The Hawks came into the 2004 draft with almost a clean slate. Hawks GM Billy Knight was cleaning house and most, if not all, of any who carried a contract with the Hawks when he was officially named GM was going bye-bye.
To rebuild, Knight had two first rounders to add to 2003 first rounder Boris Diaw. Knight had a simple plan: Add as many ambiguous, interchangeable, long wingmen he could find to create matchup problems for Hawks' opponents.
LEADING UP TO THE DRAFT:
Tanking is the reason the NBA began the lottery system back when the Rockets went into the tank to draft Hakeem Olajuwon. Even though the system seeks to dilute the advantages of the practice, year after year teams do it when having no chance to compete to better their chances at a higher pick.
Every year in the aughts, or so it seemed, the Hawks would get hot in April, winning games that only stripped away valuable percentage points when the inevitable visit to the lottery ball basket came time. 2003-2004 was no exception.
As Knight began to clean house the season before, the Hawks sent Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Theo Ratliff packing for Rasheed Wallace and Wesley Person. Wallace played one game for the Hawks before being sent to Detroit for a series of expiring contracts, including Bob Sura and Zeljko Rebraca.
A team that had won 23 games all season long finished the season 5-5. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers, who won their 23rd game nearly a month before the Hawks did (19 games before), miraculously found their losing rhythm going 5-24 the rest of the way, forging a tie with the Hawks with 28 wins and the third worst record in basketball.
Of course the Clippers, now armed with more lotto ammo, snagged the second overall pick and the Hawks landed at 6th. Blech.
As part of the Rasheed Wallace deal, the Hawks also had the 17th pick in the draft. So now, with two of the top 17 picks in hand, the Hawks had a lot of players coming into the Philips Arena to work out for the team. Almost everyone that ended up being drafted in 2004 came through Philips for a workout.
Everyone, excluding the presumed top two players in the draft, Atlanta's own Dwight Howard, and UConn's Emeka Okafor, came through to work out.
Ben Gordon came in and wowed, getting any shot he wanted against the other competition in the gym. JR Smith came in as a potential pick at #6 and left with the Hawks maybe considering him at 17.
Jameer Nelson showed why he was the top point guard prospect in this draft, and young Al Jefferson showed he had big NBA size, if not the NBA maturity to accompany it.
The Hawks worked out guards, bigs, high schoolers, collegiate players, and international flavor. They could go anywhere with their picks.
Adding to the intrigue was yet another Atlanta high schooler who had played out his HS career at Oak Hill Academy. Josh Smith was renowned for having silly athletic abilities, but raw everywhere else. He had been forecasted by both DraftCity (now DraftExpress) and nbadraft.net as a lottery pick, maybe even the player the Hawks would pick at #6.
LEADING UP TO THE DRAFT
Draft watchers had zeroed in on some obvious targets to coincide with the types of players it was clear Billy Knight was looking to rebuild with: long, athletic, interchangable players.
There was Luol Deng, the long forward from Duke who had a nice career with the Blue Devils. Andre Iguodala, the athletic swingman from Arizona. Shaun Livingston, the 6'7 high school PG with so much promise and playmaking skills. Josh Smith was also in the mix.
As draft day neared, things started to change. The Clippers traded down from #2 to #4 and were said to be sold on Livingston. The Bulls were taken with Gordon and were set to take him at #3.
But what about the Hawks? To his credit, ESPN's Chad Ford came on the morning of the draft and said that the Hawks were looking at someone who hadn't quite been on the radar, someone who's body certainly fit the bill for Billy Knight, but most pundits thought was a late lottery pick at best.
Josh Childress from Stanford.
There was considerable buzz in draft quarters for this draft for the Hawks. I was in denial about the Childress rumors--he was the owner of an awkward shot and certainly seemed like the type of cat that was pretty good at college ball, but was a role player in the NBA. The Hawks didn't need to be drafting role players at #6.
The draft kicked off and Howard went to Orlando and Okafor now to Charlotte. The Bulls took Gordon and then the Clippers did indeed take Livingston.
