The Atlanta Hawks organization has been led by a premiere wing player for the better part of Thirty years, dating all the way back to Dominique Wilkins and his days as the “Human Highlight Film.” Each of the leading men on the perimeter had their games accentuated and complimented by hard-working, versatile, and grueling big men.
Dominique Wilkins took over the reigns for the Atlanta Hawks from the day he arrived in 1982. In1984, he got his bruising big man to help him lead the Atlanta Hawks against the likes of some of the NBA‘s greatest players and teams for a decade. That big man was Kevin Willis the 7’0 foot center-forward, from Michigan State University. One of the NBA’s most physically imposing athletes, Kevin Willis was the perfect compliment to Dominique Wilkins as they took on the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, and New York Knicks year after year trying to gain the upper hand on the NBA’s elite. Though those Hawks teams found their fare share of success they never managed to reach an NBA finals. They fought off Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Bernard King just to stay competitive.
When Wilkins’ and Willis’s tenure ended the Hawks were lifted by the presence of Steve Smith. Steve Smith got the big man he needed to compete 2 years later when one of the leagues premiere centers arrived in Atlanta. Dikembe Mutombo, fresh off one of the most ferocious defensive tares in history, while commanding the paint for the Denver Nuggets, took over the painted area for the Hawks. Again the Hawks were fighting off the Knicks, Bulls and now the Indiana Pacers for Eastern Conference supremacy. Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller were hurdles for this adaptation of the Hawks team in the mid to late 1990’s. Mutombo got shipped to the Philadelphia 76ers and Steve Smith got shipped out of town to the Portland Trailblazers. Both found homes where they would achieve more team success than they ever had as Hawks. Neither ever reached the level of individual success they had achieved as Hawks. The team went through a low period from 2000-2005 when they returned to their winning formula by landing a premiere Wing Player to go along with their newly acquired big man, the then 19 year old phenom with freakish athleticism, Josh Smith.
Again, true to the formula the Atlanta Hawks scored lots of points, played middle of the pack defense, led lots of highlight reels and fought off the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bulls, Celtics, and Magic for the right to represent the Eastern Conference. Yet and still they fell short of the NBA finals. They had to fight off LeBron James, Paul Pierce, Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose just to avoid annual first round eliminations. Josh Smith remains, but Joe Johnson will be elsewhere for the first time since 2005. So will the Hawks fall off as the did in 2000? Or will Lou Williams fill the void Joe Johnson has left? Will Al Horford fill the role Josh Smith is leaving? And will Josh Smith be the player the Atlanta Hawks have never had? The guy to lead the defense, command the paint and the perimeter with equal efficiency, and led the Hawks to the elusive NBA finals they have yet to reach under the formula they have recycled over and over for the last 30 years?