At this moment, only four members of the Atlanta Hawks have been immortalized with retired numbers that hang from the rafters at Philips Arena. Dominique Wilkins (No. 21), Bob Pettit (No. 9), Lou Hudson (23), and Dikembe Mutombo (No. 55) are the four players who have been given the honor and, now, Chris Vivlamore of the AJC brings word that Pete Maravich (No. 44) will join them in the near future. On the surface, this may seem like a run of the mill gesture, but it actually could (or even should) mean quite a bit for two contemporary Atlanta Hawks stars in Joe Johnson and Al Horford.
When Maravich comes to mind through the prism of the Hawks, the iconic blue and green jersey (still popular to this day) is likely the first image. Beyond that, “Pistol Pete” is one of the game’s icons for his flashy play, seemingly unlimited range and overall level of fame. However, Maravich spent less than half of his NBA career with the Hawks organization, playing in only 302 games.
During his time in Atlanta, Maravich was highly productive. The talented guard averaged 24.3 points, 5.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 37.2 minutes) per game and that was good for an 18.9 PER if you want to use a modern metric. It should be noted that Maravich’s early career did not exist with the benefit of a three-point line that almost certainly would have aided his play, but he was still a two-time All-Star over a four-year span in Atlanta and Maravich was quite a player.
Still, his overall impact on the Hawks franchise is very much up for debate. Atlanta made the playoffs in three of his four seasons, but the team lost all three first-round battles and he was unable to lead the team deep in the postseason. It is (quite) important to note that Maravich did not have the best supporting cast during that stretch in the early 1970’s, but it remains significant in terms of quantifying his contribution to the Hawks overall.
Why am I laying all of this out? Well, the Atlanta Hawks may have a bit of a retired number “problem”. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t hurt to open the flood gates a bit with regard to the honor and each organization has a different threshold for doing so. In fact, Dikembe Mutombo is the most recent inductee, and he faces similar issues to Maravich.
Mutombo played in only 343 games as a member of the Hawks, and while he was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, the big man reached an All-NBA team once during his tenure. Was Mutombo a phenomenal player and one of the best defensive big men of all time? Absolutely. In the same breath, it would be easy to argue that he made a bigger impact elsewhere and less than one-third of Mutombo’s career was spent in an Atlanta uniform.
Fast-forward to a half-decade (or more) from now and the Hawks could be facing interesting decisions on two now-departed players and, for me, they just became less interesting. Joe Johnson and Al Horford, by the baseline established of inducting both Mutombo and Maravich, should have their numbers retired and it isn’t particularly close.
Johnson arrived at a moribund time for the franchise and was at the center of a reclamation project that ultimately helped to lead the team forward in competency. The swingman reached six consecutive All-Star games from 2007 through 2012, while averaging 20.9 points, 5.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game over 508 appearances. Atlanta reached the playoffs in each of his final five seasons as the “go-to” player offensively, and Johnson’s cumulative value rather comfortably exceeds that of Maravich or, arguably, Mutombo.
As for Horford, I would argue the case is even simpler. The current Celtics big man played his first nine seasons with the Hawks, reaching the All-Star game on four occasions and earning an All-NBA nod. His per-game averages are less spectacular in the scoring department (14.4 points) but Horford averaged 8.8 rebounds per game with a 19.1 PER that jumps to 19.8 PER when removing his rookie campaign in a lesser role.
More importantly, Horford was arguably the best player on the best team in Atlanta Hawks history, as the team zoomed to 60 wins during the 2014-2015 campaign. Beyond that, Horford’s run as a Hawk never included a single season in which the team missed the playoffs and he participated in more games (578, not including playoffs) than Maravich, Mutombo or even Johnson.
Does any of this matter? That is certainly a question that will be asked and with good reason. It certainly is not some monumental insult to any player involved that they would or would not be included, but the Hawks have lowered the bar for inclusion, even if subconsciously.
Pete Maravich and Dikembe Mutombo are both significantly more famous on the grand scale than Joe Johnson and Al Horford. That isn’t up for debate. What has to be said, though, is that both Johnson and Horford had lengthier, more impactful tenures with the Atlanta Hawks franchise and that, one would assume, would be enough to cross the barrier for entry.
Much of the fan base likely wants nothing to do with either Johnson or Horford, who are both still active, being recognized as Atlanta Hawks greats and that makes some sense to an extent. If you look beyond the hurt of Horford’s strange exit and Johnson’s uninspiring disposition, it is clear that both were tremendous players while wearing Atlanta Hawks uniforms and No. 15 and No. 2 should be retired.
At least if we’re playing under the same rules that netted Maravich and Mutombo the same honor.