The future of theAtlanta Hawks, as well as general manager Billy Knight's own torturedinvestment in the league's youngest team, was at stake when the NBA held itsannual draft lottery on May¬†22, and Knight was in no mood to sit in frontof the TV and feel his heart valves clenching. On behalf of his sanity, heturned off his phone and took his four-year-old German shepherd, Neko, for a90-minute training session in the woods near his Atlanta home. ¬∂ "I didn'twant to go through the ups and downs of [watching]," Knight says. "I'vetrained German shepherds for dog shows before--obedience work, tracking work,protection work--but this dog is the best dog I've had. I just haven't had timeto train him."
He chose a fineevening to make time. After spending more than an hour working patiently withNeko, Knight returned home and turned on his BlackBerry. His voice mail wasfull and his in-box was flooded with the kind of news that is worth waitingfor: The Indiana Pacers, whose pick was protected in the top¬†10, hadinstead drawn the No.¬†11 slot, which meant the choice now belonged toAtlanta as part of last summer's trade of forward Al Harrington back to thePacers. Even better was the news about the Hawks' own selection, which atNo.¬†4 or worse would have been forwarded to the Phoenix Suns to completeAtlanta's 2005 acquisition of Joe Johnson. But the luck of the Ping-Pong ballsmoved the Hawks up one spot to No.¬†3, allowing them to keep the pick.
Instead of losingboth choices, Atlanta emerged as the only team with two lottery picks headinginto the deepest draft since 2003, when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, ChrisBosh and Dwyane Wade all entered the NBA. With Greg Oden and Kevin Durantassured of going first and second to the Portland Trail Blazers and the SeattleSuperSonics, respectively, the fickle course of the June¬†28 draft willdepend on whatever Knight decides to do with the Nos.¬†3 and 11 picks."Gary Fitzsimmons [the Hawks' assistant G.M.] called me that nightwondering why he couldn't get ahold of me, because I hadn't told him what I wasgoing to do," says Knight. "Then he said, 'We've suddenly become verypopular.' "
It's true: Eversince that night the phones in the Hawks' normally sedate offices in downtownAtlanta have been ringing like alarms, with teams making inquiries about thepicks. "It's probably down to four or five [players] for the No.¬†3pick," says Knight, and while he won't name names, the best guess is thatthe group includes the national championship trio of center Joakim Noah andforwards Al Horford and Corey Brewer from Florida, as well as North Carolinaforward Brandan Wright and Ohio State point guard Mike Conley¬†Jr. Knightalso says, however, that he may trade one or both choices for experiencedplayers to fill out the league's third-youngest roster, knowing he has theluxury of $4.6¬†million in cap space to help facilitate a deal.
One or twoinspired choices could get the Hawks back to the playoffs next season for theirfirst appearance since 1998-99--while also restoring their G.M.'s credibility.Few league executives have been second-guessed more than Knight, whose team hasgone a league-worst 103-233 since he replaced Pete Babcock in April¬†2003,hurt in part by questionable drafting. Though all of Knight's first-roundchoices (forwards Boris Diaw, Josh Childress, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams andShelden Williams) have turned into reliable contributors, none have emerged asan elite player. Still, upon closer inspection, his major moves at least seemdefensible.
•Knight wasripped for handing Rasheed Wallace to the Detroit Pistons inFebruary¬†2004, which enabled them to win the NBA title four months later,but the trade netted a first-round pick that Knight turned into Smith, who, atage 21, was second in the league in blocks (2.88 per game) this season whilealso averaging 16.4 points and 8.6 rebounds.
•Given the Hawks'long-standing need for leadership at point guard, Knight is routinely crucifiedfor passing on Deron Williams and Chris Paul in 2005 in order to use theNo.¬†2 pick on North Carolina freshman forward Marvin Williams. But at thetime Marvin Williams was seen as a potential No.¬†1 overall choice, andKnight would have been scorched for not taking him. (The second-year forwardaveraged 13.1¬†points and 5.3 rebounds this season.)