Now the Wizards were up right before the Hawks. All the versatile swingmen were still there to take and remained as the Wizards selected Devin Harris at #5.
Half the room wanted Deng, the other half Iguodala. Nobody was talking about Childress, yet when the name was announced, Ford was right on the money and the Hawks selected the 6'9 Childress.
There was a definite sense of a miss, maybe because both Deng and Iguodala had been more highly considered for a longer period of the season and leading up to the draft. Getting one of those two may have felt like a steal compared to Childress, who the fans saw as the Hawks reaching to take him.
Time went by. More of the players who had come through the Philips Arena practice floor were getting selected. Jefferson, Kirk Snyder, and Luke Jackson all came off the board and it was time for the Hawks to select at #17.
There were some fans in the room that wanted Nelson, but Jameer never fit the prototype of the kind of player Knight was looking for. He wasn't looking for players that played a certain position on the floor, in fact, it seemed he went out of his way to avoid those players.
It was down to the two Smiths, Josh and JR, both of whom had reportedly impressed the Hawks in their workouts and with their potential.
They both had athleticism galore. JR had the mad range on his jump shot, Josh the fierce ability to finish and block shots, along with about three extra inches in height.
When the pick came in, the Hawks had their hometown upside pick--Josh Smith was a Hawk.
Immediately after the pick, fans thought that Knight had made a steal of a pick, snagging Smith after he sunk to 17. There were boos when ESPN's Jay Bilas declared that "if there was anybody in this draft that would be a bust, it's Smith."
But Smith couldn't have gone to a better franchise to grow up as a man and a basketball player. Being at home versus, say, Minnesota or Utah, and with Billy Knight and new head coach Mike Woodson there to protect him, Smith could ease into the NBA rather than be tossed into the headwinds of culture shock.
As for Childress, he came into town determined to win people over with his personality, smile, and his own athleticism.
Both players broke in as the Hawks lost a league high 69 games their first year and grew as the franchise grew.
Childress actaully started out producing right away, thanks to hitting a high percentage of his shots and putting up solid rate numbers across the board. He offered a 15.2 PER his rookie year and played almost 30 minutes a game.
Smith started equally productive, also sporting a 15+ PER and an incredible block rate (5.4%), playing over 27 minutes per game.
As the Hawks grew, both Childress and Smith improved. Childress increased his PER every season and provided excellent production, even when being relegated to super sixth man in his 4th season in 2007-2008. It was this relegation that led to hard feelings between Childress and his teammates and the front office, who devalued Josh when it came time to negotiate an extension during the 2008 offseason.
Smith, on the other hand, passed Childress in terms of PER and playing time. It was he that got the big contract in 2008, after the Memphis Grizzlies offered Smith a 5 year, 58 million dollar deal. Smith has continued to be the linchpin in the Hawks fortunes throughout a successful playoff run since 2007-2008. He has been maddeningly consistent in his flaws and strengths, and sometimes the good wins out and sometimes the Hawks endure the bad, and often both in the same game.
Childress, unlike Smith, had no such suitor in the NBA to mark his worth. With the extension the Hawks offered believed to be too low, and being unwilling to play out a qualifying offer, Childress did what no rotational player that offseason had done----packed his bags and went to Greece. Childress would stay in exile until 2010-2011 when the Hawks finally gave Childress away to the Phoenix Suns and he signed a long term deal there.
The Childress pick might have worked out fine, had Childress and the Hawks Front Office not reach an impasse during 2008, leaving the Hawks with nothing to show for a top 10 pick.
The Smith pick has worked out as well as any pick since the 1984 selection of Kevin Willis. Though still not able to declare himself an All-Star, Smith was/is integral to the Hawks recent success and is a special talent and still, even with 7 seasons under his belt, has time left to continue to improve if he so chooses. At 25 he is already one of the all-time great Atlanta Hawks and was not, as Jay Bilas had said on draft night, a bust, but quite a steal.