Going into the 2007 draft lottery, the Joe Johnson sign and trade looked like a failure.
That is no indictment on Joe. That is a statement of fact against an ownership that was still suing each other, a coach that created an offense that relied on talent without developing any of that said talent into skill. That is on a GM who over reacted against criticism for taking the best available player (Marvin Williams) by trying to draft based on need (Shelden Williams) all without realizing to fill a need the player needed skill.
But no matter where you want to lay blame, the fact is you don't sign Joe Johnson to a max contract and give up two first round picks that are only top three protected after two years if you think you are going to be the fourth worst team in the league then.
And going into the 2007 draft lottery, two years into the Joe Johnson era, the Hawks were the fourth worst team in the NBA. We had a 13% chance of keeping our pick.
13% chance the rebuild was going to payoff any time soon.
And listen, I went to Hawks games that 06-07 season. I jammed out to DJ Cowboy. I bought my wife a Shelden jersey. I was all in, but honestly, it is hard to describe what it is like to root for a team that periodically did the amazing but never the basic. You certainly can't try to convince your friend to be a fan. You can't sincerely sell someone on that kind of team with a reason other than civic duty. It was fandom that found meaning, not in pride, but in being idiosyncratic And heading into the lottery, we had an 87% chance of watching an impressive group of athletes play 82 games like that night was the first time they had ever been on the same team.
But for once, the Atlanta Hawks got something they didn't deserve. Bucked the odds. Hit on their 13%. Shoot if our team didn't finally get lucky, we got Al Horford.
And from the beginning, with Horford in the fold, the 07-08 season was somehow totally different more while looking like more of the same. The Al Horford mission began immediately. He was like a rebellion from the inside against a culture of "let's hope for the best."
Al was a top three talent, but he was a max player at everything small. I distinctly remember thinking "Man, the way Horford goes for rebounds is noticeably different than anyone else on the team." All of a sudden, Woodson's isolation offense was crisper because of Al's screens. Those fits of amazing that broke up long stretches of inefficient misery started coming around more often.
All because Al could counter his teammates weaknesses with lottery level attention to detail. He started and finished the break like Zaza (all due respect) never could. He hit clutch free throws. He never stopped working hard.
It was a joy from the start.
And you can scoff and say "well, Atlanta only won seven more games that first season," and you would be correct. And yes, we got Bibby and other players improved, but if you watched that first round series against Boston, you would never make such a silly argument. You saw it all.
Because maybe that series happens with just any old number three pick, but I am telling you it doesn't happen like it did without Al Horford.
I could point you to how he bet Paul Pierce $10,000 that the eight seeded Hawks who at the time were getting blown out would win a game against the eventual champs or how Al then taunted Pierce when he made good on that win in a game where he had 17 pts, 14 boards, and 6 assists and hit the basket that put the contest away. After which, all Pierce could do was throw up gang signs.
But really there is no better example of what Al Horford meant to that team and this city than the fact for three games Atlanta showed up. Philips was loud beyond belief. Most of us probably didn't believe we could beat the Celtics but we believed in this team, and if you watched a second of that season, you know that came from Al Horford. Questioned later about how that series went to seven, Kevin Garnett said something to the effect of "Listen, Atlanta fans have never been like that before. It was different."
Game five of that series remains the best Hawks game I have ever seen live. It was the one of Zaza head butts and Joe Johnson fourth quarters, but the moment I will always remember, after KG tried to will the Hawks out of their mental space by picking on the wrong Georgian, that Al Horford happened instead.
He grabbed Zaza away from the skirmish. Wrapped his arm around him in a way that very clearly affirmed Pachulia but calmed him down and then walked both of them back to the bench, methodically demanding the crowd get louder....He was a rookie.
As the years went by, we have seen Horford do all these things in so many different ways. I can't tell you the joy I have experienced watching him cover his teammates mistakes or defend guards he was switched onto better than the Hawks guards ever could. How many times were we able to put up with a coach and ownership, the infuriating personnel choices and implementation, all because we could say "at least we have Al Horford." Worse comes to worse, we have something here worthy of our fan effort, someone who cares as much as we do.
And we could do that every night with number fifteen.
Listen, as is all to clear all too often, the Hawks don't have the history of the Braves or inertia of the NFL complex. And when it comes the NBA, you don't need a local team to feel connect and be a fan. Usually, the only way to be compelled to invest in your city with professional basketball is via a superstar.
We never had these natural onramps with the Hawks, but that means, more so than any other pro team our city has or had, to love the Hawks was to love Atlanta. Being a Hawks fan is literally an act of freedom, a choice of faith. Nothing else pushes you toward this loyalty. It is to have pride in where you live and who you live with precisely because we are in this together.
And over the last eight years, the only way this was possible, the only way to be this kind of fan for any serious amount of time, was to have a tether like Al Horford. We needed someone we knew we could believe in, a player who wanted what we wanted and pursued it every night.
Forget the streak of playoff experiences and the joys of a victory here and there. I love Atlanta more now than I did eight years ago. I care more about downtown than I did eight years ago. I have lived life and become friends with a more diverse group of friends. In the world of business, and sports is certainly that, for eight years, Al Horford worked as hard as he could to make it safe to explore what it means to be a citizen of our city and to have pride in that.
So you want to talk Al Hoford? Let's start with gratitude and thanks. The Boss deserves it.