The biggest story of the first round of the NBA playoffs is that of the eighth-seeded, 37 win Atlanta Hawks taking the vaunted Boston Celtics and their “Parquet Posse” to the brink of elimination.
To many, I suppose, it seems that the Hawks have a bright future. They have had the undesirable fate of owning hundreds of ping pong balls in recent lotteries, and those years of suffering have finally seemed to come to fruition. Bibby, Johnson, Smith, Williams, and Horford, with Childress off the bench is a nice group of youthful players. Looking to the past, some teams that this Hawks squad resembles are the 04-05 Bulls, the 02-03 Clippers, or the 93-94 Warriors and Nuggets. Each of these teams, of course, is known not for their lasting success but instead for short-lived excitement followed closely by disappointment.
Without getting into too much statistical detail, as my loyal readers seem to be decidedly against that, I want to explore quickly why these promising teams, built through high draft picks, tend to elude lasting success.
The consensus, it seems, is when you have a top draft pick you need to take the best player available. This mindset is especially apparent in the first third of the first round. Teams owning these picks are primarily the worst teams in the league, and so they need not worry about fitting the right pieces but instead getting the best possible prospect. Naturally, teams encounter problems when they find themselves selecting from these lofty positions year after year. Shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards are consistently the most available prospects, so if a team were to own a near-top ten pick for four consecutive years, choosing the best player available they would find themselves with an imbalanced rotation.
The Clippers for example, spent several years with four of their most promising players best suited for small forward – Maggette, Richardson, Odom, and Miles. The team improved when they finally traded in potential for performance. They selected Chris Kaman, the steady yet unspectacular junior from Central Michigan and traded athletically gifted Miles for a proven point guard in Andre Miller. Most importantly though, they allowed the Bulls to develop second overall pick Tyson Chandler, and in return for their troubles recieved second year player Elton Brand. For the first time in a long time the Clippers became a legitimate team, taking the Suns to a seventh game in the second round of the 2006 NBA playoffs.
The Clippers are now a good team because they have a stable roster with a group of players that all know their roles. Brand is their go to guy in the paint, Kaman is their scrappy big man, Maggette is their slasher, Mobley is their shooter. They have a bench featuring defensive specialist Quentin Ross, and added promising Al Thornton. If Shaun Livingston can return to health and continue his development the Clips will be a tough team, even in the loaded West where the model of stability and a well-balanced roster, the San Antonio Spurs, reign supreme.
Similar analysis can be presented for the recent Bulls, or the 93-94 Warriors and Nuggets. The Bulls have primarily drafted small guards (Duhon, Gordon, Heinrich) who deserve playing time but cannot match-up defensively with most other teams, or athletic but unpolished bigs (Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, and Tyson Chandler). Three of the four best Warriors in 93-94 were swingmen: Latrell Sprewell, Billy Owens, and Chris Mullin. Run-TMC (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin) was the hallmark of previous unsuccessful Warrior squads despite featuring three players averaging at least 20 points per game in 90-91. Once again without clearly defined roles, the team would never be good. Having three perimeter players all performing the same basketball function – scoring – is a recipe for disaster.
The 93-94 Nuggets and the famous image of Dikembe Mutumbo lying flat on the Key Arena floor crying from pure jubilation, left a lasting impression on many a basketball fan in their first round upset of the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics.
Nine of the 13 players that saw at least 100 minutes of action for that Nuggets team, were 24 years of age or fewer, and no player had reached their thirties. Three of their four best players, Reggie Williams, Bryant Stith, and LaPhonso Ellis all played shooting guard or small forward, and they drafted Jalen Rose and Rodney Rogers – two more small forwards. Despite the excitement generated by that stunning postseason upset, the Nuggets would spend just one more year at .500 before sinking increasingly close to, and eventually past, the 50-loss plateau.
Obviously, none of this bodes well for the Hawks. They have spent years drafting power forwards (Marvin Williams, Shelden Williams, Josh Smith, and Al Horford), and like the aforementioned Nuggets have accumulated a young roster with nine players age 24 or younger. Now they have a legitimate go to guy in Johnson, and they wisely acquired veteran non-forward talent in Mike Bibby, but they stilllack the balanced roster that marks a good team. They often play three players (Horford, Williams, and Smith) who share similar skillsets and roles. The Hawks would do well to acquire a back to the basket threat in the Elton Brand mold, to ensure a better balanced roster. That is the thread between all four of these teams: they were exciting and young, but couldn’t sustain success without a scorer in the post, and without players that have varied roles. Eight teams remain in the 2008 NBA playoffs, two of them have otherworldly talents (Lebron and Kobe) and the remaining six feature starting lineups with: two big men, one who is primarily a scorer, the other a scrappy rebounder, one wing that shoots and one that slashes (one of those two players is probably the team’s perimeter defensive stopper as well), and a good point guard.
Now that the Hawks have somewhat of a foundation, it’s important that they find a way to balance their roster. Though the Hawks’ building process could be severely hindered as the Suns have their 2008 first pick, Hawks fans everywhere can at least take some joy in that their team won’t be taking another athletic, unpolished forward.