The exact instructions for this writing exercise was to pick a moment in the last decade that proved to be a pivotal moment in Atlanta Hawks' history. It would be easy to focus on the 2005 NBA Draft and Marvin Williams' selection over Chris Paul and Deron Williams but that topic has been discussed and discussed some more over the years. I'm going to break the rules slightly and go a little further back to talk about a little discussed detail to the Dominique Wilkins trade and the Hawks' playoff history that is seldom discussed.
Just in case it needs restating, Dominique Wilkins was Atlanta Hawks basketball throughout the mid 80s and the early 90s and in many regards is the closest thing to a true superstar that this franchise has ever known. Yet with a contract negotiation looming, Atlanta decided to trade the face of Atlanta basketball to the Los Angeles Clippers on February 24, 1994 along with a first round pick in exchange for Danny Manning who promptly bolted for Phoenix that summer in free agency. It was a rotten trade then and it is still a rotten trade today. Over the years I have come to understand why it happened but there was no consoling me as an 18 year old in 1994.
Now the often overlooked part of the deal. At the time of the trade the Atlanta Hawks were a really good team with a 36-16 record which had them in a first place tie with the Chicago Bulls in the central division. Lenny Wilkens was in his first year as the head coach of the Hawks and he had the team playing at a very high level. Dominique finally had some resemblance of help in the form of Mookie Blaylock, Kevin Willis and Stacey Augman. Not to mention that the Eastern Conference suddenly had a Michael Jordan sized hole in it since he had just left the Bulls to explore a baseball career.
Wilkins was a season and a half removed from his Achilles injury but was still performing at a very high level. His scoring average had "dipped" to 24.4 points per game which in a lot of respects was a good thing as more of his teammates were getting opportunities.
The trade didn't have much of an effect on the Hawks as they went on to win 57 games and tie the New York Knicks for the best record in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta earned the No. 1 seed as the playoffs began but needed a full five games to dispatch the eighth seeded Miami Heat in the first round. The Hawks then bowed out in the second round in six games to Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers.
We will never know if not trading Dominique would have changed history. However, it isn't often throughout history that a team that was contending for the top spot in the conference has jettisoned its leading scorer at the trade deadline. To be fair, Atlanta was just 1-2 with Dominique during the regular season against the Pacers and won the only meeting after the trade before the playoffs so it might not have even mattered.
However, for a team that still hasn't been past the second round of the playoffs since moving to Atlanta, this was the Hawks' opportunity and they chose instead to look to the future when all eyes should have been clearly focused on the present. A title was unlikely with the Houston Rockets looming out west but a trip to the illusive conference finals was within reach not to mention a realistic shot at going to the Finals.