It's been a foregone conclusion that Greg Oden and Kevin Durant would go first and second, in some fashion, in the NBA draft since before both set foot on college campuses. Thus, in some ways Thursday's draft will become really interesting not with the top two picks — from Portland and Seattle — but with the No. 3 pick held by the Atlanta Hawks.
"Everybody knows one and two, but we don't know three," Hawks General Manager Billy Knight said in a recent telephone interview.
The Hawks will dictate the remainder of the draft with either a selection or a trade that could dramatically affect the future of the hard-luck franchise — and of the often second-guessed general manager whose trade to acquire Joe Johnson two summers ago led to the ouster of the team's lone dissenting owner. Knight needs to be right this time, given that the team has the league's longest playoff drought (eight years) and continues to play in half-empty Philips Arena — which opened the season after the last postseason appearance.
"Everybody is talking about the pressure this year. There is pressure every year," Knight said.
The last time the Hawks held the third pick in the draft was 2001, when two supposedly "can't-miss" big men were making the leap from high school to the NBA. After the Washington Wizards selected Kwame Brown at No. 1 and the Los Angeles Clippers chose Tyson Chandler at No. 2, the Hawks took a relatively unknown forward from Spain named Pau Gasol at No. 3 — and traded him, along with Lorenzen Wright, to the Memphis Grizzlies for Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
The Grizzlies' general manager? Billy Knight.
"If I had known I was ever going to wind up in Atlanta, I would've never done that Gasol trade," Knight said of the eventual rookie of the year and all-star. "He'd be here in Atlanta now."
And the Hawks might not be in what seems like an eternal rebuilding process.
Knight said he wasn't averse to trading the No. 3 pick but is believed to be entertaining the Florida duo of forward Al Horford and center Joakim Noah, Ohio State point guard Mike Conley Jr., North Carolina forward Brandan Wright and Chinese big man Yi Jianlian.
"It's tough in a draft when there are two heavyweights at one and two," one Western Conference scout said of the Hawks' predicament.
The Hawks will work out Horford, the consensus choice as the third-best talent in the draft, and Conley today. That may determine whom they select — or convince them that trading the pick is the best option.
"It'll be Horford," said Indiana Pacers chief executive Donnie Walsh, Knight's boss for five years. "I think (Knight) will go big. I don't think he'll take a guard there."
Walsh hadn't spoken with Knight about the choice, but his assumption makes sense given Knight's history. He is literally the most "forward-thinking" general manager in the NBA. He has never drafted a guard or center in the first round, dating from his two-year stint with the Grizzlies. He has selected Gasol, Stromile Swift and Shane Battier for Memphis and Boris Diaw, Josh Childress, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Shelden Williams for the Hawks.
His choices for the Hawks have turned into serviceable if not spectacular players; Smith, the 17th pick in 2004, is the one player to display star-like potential so far. Despite a logjam at forward and a desperate need for a starting point guard and center, Knight said it won't affect his decision: "If someone thinks we take forwards all the time, then okay, if that's the best basketball player available, then that's what we'll do."
The Hawks are 103-233 since Knight took over in April 2003, leaving him as one of the league's more scrutinized executives. He was criticized for gift-wrapping Rasheed Wallace to the eventual-champion Detroit Pistons in 2004, bypassing point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams in favor of Marvin Williams in 2005 and selecting Shelden Williams at No. 5 in 2006 over rookie of the year Brandon Roy and Randy Foye.
"I find it hard to criticize him as much as others. I think he's done a great job," said Hawks part-owner and NBA governor Michael Gearon Jr. "Do we want to be in the playoffs next year? Absolutely. This draft is critical for us. I don't see it not working."
The Hawks were fortunate to secure one of the top three choices this year. Otherwise, the Phoenix Suns would have received the pick as final compensation for the Johnson trade. The move, which sent Diaw and two first-round draft picks to Phoenix in July 2005, splintered the team's ownership group, Atlanta Spirit LLC, and led to a still-pending legal battle with estranged partner Steve Belkin. With the Suns dealing the No. 21 pick they received from the Hawks last season to Boston and set to get the Hawks' unprotected choice next season, Knight still feels the franchise emerged victorious in getting Johnson, a first time all-star last February. "Adding him to our team has been a godsend for our franchise," Knight said.
In addition to setting the tone for the draft, the Hawks are also in an enviable position of having two lottery choices in what NBA scouts and personnel executives have deemed one of the deepest recent drafts. They also have the 11th pick from the Pacers as part of a deal that involved Al Harrington.
There have been rumors that the Hawks could use one of the picks as part of a package to pry defensive player of the year Marcus Camby from the Denver Nuggets. Memphis and Milwaukee are interested in Horford and reportedly have been trying to move up to third. "I can't say that we're going to keep both picks, that we're going to trade both picks or trade one," Knight said. "All I can say for sure is, we think we're going to get two good players with these picks."