7 Atlanta Hawks After a high-risk makeover, Atlanta enters a critical year with fingers crossed

Nov. 01, 1999
Nov. 01, 1999

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Nov. 1, 1999

NBA Preview 1999-2000

7 Atlanta Hawks After a high-risk makeover, Atlanta enters a critical year with fingers crossed

The Hawks as we knew them ceased to exist during the playoffs
last season, when Atlanta G.M. Pete Babcock spotted a boy at
Madison Square Garden holding up a poster of Latrell Sprewell and
squealing that notorious name with delight. During their
second-round matchup Sprewell and the Knicks ran circles around
the dispassionate Hawks as if they were the Washington Generals,
limiting Atlanta to the second fewest points (76.5 a game) on the
worst shooting (31.6%) in the history of four-game series.
Flashbacks to the Hawks' exasperating postseason inspired Babcock
as he worked the phones over the summer. "That series painfully
drove home what we already suspected," Babcock says. "We needed
to reconfigure our team if we were ever going to get over the

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 1999 issue

Reconfigure? That's putting it mildly. Only six players remain
from last season, and just four of those saw action against the
Knicks. Babcock began the overhaul by addressing his biggest
need: speed. Before the draft he peddled the team's point guard
since 1992-93, Mookie Blaylock, whose plodding pace helped yield
the NBA's fewest team assists last year and just 86.3 points per
game, second-lowest in the league. In exchange Babcock acquired
the Warriors' No. 10 pick, which he used to select the
anti-Mookie, Jason Terry. At Arizona last season Terry became the
first Pac-10 player since Gary Payton to lead the conference in
scoring, assists and steals. He'll get meticulous tutoring from
Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens, who's also a Hall of Fame point
guard. "I can remember some of the stupid things I did as a
rookie guard, so hopefully I can save Jason some embarrassment,"
Wilkens says. "He's the engine that can shift the team from low
gear to high gear and give us a chance to score more easy points
in transition."

The memory of the kid clutching the Sprewell poster inspired
Babcock's second major deal, the acquisition of Blazers shooting
guards Isaiah (J.R.) Rider and Jimmy Jackson for shooting guards
Steve Smith and Ed Gray. Nowhere is Atlanta's new direction more
apparent than in the exchange of Smith for Rider, two players who
have absolutely nothing in common beyond career-scoring averages
of more than 17 points. Smith, the longtime troop leader of a
Hawks team hailed as the boy scouts of the NBA, won the league's
Citizen Award in 1997-98, the same season that Rider was
suspended three games for spitting on a fan, one of a fistful of
suspensions he earned in his three years with Portland.

After vowing to arrive early to Hawks' training camp in
Chattanooga, Rider proved that when it comes to disappointing, he
rarely disappoints. He missed the opening day, saying first that
it was because he refused to fly on a "crop duster plane" and
later that he was in no rush to join a team he expected to be
mediocre. Babcock believes that because Rider is in the final
year of a contract, getting him is only a minor gamble, but his
justifications sound a lot like Faust's. "Ultimately, fans care
about wins and losses," Babcock says. "We went into this deal
with our eyes wide open knowing J.R.'s track record, and we
expected there to be some rocky moments. What can I say? It's an
interesting phenomenon in our society that if you have success
then all is forgiven."

Wilkens says he is operating on a "three strikes and you're out"
policy with Rider, who is already down to two. Babcock openly
speaks of Jackson, who has been with six organizations in the
last three years, as "Rider insurance." But for a team that has
reflected the laid-back personality of its coach, some
controversy just might provide the kind of spark that Sprewell
brought to New York last season. "Before this year the Hawks had
a lot of veteran guys who were settled into their lifestyles, and
maybe they got complacent and comfortable just making the
playoffs," Rider, 28, says. "I plan to jump around and high-five
and play college-style ball. Hopefully when my teammates see
that, they'll understand that I'm just trying to wake us up."

