the NBA can turn the Hawks Way into an epidemic by abandoning their knee-jerk approach.
I mean, did the Philadelphia 76ers really fire Eddie Jordan and his Princeton offense after one season? Yep. And the Bulls began their rebuilding process before the Hawks, but the Bulls still are a mess after things such as the senseless signing of Ben Wallace, the loss of Ben Gordon to free agency and their general manager (John Paxson) exchanging blows or whatever with their head coach (Vinny Del Negro).
How can the Toronto Raptors be this shaky despite having lottery picks Vince Carter and Chris Bosh earlier in the decade? Here's one way: After a slow start during the 2008-2009 season, they fired Sam Mitchell, who was named the NBA Coach of the Year less than two years before that.
The Los Angeles Clippers. The Washington Wizards.
They all aren't the Hawks, which means they aren't flying higher and higher over time, with their ownership following in their draft.