Danny Ferry knows what he’s doing, and I haven’t always said that about every Atlanta Hawks general manager. (And I’ve known five.) I don’t doubt that Adreian Payne fits what the Hawks want to do. Strange as this might sound, that’s my problem with them picking Adreian Payne.
If you’d asked me at noon Thursday, “Among players apt to be available at No. 15, who’s most Hawks-like?”, I’d have said Adreian Payne. He’s big and he can shoot 3-pointers. The Hawks like their big guys to shoot 3-pointers. Paul Millsap does it. Pero Antic does it. Mike Scott does it. Even Al Horford hoisted 11 treys in the 29 games before he got hurt, the same Al Horford who’d tried 18 in his first six NBA seasons.
By design, this is what the Hawks have become — a team that spaces the floor and values shooting above every other skill. (Not that they aren’t high on passing.) Coach Mike Budenholzer is believed to be even a bigger proponent of shooting than Ferry, which is saying something. As we know, Ferry and Budenholzer apprenticed in San Antonio, the organization that wrote the pilot film on NBA floor-spacing, and we can’t say the Spurs’ Way doesn’t work. It just won an NBA title.
But I keep recalling the Hawks’ Round 1 loss to Indiana, which was very nearly a Round 1 upset of a No. 1 seed. The Hawks had better shooters at four of the five starting positions, and it took Indiana two weeks to get the Hawks’ shooters to miss. (Or maybe the shooters’ arms just got tired. Whatever the cause, the Hawks missed 59 of 79 treys in Games 6 and 7.) The Hawks were the smarter and more skilled team, but they lost in seven games.
(OK, so maybe they’d have won with Horford. Then again, they wouldn’t have been a No. 8 seed with Horford.)
What became clear in Game 6 and especially Game 7 was that smarts and shooting, as laudable as those qualities are, had their limits. Even in their addled state, the Pacers were bigger and faster. At shooting guard and small forward, the Hawks had Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll, two proud pros who weren’t starting for their previous employers. The Pacers had Lance Stephenson and Paul George, who have their excesses but are massively talented.
In a conversation Tuesday morning, Ferry spoke of the system he has built. Then he said this: “But players have to play the game.” Yes, they do. And the Hawks, for all the strides, don’t yet have a full complement of truly talented players.
My hope for the Hawks in this draft — other than Joel Embiid, who was mostly a pipe dream given the Hawks’ draft position and whose broken foot gives me pause — was that they’d exercise the 15th pick on someone who could play a wing and run the floor and lend this team the quickness it lacks. Someone, in sum, who would do for the Hawks what Kawhi Leonard — the newly crowned NBA finals MVP — does for the Spurs. (FYI, Kawhi Leonard was the No. 15 pick of the 2011 draft.)
Instead the Hawks took another big guy who can shoot the 3. Payne does have some low-post moves, but he’s not a great defender. (At 6-foot-10, he blocked only 28 shots in 31 games last season. Indeed, he didn’t lead Michigan State in scoring, rebounding or blocks.) Even as we note that MSU is among the nation’s best programs, Payne’s senior class just became the first not to make a Final Four under Tom Izzo. Let’s also note that the last Spartans to hit big in the NBA were Zach Randolph and Jason Richardson, both of whom exited in 2001.
Again, I understand the rationale: The Hawks chose to add strength to strength. I’d liked to have seen them address a weakness. I’d have preferred Rodney Hood of Duke or Gary Harris, who was Payne’s college teammate. (I wasn’t as high on James Young of Kentucky — doesn’t pass and hasn’t guarded anybody yet.) But the guy who really intrigued me was Kyle Anderson, the 6-9 UCLA product who’s listed as a power forward but who has point-guard skill.
There were doubts about Anderson’s quickness, which is the reason there are also doubts about his defense. (I know this is going against my draft-for-quickness platform, but hear me out.) He’s a great passer and a good shooter and matchup nightmare, attributes the Hawks obviously like. He came to Atlanta for two private workouts, and the Hawks mustn’t have liked what they saw the second time. And other teams surely had doubts: Anderson wouldn’t be taken until the 30th pick, the last of Round 1.
And what team wound up taking him? The San Antonio Spurs. The Hawks’ model. Wouldn’t you know it?