Friday November 21st, 2008

Their sixth man is in Greece, their power forward is injured, they lost four games in a row -- and they were 7-4 through Thursday.

5. Joe Johnson is a star. Really. Johnson admits he was in over his head when he arrived in Atlanta as its free-agent savior in 2005-06. "All my career I was pretty much a big-time role player,'' the 27-year-old shooting guard said. "When I got thrown into this leadership role, it was a tough one, but it was something I had to adjust to and something I was willing to adjust to. It was tough, don't get me wrong, but every year I've learned something different, and I've gotten better.''

As Johnson sees it, he started turning the corner when the Hawks acquired point guard Mike Bibby at the trade deadline last season. Though Bibby wasn't quite his old self -- he was coming off a left-thumb injury and would average just 13.9 points in 48 games for the season -- he was nonetheless the most accomplished, cutthroat teammate Johnson had known in his three years with Atlanta.

"When we got Mike, I started to elevate my game a lot more," Johnson said, "because he was a guy who can make a shot -- he can create not only for himself but for his teammates as well. He helped me out because the defense had to play more honest, and then I was being more aggressive.''

Johnson leveraged Bibby's presence to average 20.0 points in the playoffs while hitting one big shot after another in the Hawks' three home victories of their opening-round series with the Celtics. He has built on that fortnight to average 25.3 points (fourth best in the league) this season with 5.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals -- the kind of elite production the Hawks originally envisioned.

"He's reaching the point when the game is on the line that he wants to take over,'' Hawks general manager Rick Sund said. "His focus in practice is good, he knows his strengths and weaknesses, and he plays hard in every facet, whether it's on defense or coming up with the rebound.''

Now Johnson is the kind of finisher who provides confidence to his young teammates: If they do the little things, he'll take care of the big ones. He does his scoring without doing harm to the team, because at heart he's a playmaker who takes pride in sharing the ball and rebounding his position.

He has no problem admitting that he was unprepared to fulfill his leadership responsibilities over the first two years in Atlanta.

"I had no idea,'' he said. "It was a business move.''

Johnson is finally escaping his reputation as a player who left a winning team in Phoenix in order to make more money with a loser in Atlanta. The truth, he says, is that he didn't fully understand the challenge he was taking on.

"I figured sooner or later we would turn out to be a pretty good team,'' he said. "In the playoffs last year, it just brought me so much joy to be able to experience that again."

Winning, he means.

4. Mike Woodson has a new boss. Former GM Billy Knight often traveled with the Hawks, and last year the players could sense tension between him and Woodson, Atlanta's coach since 2004-05. Their conflicts became public when Sekou Smith of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the news last February that Knight had been blocked in three attempts to fire Woodson.

Knight instead was replaced last summer by Sund, a former GM of the Sonics, Pistons and Mavericks. On those rare trips when Sund travels with the team, there is none of last year's conflict.

"We were a team ready for some change and some continuity at all levels,'' said Sund, who represented the change, with Woodson, who signed a two-year extension last June, providing the continuity.

The Hawks appeared to be in trouble last summer when sixth man Josh Childress left the NBA to sign with the Euroleague club Olympiakos of Greece. But instead of complaining, Woodson has been grateful for new reserves Flip Murray and Mo Evans, who are averaging a combined 20.8 points.

"They are the veteran guys that we didn't have the last few years coming off our bench,'' Woodson said.

3. Their players are the same height. Knight used to be skewered for acquiring the same-sized players year after year; now that the Hawks are winning, the vision is beginning to make sense. For starters, they're able to switch defensively without suffering mismatches.

"It's one of the strengths of the Hawks, and something I tried to do in Seattle,'' Sund said. "I love players who are multipositional. Joe Johnson can play the 3, and Marvin Williams can play the 2. Josh Smith is a 4-3. [Al] Horford is a 5-4. Anytime you have players who are multitalented and versatile, that helps your team.''

Williams used to serve as a reminder of Knight's biggest blunder: He chose Williams with the No. 2 pick in 2005, when the Hawks might have taken point guards Deron Williams or Chris Paul instead. This year, Williams has extended his range out to the three-point line, where he has made 13-of-23 to rank third in the league at 56.5 percent. At 22, he hasn't stopped improving; he may develop his post-up game and ball-handling in the years ahead. In the meantime, the Hawks are advised to continue running more plays for a small forward who is beginning to realize how good he can become.

2. Horford is indeed a center. The case can be made that the 6-10 Horford should shift to his college position of power forward, but he is just as effective at center. He ranks in the upper teens in the league at either spot. He should continue forming a dynamic partnership with Smith, a shot-blocking power forward who has missed all but four games with a high ankle sprain that is expected to sideline him for a month.

"Josh is one of the few players in this league who has the ability to be part [Scottie] Pippen and part Ben Wallace,'' Sund said. "He can be Pippen when he switches out front, because he's quick and rangy the way Pippen was. He can be Ben Wallace with his shot-blocking and if he improves his rebounding, which is one of his goals. I think he could make the All-Star team based on his defense, the way Wallace and Pippen did.''

1. The worst of the early season is almost behind them. Their surprising 6-0 start was crucial because it renewed confidence in Woodson. It took a Paul Pierce buzzer-beater in Boston to end Atlanta's winning streak.

Never mind the four-game losing streak that ensued. They've earned a winning record despite this run of 10 road games among their opening 16. Next month, Atlanta could press ahead with a rare stretch of eight consecutive home games. After years of false promise, the Hawks might be a winner at last.