With the addition of 6'11" shot blocker Lorenzen Wright in an
August trade with the Clippers, Atlanta has seven players who are
24 or younger. The few Hawks holdovers reported an increased
enthusiasm in training camp, especially an extra spring in the
size-22 sneakers of Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque
Wamutombo. "I think everybody's looking forward to this year as a
new start," Mutombo says. "We have lots of new players, a new
attitude and hopefully some new results in the playoffs."

Atlanta even has a new home, the 20,000-seat Philips Arena, where
before each practice the players field trivia questions from the
coaches. One day some Hawks were stunned to learn that the
franchise has not advanced past the second round of the playoffs
since 1960-61. With all the off-season moves designed to generate
excitement, sell tickets and fuel a playoff push, team president
Stan Kasten bluntly acknowledges, "This is the most important
year in the history of the franchise."

Atlanta does appear to have upgraded its roster more successfully
than anybody else in the East, and perhaps sensing a potential
windfall on his investment, owner Ted Turner recently showed up
at a practice for the first time since Wilkens became the coach
six years ago. "I have a World Series ring and an America's Cup,
but what I'm missing is an NBA title," Turner told the players.
"Do that for me, and I'll do something nice for you."

Turner then introduced himself to Rider, Terry and the rest of
the newcomers, which served to emphasize that it's largely up to
them to determine if these Hawks soar to unprecedented heights or
continue to fly low--like a crop duster plane.


COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO ATTITUDE ADJUSTER? The behavior-challenged Rider vows to kick start the Hawks.


STARTING FIVE [3 1/2 stars]
BENCH [2 1/2 stars]
COACH [3 1/2 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [3 1/2 stars]
CHEMISTRY [2 1/2 stars]

1998-99 record: 31-19 (fourth in Eastern Conference)
Coach: Lenny Wilkens (seventh season with Hawks)

AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

HAWKS 86.3 (28) 40.9 (27) 43.5 (5) 14.9 (9)
OPPONENTS 83.4 (1) 41.3 (4) 39.0 (3) 13.5 (27)

In Fact

No team in NBA history yielded fewer points per game than the
Hawks did last season. Atlanta lowered the record of 85.4 points
per game, set by the 1996-97 Cavaliers, by a field goal.

Projected Lineup


SF LaPhonso Ellis 162 10.2 ppg 5.5 rpg 0.9 apg 42.1 FG%
Oft-injured, he missed 30 regular-season games with a hernia

PF Alan Henderson 90 12.5 ppg 6.6 rpg 0.7 apg 44.2 FG%
Most Improved Player in 1997-98; scoring and assists dropped
last year

C Dikembe Mutombo 29 10.8 ppg 12.2 rpg 51.2 FG% 2.94 bpg
Finished fourth in total blocks, ending streak of five years as
NBA leader

SG Isaiah Rider[#] 70 13.9 ppg 4.2 rpg 2.2 apg 41.2 FG%
Scoring average was lowest team-leading mark in Trail Blazers'

PG Bimbo Coles[#] 181 9.5 ppg 2.4 rpg 4.6 apg 44.2 FG%
Supplanted last season by Tim Hardaway as Heat's alltime assist


G Jason Terry (R)[#] 123 21.9 ppg 3.3 rpg 5.5 apg 44.3 FG%
As Arizona senior, more than doubled his ppg of previous two

G Jim Jackson [#] 136 8.4 ppg 3.2 rpg 2.6 apg 41.1 FG%
Scoring has plummeted since he averaged 25.7 points for Dallas
in '94-95

C Lorenzen Wright[#] 151 6.6 ppg 7.5 rpg 0.7 apg 45.8 FG%
Former Clipper had NBA's single-game high with 25 rebounds last

F Chris Crawford 194 6.9 ppg 2.1 rpg 0.6 apg 43.1 FG%
Scored career high 26 points against Knicks in playoffs last

F Roshown McLeod 305 4.8 ppg 1.5 rpg 0.4 apg 38.0 FG%
Much better shooter in playoffs (52.4%) than in regular season

[#] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)