Thursday, June 7, 2007

What Are They Doing: Atlanta Hawks

With the 3rd and 11th overall picks, the Hawks in many ways hold the keys to the draft. It's an especially fortunate outcome given that their 3rd pick would have been lost to the Suns had they not finished in the top 3 (remnants of the Joe Johnson deal), and that the 11th pick they acquired from the Pacers in the Al Harrington trade would have reverted back to Larry Bird and co. if it had been in the top 10. While ideally they were hoping to land the first pick and use Greg Oden to fill their gaping hole at center (sorry, Zaza), most Hawks fans were likely breathing a sigh of relief after the lottery.

With a logjam of talent at the forward position (Josh Smith, Childress, Marvin Williams, and Shelden Williams) and Joe Johnson at the 2, the most obvious needs are a point guard and center. Two years ago GM Billy Knight thought he took the "best player available" route by picking Marvin Williams to complement his existing Smith/Childress combo, but instead Williams has managed to show only occasional flashes of the talent scouts saw in him. Meanwhile, Deron Williams (3rd) and Chris Paul (4th) have developed into all-stars at a position where the Hawks have become desperate to add talent. While Shelden Williams had a very productive close to his rookie season, averaging a double-double in the Hawks' meaningless April, his selection at 5th overall in 2006 still looks like a reach, especially given Brandon Roy went two picks later.

While Knight has been coy about his intentions, reason suggests that the Hawks' decision will come down to four players: Mike Conley, Brandan Wright, Al Horford, and Yi Jianlian. Of course, reason typically hasn't been altogether plentiful in the Hawks front office. Still, given the Hawks' only glaring needs are at point guard and center, it would be almost shocking to see them NOT pick up a PG in the first round. Most draft boards have Conley slightly below the three big men, but he's still the best PG prospect since Williams and Paul, meaning he's a justifiable pick at 3. But Conley is also easier to pass on given the Hawks' 11th pick should give them a choice of either A&M's Acie Law and Georgia Tech's Javaris Crittenton (who has the hometown appeal).

While Horford is the safest pick of the three big men, the current rumors suggest Knight is more interested in Wright and Yi. In 2006, Knight identified Shelden Williams early in the process and stuck with him, taking him 5th overall and leaving most experts scratching their heads. Hawks officials attended a private workout with Yi on Monday, with many suggesting that Yi's impressive workout skills will be enough to convince the Hawks he's worthy of the 3rd pick. Wright and Horford will head to Atlanta in the week leading up to the draft.

Their strategy will likely hinge on four factors:

  1. How do the Hawks view the differences between Conley and Law/Crittenton? If they think Conley is head and shoulders above the others, then they can draft him at 3 and pray Hawes (or maybe even Noah) falls into their laps at 11. The more likely scenario is that Hawes and Noah will be gone, meaning a player like Colorado State PF Jason Smith could be the pick. But most likely the best players available will be wing players, which is the one type of player the Hawks don't need.
  2. How much do the Hawks like each of the bigs, and how would they fit into their existing plans? Again, if one of Yi, Wright, and Horford prove they're head and shoulders above the rest, it might be too tempting to pass on them at 3. Noah is all over draft boards, but some have speculated he might be available even at 11 (which I doubt), and it's possible Spencer Hawes could slip past the Bulls and Kings to 11 as well. Given the Hawks would like a guy who can play center as well, I'm a little surprised Horford hasn't been a more popular option. He's clearly the only one of the three bigs who has the size to play some center. Shelden Williams is more of a lunchpail type big, which gives them a little bit of latitude to take a softer type like Wright or Yi.
  3. Will any team want to trade up to the three spot? Some have suggested the Hawks' apparent love affairs with Yi and Wright are just smokescreens and that they'd prefer to move down a few slots where they could still take either Conley or the leftovers of Horford/Yi/Wright. This would certainly make sense for the Hawks, but it seems unlikely that a team like the Celtics, Bucks, or T-Wolves would be desperate enough to trade up given the depth from 3-8. I would be thrilled if the Bucks could move up to snag Al Horford, but what would the Hawks want in return? A future first, maybe lottery-protected? It would be a difficult move to pull off. Alternatively, the Hawks could take Conley, and then use Josh Childress to move up from the 11th spot and grab a big.
  4. What kind of veteran talent could be had for the third overall pick? Given the perpetual rebuilding project in Atlanta, many have suggested moving one or both 1st rounders for veterans. If the Hawks could somehow find a proven player they would have to consider it, but it's difficult to project what that might look like. Would the Warriors want Yi enough to give up Monta Ellis and their first? Would the Hawks take that? Time will tell.
Given what we know, my best guess is that one of the bigs gets taken 3rd and that they snag a PG 11th. Horford would seem to make the most sense, especially given he'd represent a safe pick for a somewhat embattled GM. However, until now most of the speculation has focused on Wright/Yi, perhaps reminding you why Knight got such a bad rep in the first place. While passing on Conley still lets them get a PG at 11, the odds of taking Conley third and still getting a useful big with their second pick are much lower. At this point Yi's combination of size, athleticism and skills appear to have him in pole position.

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