In the 80s, team building was much more important than what we see in the current NBA. A lot of thought had to be put into it to bring success, the right ingredients team-wise. Since everyone had the same goal, obviously, not everyone would reach the pinnacle of the sport. So this post will take a look at a forgotten also-ran of the era in the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks. But before we get to that point, let’s take a look at how the other top teams in the East built at the time. We will not mention the glory team of the decade(the LA Lakers), not out of any bias but simply because they are in the Western Conference. With that, let us proceed.
In the 80s, the East was generally considered the best conference. For most of the decade, several significant teams made a run for the top. They were the great(Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit), the near-great(The Milwaukee Bucks), the soon-to-be great (The Chicago Bulls), and who I call the “strivers.” The last set of teams varied, but generally, they were the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland, and the Washington Bullets. First, let us take a look at how the team building went on.
Boston– After an unexpected fall from grace in 1976, the Celtics drafted good (Cedric Maxwell), great(Larry Bird), and deftly took advantage of experience and mismanagement on the Detroit Pistons. Boston’s GM Red Auerbach ( a master manipulator) found the perfect pigeon in the emotional Coach/ Gm Dick Vitale. Signing M.L. Carr, Auerbach as the compensation offered up every single player except the one he didn’t want, Bob McAdoo. Taking the bait, Vitale demanded McAdoo, and the Pistons promptly fell apart on cue. Bottoming out at 16-66 in 1980, Detroit handed their number one draft pick in the nation(Apart of the deal) to Boston. The Celtics, again playing everyone as essential fools, would declare they wanted Joe Barry Carroll and then used that to leverage a pick (#3 ) and a player (Robert Parish) that would make Boston the team in the East for nearly a decade. Again, Boston used its tradition, a scarce talent (Mr. Bird), and built a strong foundation around both.
Philadelphia 76ers– If Boston used its culture, its ancient rivals used something just as powerful. Hiring the respected Pat Williams in 1974, the Sixers would buy the best talent money could offer (George McGinnis and the awesome Julius Erving). As a result, a 9-73 outfit would turn it around in a short time, reaching the 1977 NBA Finals. Later, hoping to retain the edge, the Sixers would move McGinnis and then build a roster complimenting the spectacular talent of Erving. A title(1983) would result, and a decade of elite play would conclude with the Doc’s departure in 1987.
Detroit– As mentioned above, the Celtics essentially built their third generation of champions through negligence and incompetence on the part of the Detroit brass. So, what did the Pistons do? First, they hired a competent GM. John “Trader Jack” McCloskey knew exactly what type of team he wanted, but he didn’t know who his foundation would be. That is until he saw the 1981 NCAA tournament and a little jitterbug named Isiah Thomas. McCloskey was sold, but Thomas as a featured player carried immense risk. For one, he was 6-1 ( a champion had never before been built by a man this small), and Thomas’s demanding nature(like his old coach Bobby Knight) meant that you had to surround him with the correct type of talent for his skills to shine truly. That took a while, but the Pistons hit the jackpot(and Thomas’s soulmate) in 1985. Joe Dumars of McNeese state was the perfect player to compliment Thomas. Thomas was emotional, Dumars reserved. Thomas was respected but also somewhat unlikeable, while Dumars was immensely likable. He was also an elite scorer and defender, and his addition made the Pistons an elite team in the East within two years.
The near Great- Milwaukee Bucks
By 1980, the Bucks had pulled off the near impossible. They had spent a decade in the Western Conference, but enough misfortune had taken place that may have wrecked other franchises in that time. Its great transplant Oscar Robertson had retired, and a year later, who shipped franchise anchor Kareem Abdul Jabbar to the LA Lakers. Yet, despite losing two greats, the Bucks not only remained competitive, but they were also moving East as a potential contender. How? In a word, “Nellie.” Going against the Philly – Detroit- Boston model, the Bucks had built their franchise around their dynamic young coach Donald Arvid Nelson. Nellie would in time become known as a great innovator, inventing the “point forward” and essentially position less basketball(check the 1991 Golden State-San Antonio playoff match, in which Nellie went with the ridiculous lineup of 6-5 Sarunas Marciulionius to counter the young 7-1 phenom, David Robinson). Nelson could certainly coach, but he seemed to fall in love with his coaching ability than the output of his teams. Though he did have two Hall of Famers (Jack Sikma and an aging Bob Lanier) at the center, he preferred to play the matchup game. This didn’t work in the 80s, and the Bucks usually lost to either Boston or Philadelphia. Nelson would finally wear his welcome out in the mid-80s and was gone after one more close defeat to the declining Celtics in the 1987 playoffs.