4. Why did the Nuggets give away Marcus Camby's salary last summer, and then four months later they're willing to take on the extended contract of Chauncey Billups? Are they schizo? -- F.P., Denver

I didn't understand the Camby giveaway either. But now the case can be made that the Camby move made it possible for the Nuggets to take on Billups. There may be luxury-tax consequences down the road, but the deal for Billups saved the Nuggets $11.7 million this season in salary and luxury tax while gaining an asset for Iverson instead of merely letting his contract expire.

"My favorite person in Las Vegas was Puggy Pearson, the poker player,'' said Nuggets vice president Mark Warkentien, a former UNLV assistant coach who assembled the Billups deal for Denver. "His trademark line was, 'I'll play any man from any land at any game that he can name for any amount that I can count.' "

Not only did the Nuggets save money by acquiring Billups, but they also improved their team. Not a bad exchange.

3. I really enjoyed your article about 2010 free agency. But do you really think that Chris Bosh will want to go to the Knicks? The Raptors are on the verge of something really special here and I think that will impact his decision more than being in the United States. -- Michael Fearn, North of Toronto, Ontario

Honestly, I have no idea what Bosh will do. Neither, probably, does he. But after this season, he'll have a better feeling for where the Raptors are headed than anybody.

2. You mentioned last week that Jose Calderon may be the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. Could Derrick Rose, in fact, already be that guy? -- Jim P., Skokie, Ill.

It's too early to say. But you could be right. We may look back and decide that Rose was indeed the best point guard in the conference from his opening month in the league. He is exceeding expectations as a leader, and he already knows how to channel his athleticism in an efficient way. He's much more prepared for the NBA than anyone could have expected after one year of college.

1. Now I know you are probably getting about 6,000 e-mails from my neighbors and friends in Cleveland, but I have to say something. You say in your article about free agency that this can become a non-story in the coming years. You say several times that no star may move away from his team. Why, then, do you and all of your fellow writers continue to hit us over the head with this stuff? Perhaps it is because people like me continue to read it and get upset. OK, I'm doing my part. For the next two years, I will read absolutely nothing about LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh going anywhere. I am making this officially a non-story in my life until it actually has some relevance. Please start writing about one of the countless good stories going on in THIS NBA season. I beg you. Guys like Joe Johnson, Greg Oden, Kobe Bryant and Jose Calderon are all doing things that are worthy of an article being written RIGHT NOW. It's so frustrating. -- Sean, Cleveland

Here's another frustrating thing: I have, in fact, written this season about Joe Johnson, Greg Oden and Jose Calderon -- and you're complaining anyway.

3. LeBron's impending free agency is no distraction. Neither was Kobe in his threats last year to leave the Lakers. He focused the team on trying to win now. Maybe they would have made all the same moves if Kobe wasn't threatening to leave, but you have to admit they are in a better position now than before he demanded a trade.

The possibility of losing LeBron to free agency in 2010 is focusing Cleveland's efforts to build a championship team as soon as possible. That is no distraction; it is motivation.

2. Stephon Marbury's benching is bad for the league, as fellow players claim. On the contrary ... A lot of fans love seeing Marbury receive his comeuppance. One of the reasons the NFL is so popular is because teams are able to occasionally fire players on grounds of bad behavior. The NBA can't go that far because its players have guaranteed contracts, which leads to universal criticism that basketball players wield too much power. That's why the demotion of the league's most notorious me-first point guard is celebrated by some as a measure of rough justice. If millions of everyday workers around the country are held accountable for their actions, then why shouldn't a like standard be applied to Stephon Marbury?

1. A worsening economy may help improve some NBA teams. Of course clubs will be hurting financially over the year or two ahead. But those tightfisted circumstances may force some teams to give up on their endlessly revolving youth movements in order to try to win now. Owners may tell GMs they need to put a better product on the floor to compete for dwindling entertainment resources. That might not be such a bad development.

2. Hasheem Thabeet may be (slightly) overrated. "He's going to go near the top of the draft, maybe even No. 1,'' an NBA scout said of the 7-3 junior center from Tanzania. "But it may be too high. UConn has led the nation in shot-blocking for the last seven years, which is an amazing achievement. But if you look at their big men who have come into the league -- guys Donyell Marshall, [Emeka] Okafor, Hilton Armstrong, Travis Knight, Josh Boone -- none of them has exceeded expectations on draft day. They all tend to get picked a little bit too high, and I think Thabeet may turn out to be the same way. He can have a good, long career, but I don't think he's going to turn out to be another [Dikembe] Mutombo. Mutombo was a mean one, and this guy doesn't seem to have that same kind of fire to him.''

1. No. 2 UConn will be better than No. 1 North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. "Carolina needs to run,'' the scout went on. "I think UConn's style is better suited to the tournament. They have tougher guys, and they'll be able to slow the game down. If they get the game into the half court, then the big guy [Thabeet] is going to block everything.''

1. The SEC charges Mark Cuban with insider trading. There was much vengeful laughter at Cuban's expense this week among rival executives and owners as well as NBA officials, many of whom view him as a know-it-all and a difficult league partner. They're entitled to their feelings of resentment. But the bottom line is that Cuban has done far more good than harm to the NBA by rejuvenating his franchise while drumming up interest in pro basketball. How many non-players in the NBA can claim such a positive impact?

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