You could see the adrenaline in his eyes. Maurice Evans was on the verge of signing with the Golden State Warriors, but decided that Atlanta was ultimately a better fit for him. How so? Perhaps so he could face this team four times a year:
“I don’t know why they [Orlando] didn’t sign me. Beats the hell out of me…I did all that they asked me to do, guard the opposing team’s best players and knock down shots and do the dirty work. But it’s been like that my whole career, me having to prove that I belong here. When I step on that court, salaries don’t matter. On that court, it’s will. Ray Lewis said the other night ‘If me and another player collide, and it’s about will,’ then I feel comfortable every time, because nobody is going to outwill me.”
Meanwhile Flip Murray is coolly sitting on the other side of the room. He brings a different edge, a cold-blooded, take-no-prisoners demeanor that would not have fit with this team a year ago. But then again, these are different times in Atlanta.
Welcome to the 2008–09 Atlanta Hawks, where fans have proven to be alive when a team is put in front of them.
Heightened expectations was the theme at this year’s media day in the “A,” where half of the people in the room were anticipating Paper Trail from T.I., and the other half (the media) were looking to vet the team for answers. A few among the Atlanta sports media, including yours truly, lined up to take a look at the team who took the world champions to seven games four months ago.
Of course, during this time of the year, every team has the optimism of a Joel Osteen sermon. Of course players are as free as a kite when the record is 0-0, giving that same “anything can happen, this is a new season rhetoric.” Of course, the assistant coaches are chilling in obscurity while allowing the head coach to take on the burdensome task of explaining to people like myself why this season will be better thatn last.
But, of course, this is the first season in the last 18 years where you can say the Hawks are the best sports franchise in Atlanta, and it’s not April Fool’s Day.
The most noticeable traits about media day was the absence of bombast and the emergence of the Alpha Dog(s). There were no bold proclamations and outrageous predictions. Just a group of men focused on the task at hand: to build on last year’s success. Over the last few years, when the Birds were laughingstocks on the come-up, an Alpha Dog was missing. Antoine Walker, Al Harrington, Jason Terry, Stephen Jackson. None of those players filled that role for the Hawks. Judging from media day, the Hawks seem have two burgeoning Alpha Dogs on the squad:
1) Al Horford
2) Flip Murray
I know many would say, ‘what about Joe?’ True, he is the team’s best player. But an Alpha Dog he is not. That’s not a knock on Joe at all. It’s simply true that he won’t get in a player’s face or spark his team with speeches and his play. Horford will. During last year’s playoff series, he retrieved footage from his Florida days to hype his team after they were down 2-0 coming back from Boston. He got into it with Paul Pierce–as a rookie in the playoffs–and backed it up. You can’t teach that. He’s the type of player that every team needs to win a championship.
Talking to him on this day he was mellow, focused and understated (as usual) in his responses to the upcoming season. He stated his goal of having a solid double-double this season. He vowed to assert himself more in the post. He would never admit that he is the leader on the team, but would acknowledge that he would fill that role if necessary. That’s his style. Show, don’t tell.
The season has to play itself out first before we can determine that for sure. But expect these two players to play a big role on the leadership front.
Mario West, the unknown-to-the-rest-of-the-world-but-hometown-sparkplug, spoke with me next about the effects of dance lessons on an athlete’s mobility and balance. He said this without shame and when asked if he would convince his teammates to join him, he shot me a wry smile before answering two seconds later, “Sure.” Yeah. Sure.
Marvin Williams was the third person I pestered. He diligently worked on a new wrinkle this off-season: the three point shot. Those who have watched him develop over the last three years know he shoots a dependable mid-range J while showing the ability to get to the free-throw line. He also boasts an awkward dribble-drive game that has to be honed as well. What stuck out about him was the weight gain: he looks to be a solid 245. The bulk, he told me, does not deter his quickness. His trademark politeness was there and his youth still shows. It’s hard to remember that he just turned 22 in his fourth year in the League. And he wasn’t exactly forthcoming about his predictions for the team this season.
Zettler Clay: So is 50 wins a reasonable goal for this team this year?
MW: (Looks in space with wonderment) It’s gonna be tough. 50 wins is a lot. I’m not gonna say that we’re not going to do it, but it’s gonna be tough.
ZC: How much will losing Josh Childress hurt this team?
MW: It’s tough man. He’s a professional; he’s a great player and a great friend. But we made some nice additions so hopefully we’ll pick up where we left off.