The soon to be great: Chicago Bulls
The Bulls essentially followed the Piston model with modifications. When the great GM Jerry Krause arrived on March 25th, 1985, he had two players(Dave Corzine and Michael Jordan) that he wanted. No one else was interested in it, so the search begins for OKP(Our Kinda Players). But, like with Thomas, building around Jordan has enormous challenges. For one, no team had ever been built around a shooting guard, and Jordan’s demanding nature and style required a certain kind of player. You had to be great inability but avoid the spotlight. That seemed near impossible until Scottie Pippen showed out at the combines in the 1987 draft. Krause was hooked, and like Dumars, Pippen became the perfect complement to Jordan. Jordan was polished, image consciousness, Pippen shy and emotional. But he was an elite scorer and would emerge as the most versatile defender of his generation. But their time would be the 90s; for the 80s, the Bulls went from a badly built team in the mid-80s to an exciting conference finalist with the games marquee player by its end. Impressive. So what about the Atlanta Hawks?
Atlanta Hawks: Building from ground zero
For a brief moment, it looked like Atlanta, not Detroit, would replace Boston as the best team in the East. They didn’t, but the question of why goes back to 1976, when they hired the mercurial Hubert Jude “Hubie” Brown. Brown was a typical choice of his time. He was brash, had coached an ABA champion, and was a near master tactician(he, to me, as an announcer, is the John Madden of the NBA, he is THAT good), always thinking 4 or 5 moves ahead of the opposition. Even better, this was the era of the “system coach” where coaches sold their “systems” as unbeatable if executed properly. This, of course, was built in protection against personal failure, but the press bought it, and Brown(save Jack Ramsey) was the greatest coach salesman around. Atlanta got better, and Brown would win coach of the year in 1978. But then the problems arose. Brown would be among the first batch to “overcoach,” and his overwhelming, demanding personality would wear thin on his players. He would be fired in 1981, replaced by the laissez-faire Kevin Loughery(ironically Jordan’s initial coach in the pros). Loughery’s laid-back style did not impress ownership, and they thus fired him and went to Brown’s old friend Mike Fratello. Fratello was a much better choice. Like Brown, he knew the game. He was a master tactician(as any NBA fan can attest to the way he breaks down a game ), and he was an exceptional dresser. Even better, he inherited a dynamic youngster named Jacques Wilkins, who went by his middle name Dominique. Wilkins was effectively the first of the high style above the rim 80s superstars, but he had a checkered reputation even then. Unlike Jordan(or Thomas), it was thought Wilkins had been under-coached in college, with his game almost 100% athleticism. It was said that Wilkins could play neither defense nor a half-court game, that he was uncoachable. Fratello, young, enthusiastic, and affable, assured everyone that Wilkins would become an elite player and the Hawks would thrive. So what happened?
Well, for a time, it appeared that the Hawks would make good on Fratello’s promise. The Hawks took a step back and then a giant leap forward to near greatness. In 1986, they made a 16 game improvement, and although it’s shocking today, Wilkins would capture the scoring title first before Jordan. He averaged 30.3 points a game and nearly unseated Bird for league MVP. Then, the Hawks defeated the rising Pistons in 4 games to play the Celtics. Now, the Hawks looked like a sub 500 team, losing the first 3 games. They won an emotional game 4, but in the process p….. the Celtics off. Celtic coach K.C. Jones had to cancel early at the very next practice because he thought his team would kill each other(“The intensity level was just incredible”). This set the stage for one of the most embarrassing team moments in NBA history. In-game 5, for the first half, the Hawks looked like an inferior team. They didn’t even look like they belonged in the NBA in the third quarter, much less the playoffs. Celtic guard Danny Ainge thought he was in basketball bliss, and for years he would pull out his tape and watch just the 3rd quarter of game 5. Here’s why. The Celtics went on a 24-0 run(36-6 for the quarter) to utterly destroy the Hawks. Fratello was impressed (“In that situation, you just use all your timeouts; The league doesn’t allow trades at this moment”). Despite the humiliation, Wilkins was a bona fide superstar, Fratello was the coach of the year, and the Hawks looked like the next big thing. What happened?
