December 24th, 2009
The summer of 2005 has since haunted the city of Atlanta, and it will continue to do so, long after the candidates selected in that year’s draft have retired from professional basketball.
Most observers believed the Hawks would use their lottery pick on Chris Paul, considered by many the best player of a fairly weak draft class. Instead, they elected to take Marvin Williams, whose one-year stint at the University of North Carolina earned him an NCAA championship (something neither Chris Paul nor Deron Williams could accomplish in their two-plus years playing collegiate basketball).
That, coupled with (Marvin) Williams’ height, made him a more attractive fit for a Hawks team heavily reliant on length and athleticism. Chris Paul, whose pre-draft measurements had him listed at 5-11, didn’t have the metrics necessary to figure into Atlanta’s blueprint.
This would prove a costly error, as the Birds would finish with only 26 wins. In contrast, the Hornets (the team that would go on to select Paul) would finish the season with 38.
But all good ball clubs aren’t without their struggles and the Hawks were no exception. With the hard times, came steady improvement, first 26 wins, then 30, then 37 wins, and finally 47. This year, Atlanta is on pace to continue that trend, and after last night’s drubbing of Minnesota, they’ve managed to tie the team of 1986-87 for the best 27-game start in franchise history.
With the Hornets careening in the opposite direction and Chris Paul teetering on the brink of collapse, the Hawks’ management are suddenly looking like the geniuses nobody realized they were. It’s highly doubtful even they themselves realized how good they could be with Al Horford and Josh Smith in their front-court.
Yet, formidable as the Hawks are, and as great as Horford and Smith have played, Atlanta is still probably one piece shy of either Boston or Los Angeles. Most harrowing is that Chris Paul continues to languish on an unaccomplished Hornets roster, when he could have been soaring in Atlanta as that missing cog.
On that fateful June evening, when the Hawks passed on Paul, they didn’t just deny themselves a chance at greatness; they denied it to Paul as well. Thus, in turn, the haunting isn’t something the city of Atlanta must endure alone, but something that Paul must endure as well.
For as each entity continues to be impressive in its own right, together, they could have been indomitable.
It’s true that the Hornets have a fairly young roster. Emeka Okafor might be able to return to form, Marcus Thornton could still develop, Julian Wright has yet to play significant minutes, and with this year’s shortcomings, maybe New Orleans can reap the benefits that are associated with the stigma of owning a lottery selection.
It’s also true that the Hawks could get Josh Childress to return, Jeff Teague could improve, Marvin Williams could get himself back to playing like last year, and Horford and Smith (although already great players) could develop even further.
Unfortunately, this is only wishful thinking, and as Anderson Cooper once blatantly put it, hope is not a plan . It wasn’t one when Kevin Garnett wasted all those years in Minnesota, and it certainly isn’t now that Chris Paul finds himself in a similar predicament.
His worth to the Hornets is possibly only rivaled by LeBron James’ worth to the Cavaliers. No two players have ever meant more to their respective franchises. Yet, Chris Paul is so much more than a Hornet — he is the Hornets.
And that’s the problem, he shouldn’t have to be. No one should ever have to shoulder that burden. As brilliantly exalting as “Magic” Johnson was, he had a great complimentary piece in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. John Stockton had Karl Malone (even though they didn’t win anything). Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen all those years in Chicago (as well as Dennis Rodman, who would later become an integral part of the Bulls’ second three-peat).
In all fairness, Chris Paul should have Al Horford and Josh Smith. With his unwavering generosity and Carolinian unselfishness, he could have made Atlanta better. But, the Hawks chose to stray from the intended course (away from that road paved with yellow brick), and instead, Paul now finds himself with nothing.
Through it all though, he remains as tight-lipped as ever, unceasingly determined not to complain. He’ll keep stubbornly pressing that there’s enough talent on that bench to win with, even if doubt has slowly etched away at his once omnipotent belief.
The handsome smile and the twinkling eyes remain. But there’s a noticeable difference to their warmth, an undeniable hardness to their expression, and a morose undertone which permeates their demeanor. They remain plastered there, solely to cajole the media from scrutinizing on his frustration.
Paul understands that he must do this, that it’s his duty, his responsibility. Because giving in to his frustration would mean proving himself wrong and everyone else right. Anyone with pragmatic reasoning can see the absurdity of carrying a franchise, but Chris Paul doesn’t want to believe that he’s alone. Doesn’t believe.
And so he trudges on. As Atlanta will too. Neither admitting to the other that they missed out on a golden opportunity. Fighting, just to trust that they’ve got enough in place to make a serious run at contention.
The Hawks will undoubtedly eschew in their quest, as will Chris Paul. But perhaps, most pervasive, is the pathos they share; the two, will forever be haunted by 2005.
(Credit: photo courtesy of REUTERS PICTURES )
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