Which brings me to Rick Sund, the new general manager who takes over the position from embattled Billy Knight. He began by resigning Mike Woodson, an often-criticized coach who was saved by his team’s playoff performance last season. He then allowed Josh Childress to walk, well fly, if you will. In the next month, he signed Maurice Evans, Randolph Morris, Othello Hunter, Thomas Gardner and Flip Murray. He gave the hometown fans pause when he waited over a month after free-agent season started to re-up on Josh Smith. But that’s done and optimism has set in as a result.
When I approached Sund, he had the affectation of an executive who would offer the general platitudes and tact that GM’s are known for. However, that wasn’t the case. He didn’t hold back on the weaknesses of his team, citing three-point shooting and another playmaker (more on that below). He said Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams were the X-factors to his team’s success this season. He said that Josh Smith has to get better defensively. No, he challenged Josh Smith to get better defensively. In fact, he sounded less optimistic about his team’s outfit than the players and coach. It wasn’t that he was dogging his team, but merely acknowledging that much work has to be done for the Hawks to be an elite team. He spared me the chicken s—, and gave me the chicken salad.
Joe Johnson said 50 wins was a very reasonable possibility for this team. Now I know this comes on the heels of Melo’s 60-win guarantee, but this is different. Joe is not a man to spew words frivolously. So if he says that 50 wins is within reach, one might be more inclined to listen. He also talked about the season in Phoenix when Steve Nash and Quentin Richardson came into the fold. How they finished with 29 wins the season prior and how they had no idea how good they were going to be going into training camp. How he feels similar things happening for his team this season with Mike Bibby given a full season at the helm: “People are going to be surprised by us this year. Other teams in the East have gotten better, but we have too.”
With this being Bibby’s contract season, of course the question was brought up. And of course, it was shot down. “All we are focused on is this season” was the general theme of answers. Even Bibby dodged this question like Neo. Sounds like something is afoot with that situation. Stay tuned.
Flip Murray and Maurice Evans, in tandem, may be the most underrated signings of the off-season before it is all said and done. Both players bring an edge to the Hawks that they have lacked since the J.R. Rider days (hey, an edge is an edge, no matter how it comes). Flip gives the Hawks their second playmaker from the perimeter (Mike Bibby isn’t the breakdown guard that Murray is; his penetrations comes from screens). While not the best shooter, Flip is the one other Hawk that you can trust if the shot clock has five seconds on it (“Creating,” he said when I asked him where his strength lies. “Getting to that rack. Easy”). Mo Evans brings desperately needed three-point shooting and a guy who relishes guarding the Kobes, T-Macs, and Pierces of the League. You couldn’t say that about any other guy on this team a year ago.
Hats off to Zaza Pachulia, who had to endure the “worst experience of his life,” this past off-season. My man Sekou Smith wrote a brilliant article explaining his turmoil so I won’t go there, but let’s hope that the situation can be peaceably resolved so Pachulia won’t have to worry about his family while he’s over here playing ball. He held up well enough, but you could see it in his eyes that he is burdened.
In talking to the players, I got a sense of tautness. Players were not lost on the fact that the hometown is leaning on them to do something big, and they were focused because of it. Coach Woodson seemed to relish in the fact that he has more tools to work with than he has ever had. He knows, and the team knows that another 37-win season will not suffice for the suddenly spoiled fans of Atlanta.
Lastly, Dominique Wilkins, who will be joining resident Hawks play-by-play commentator Bob Rathbun for color commentary this season, sure had much to say about the good ‘ole days. He repeatedly said to anybody who would listen that Larry Bird was the greatest trash-talker in the 80’s. The human-highlight film also had much to say about the differences in today’s game and the games of yesteryear, bemoaning the lack of trash talk in today’s game, hard fouls, and defense. “I was just talking to Mike [Jordan] about this two weeks ago, and we both said the same thing. The games were much more physically tougher in the 80’s. I mean, there’s no way I could have played power forward then. But now? Players my size play that position, and thrive. The lasting thought he left me with:
“The question that you have to ask is what would the players today do in the 1980s? How much do you think George Gervin would do now, with all of these hand-checking rules and zone defenses? These days you can barely touch a player. Back then, you could put your hand on his hip, elbow him, guide him to where you wanted him to go, and players still put up 30 ppg. How many scoring titles would I win now? Shoot…how many fingers do I have?”
Dominique was hell-bent on schooling the youngster, me, on the glory days. It seemed that he wasn’t happy unless he had me thinking that today’s game was inferior to that of the past. Hoopheads, what sayeth you on the matter?
Zettler Clay is a freelance journalist from Atlanta, Ga, mainly covering politics, entertainment and sports. He has covered the Hawks for the past three years.