Despite being destroyed, the following year saw more growth. The Hawks would win 57 games, Wilkins looked under control, and the Sports Illustrated did a cover story called the Hawk guards(Doc Rivers and Randy Whitman), the best in the East beside Dennis Johnson and Ainge. By now, the Hawks had two slam dunk champs(Wilkins and Spud Webb), an outstanding rebounder(Kevin Willis), and a deep team. They looked very well come playoff time, defeating 7th seeded Indiana and then drew Detroit in a second-round rematch. With the Celtics now vulnerable to injury, Atlanta’s good road record(best in the East), this now seemed to be Atlanta’s best chance at a real breakthrough. Isiah Thomas, though, disagreed. The Piston guard put on two spectacular performances ( 24 points in the 3rd quarter of game 3 and a buzzer-beater in game 4) that sent the Hawks home in 5 shocking games. Boston proved to be on literally its last leg, and Detroit would close out the decade as the best team in the East. And the Hawks?
1988-90- Last attempts to fly
Now, the Hawks begin to crash. First, they took a step back to the middle of the pack. Elsewhere, Detroit was elite, and Chicago was rising as the Celtics were nearing a senior’s home. Next, the Hawks would lose much of its popularity as Wilkins would lose the slam dunk competition to Jordan. And then in the playoffs, they lost to the now badly fading Celtics after taking a 3-2 series lead. And, of course, Nique would put up a brilliant 47 against the Celtics in game 7, but Bird would get 20 in the 4th quarter as the Celtics won a close game 118-116. Worse, Kevin Willis would miss the entire next season, and the Hawks would make a disastrous choice in free agency. As we have seen, the Bulls and Pistons surrounded their superstar with talent that fits their game. The Hawks went now after talent that did not fit Wilkins. As a result, by the summer of 1988, Wilkins talked about players in the league besides Jordan. But whereas Jordan was near-total supremacy league-wide, Wilkins was about to become an afterthought at 28 years old.
Two older men: Malone and Theus
For the first half of the decade, Moses Eugene Malone was the premier center in the league. He would capture three MVPS and be the final piece as the 76ers captured the 1983 world championship. Malone, though, had aged overnight. He had bad knees, and by 1986 management concluded that he was 31 with a 50-year-old body. He would be dispatched to Washington, who would let him play out his contract and then announced they didn’t want him back in 1988. Without a job, the Hawks were very interested in seeing if a Malone- Wilkins tandem could do what Erving- Malone did. Also, the Hawks picked up ex-all star Reggie Theus to give the team more scoring. There were two problems with this. First, Wilkins didn’t need scorers. What he really needed were shooters and defenders. So instead, he got two me first players(Malone, especially, had little grasp of his player mortality, and he lacked respect for Wilkins the way he did Erving). Second, though Malone and Theus could obviously play, neither wanted to be a complementary piece to Wilkins. As a result, a highly talented team on paper fell even further back, and then Fratello started whispering. He’d tell anyone who listened that Wilkins was too selfish to win a title, and the added pressure begin to wear and put further strain on him. He claimed he had not one but three offenses: Nique Ball, Doc ball, and Mo Ball. He also wished that Theus never joined on(he was gone after one year to expand Orlando). Now, as the Pistons made history and the Bulls excelled, by 1990, the Hawks would suffer the ultimate embarrassment of not even making the postseason. Fratello was canned, and despite winning his second slam dunk title, Wilkins was never again seen as one of the faces of the NBA. Instead, he’d become a journeyman himself and now is remembered more for the style than any real substance.
This post is 30 years coming. I had a conversation on draft day 1991 with my father, and he told me that I should respect the NBA that Jordan was now dominating. Bitter about Jordan’s first title at the expense of my Lakers, I searched for solutions. Already deep into history, I mentioned several superstars around the league (K. Malone, Ewing, Robinson), and my pops said that they had to earn the respect that Jordan was commanding. I then asked about Nique. He said Nique already blew his chance and was a real concerned about his commitment to winning. This was shocking coming from my father, as I knew he revered Julius Erving, and I always saw Wilkins like that. Thus, I studied more about this Hawk era.