Give Billy Knight credit. (Yes, Billy Knight.) Back in the winter of 2004, as he was dumping salary and trading Rasheed Wallace after one game as a Hawk, the general manager spoke of the need to rearrange more than personnel. "Changing the culture," was how Knight put it, and here's what he meant:
Playing and working for the Hawks had become drudgery. Nobody came here expecting to win because the Hawks had stopped winning. There was no pride within the organization, no sense of anticipation in the community. This was just another boarded-up storefront along the NBA's Desolation Row.
For the Hawks ever to get good again, that feeling had to be replaced by one of competence and expectancy. Well, it took five years --- so long that Knight is no longer in place to bank the benefits --- but it has finally happened.
What we've seen this past fortnight is proof the Hawks are now viewed, both internally and externally, as a thriving concern with a shiny future. We saw it the day the new man, Jamal Crawford, held his introductory briefing, when his opening statement was:
"[This warm reception] shows how far Atlanta has come in the last few years, how we're an up-and-coming team. I'm excited to be here. I couldn't believe it --- it happened so fast; I'd heard the rumors about me going to Atlanta --- but for it actually to come true, I'm ecstatic. I can't wait to get started. Coach [Mike] Woodson and Mr. [Rick] Sund are really doing great things around here, and I'm just happy to be a part of it."
Yes, they were only words, but they were heartfelt. A man who has spent nine NBA seasons without gracing a playoff game sees Atlanta as a place to be if you're talking playoffs. And we see what the past 15 months have meant to this franchise and its standing: Taking the Celtics to a Game 7 caught people's eye, and winning 47 games and beating Miami in Round 1 confirmed that first impression.
Put simply, the Hawks are again a factor. They have a nice roster. (Much of which, yes, was Knight's doing.) Woodson has proved, after years of losing, that he can coach a winner. Sund has taken what Knight started and has applied a gloss of professionalism. The Crawford trade was a beauty, and re-signing Mike Bibby and now Zaza Pachulia were missions the old Hawks invariably botched. Sund aced both.
Not that Sund was dealing from weakness. A Hawk for 17 months, Bibby likes what he sees. He could surely have gotten more money elsewhere, but he took what amounts to a $9 million pay cut to stay with an organization he has come to respect.
Time was, everybody laughed at the Hawks --- we Atlantans hardest of all. Nobody's laughing today. And there's your evidence of a culture change.
The matter of Marvin Williams remains this summer, but we've reason to believe Sund is up to the task. We've reason to believe players like what he's selling --- a nice place to live and work, and also a clear and present opportunity to win. The city that began its life as Terminus is no longer the end of the NBA line. It's a city where the culture of Basketball is imbued with the expectation of success.
So take a bow, Billy Knight, wherever you are.