•In August 2005Knight sent Diaw and a pair of future first-round picks to Phoenix as part of asign-and-trade for Johnson, resulting in an ongoing court battle between leadowner Steve Belkin, who fought the trade, and his fellow owners, who supportedit. (It's widely thought that if Belkin regains control of the team, he willfire Knight, who refused to shake hands with him before a court hearing thatsame August.) Johnson averaged a breakout 25.0¬†points this season; the2006 pick Atlanta sent to Phoenix was then dealt to Boston, which used it todraft point guard Rajon Rondo at No. 21. "Joe Johnson is an All-Star,"says Knight. "But the player Boston got wasn't an All-Star, and Borisisn't, and we don't think this pick that Phoenix is going to get [anunprotected first-rounder next year] is going to be."
That's becauseKnight is counting on turning the corner, after going 30-52 this season, andfinally putting an end to the losing and criticism in Atlanta. "I know heinternalizes it, but he doesn't really allow it to change him, and he hasn'tbecome panicky," says Pacers CEO and president Donnie Walsh, under whomKnight served for five years as an executive. "Billy's doing it with a lotmore patience than I did: He hasn't added veterans to improve the record of theteam each year."
That may finallychange this summer. To predict how the draft might turn, one must consider thetwo pieces Knight needs in order to build his young team into a winner nextseason: a big man to complement Smith and leadership at point guard.Unfortunately, this incoming class is top-heavy at a position in which theHawks are already well-stocked. "I think they're gun-shy about takinganother forward," says a rival executive who has talked trade with Atlanta."The Hawks are a real wild card."
If Atlanta keepsthe No.¬†3 pick, Knight hints that he's unlikely to invest in a long-termproject and will lean toward a college upperclassman. But he really hopes totrade at least one of his choices, preferably for an NBA veteran in his mid-20s(say, SuperSonics point guard Luke Ridnour, who could use a fresh start in anew city) to team with the soon-to-be 26-year-old Johnson in helping guide theother key Hawks. "If we can do a deal for the right guy, we certainlywill," Knight says, "but we're not going to do a deal just so we don'tadd another young guy."
Atlanta couldalso trade down, with a team like Milwaukee at No.¬†6, which would allowthe Hawks to take Noah or Conley at a spot more in line with his perceivedvalue.
For Knight, theoutcome of this draft will serve as nothing less than a referendum on his lastfour years: If he puts the Hawks into the playoffs, then his patience will belauded; otherwise he'll be roasted for staying the course with too manyyoungsters. "If you like the sunshine, you've got to accept the rain,"he says. "The job is a pressure job, and certainly we'd like to win, butit's not going to pressure us into doing something that ultimately we shouldn'tdo."
Since the lotteryKnight has been thoroughly immersed in his job, leaving him less time to spendwith Neko. "I haven't had a chance to work with him again," saysKnight. "He's forgetting everything I showed him." Neko may be theembodiment of loyal patience, but like Atlanta's fans, even he can't waitforever.
These underrated gems could make some G.M.'s look brilliant
SI ASKED three NBA scouts to each nominate a favorite sleeper--a likelysecond-round pick with a long-term NBA future. Here are their top bargainchoices.
Honka Espoo Playboys (Finland)
"He's so good [that] if he were coming out of a high school in America,he'd be on the cover of SI. I think he's going to be a seriously good NBAplayer. He has size, he can shoot and he can fly. He reminds me of DannyAinge--fearless and hard-nosed."
GLEN (BIG BABY) DAVIS
"He's going to fall to the second round because he's not very athletic.But watch his feet; that's part of being an athlete too. He can pass, dribble,he has unbelievable hands and he's going to be--in time--a good shooter. Thequestion is, Will he turn into a Tractor Traylor or Oliver Miller and go up to340 pounds again? But when you're a second-rounder, you haven't gotten [bigmoney], so you're on a short leash for a couple of years. This guy is going tobe a really good NBA player."
Why was Daniel Gibson on the floor for Cleveland [during the playoffs] andnot [fellow rookie] Shannon Brown? Because Gibson can make a shot. Almond isgoing to be a heck of a player [because] he can shoot. People can say that he'sa four-year collegian and not athletic enough, but it doesn't matter. He's anNBA player who does NBA kinds of stuff--flying down on the break for a pull-upthree or for a dunk.''
The Hawks G.M. needs to land a slam-dunk in his fourth straight year with alottery pick.