Twenty-four hours before Joe Johnson donned his Brooklyn whites to properly introduce the NBA to Kings County, Devin Harris stood in his stead, name in bold, Hawks uniform neatly tucked.
It was a curious situation, one that will endure throughout the 2012-13 season in Atlanta: The new quietly filling the voids of the old.
On Friday night against the Houston Rockets, it was the transient veteran Harris who jogged out during introductions for the two-guard role. Lights shifted from side to side, music blared and the public address announcer elongated the vowels in the guard’s name like PA announcers are wont to do.
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But he said Devin Harris instead of Joe Johnson, and that turned out to be an issue for the first time. For when the lights came on and the new-look Hawks stared down the barrel of a bearded shotgun, they had no one to prevent him from pulling the trigger. Rockets guard James Harden began scoring at will.
With Johnson — and the remaining $89.3 million remaining on his contract — safely tucked 900 miles away, the Hawks operated without their star for the first time since the 2004-05 season. In other words, Harden could not have picked a better night to make his first career start in Philips Arena.
Harden drove left. Harden drove right. He knocked down pull-up, mid-range jump shots. He dunked. He did it all on the offensive end, blinding the Hawks with efficiency from 25 feet and in, and no matter which player coach Larry Drew sent out to check Harden, there were obvious personnel deficiencies.
Harden finished with a career-high 45 points and seven rebounds, pouring in 18 fourth-quarter points to trounce a 16-point Atlanta comeback. There was one standout guard on the Hawks’ home floor Friday night, and, for the first time in seven seasons, he wasn’t representing the home team.
“We threw a couple of different things defensively that weren’t very effective,” Drew said. “We tried zoning him some, which I though at times it had an effect, but in the long haul we just didn’t do a good job collectively.”
After Harris, came Lou Williams. Then DeShawn Stevenson. Then Harris again. Williams. Stevenson. Williams. Stevenson. Zone defense. Jeff Teague. Josh Smith. Double teams.
Harden solved it all.
If there was an answer for his scoring proficiency, Drew was playing a probability game that he would find the solution. In 40 minutes of playing time, Harden, who joined the Rockets just last week following a blockbuster deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder, saw, at the very least, eight different looks defensively.
Each look was quickly discarded for a new approach. On and on, et cetera et cetera.
As much as Hawks fans came to despise the term “max contract” with Johnson, the highest-paid basketball player in Atlanta Friday — Harden signed a five-year, $80 million deal with Houston after the trade — played up to it.
“He’s at his best when the floor is spread like that. They’ve got shooters, they set screens, they get their bodies on people and, you know, as I said, not only can he make shots but he can draw fouls. I believe he got to the line 17 times tonight, I think we only got to the line 17 times. … But this is the NBA, and we’re gonna face guys who are prolific scorers.”
The question: Will the Hawks be able to stop them?
When new general manager Danny Ferry dealt six-time All-Star guard Joe Johnson to Brooklyn, it was deemed a front office home run.
For all of his gifts, Johnson was not the superstar worthy of being the fifth-highest paid player in the league. That $120 million deal was never a brilliant move. The adjective “overpaid” made its way into a lot of columns after that. It was thought to be immovable — what team would take on that type of financial burden for a ball-dominant 17.8 points per game?
Well, the Nets were moving to a new arena in a new location, and they had to convince a star of their own (point guard Deron Williams) to stick around. If Ferry capitalized on their desperation, then so be it. He was lauded as a genius, flipping Johnson and forward Marvin Williams in separate trades for veterans and expiring contracts, setting the Hawks up for future cap flexibility and potential runs at available superstars.
And that might all very well be in play.
However, this current Hawks roster is an unknown commodity — “It’s a work in progress,” Smith said — and its season opener was essentially a Powerpoint presentation outlining its deficiencies.
As tiring as the team’s isolation-based offense became with Johnson leading the way, the aptly dubbed “Iso-Joe” attack, perhaps his most overlooked qualities were his (and Williams’, for that matter) skills on the opposite end of the court. He’s 6-foot-7, a steady rebounder and solid defender. Surveying the Hawks starters and bench players, there aren’t too many of those guys loitering under Drew’s nose.
In fact, there are none.
Aside from the Harden fiasco, the Hawks were out-rebounded 58-36 by the Rockets. Houston’s guards alone nabbed six offensive boards, a sure sign of an undersized roster still learning how to close out defensive possessions. When Jeremy Lin, a solid guard but perhaps the least athletic player on the court, swoops in to snag five offensive rebounds, there are matters to attend to.
“Giving up 17 offensive rebounds in the first half, and then I think for the total was like 23, somewhere around that area, you’re really not going to give yourself a good opportunity to win. You’ve gotta get in there and get a rebound,” Smith said. “All those guards were crashing. They were shooting a lot of 3-point shots so a lot of long rebounds were being made. We just gotta be able to find a body, box them out and limit them to one opportunity.”
The problems for this Atlanta team were always going to reside on the defensive end of the floor — Drew even flew out to Israel in September to learn about juggling small lineups from Russian national team coach David Blatt — for simultaneously playing two guards 6-foot-3 or shorter (Teague, Harris, Williams) is a recipe for points allowed in the NBA.
Offensively, Johnson was hardly missed, save for a few discombobulated possessions down the stretch which, in past years, would have been plays designed for his hands alone.
Atlanta’s guards combined for 45 points on 17-of-37 shooting. Harris got off to a fast start before sputtering, but Williams picked up the slack in the closing minutes. Even Stevenson, a player needed most for his defensive presence (although Harden abused him without mercy this particular outing), got into the act, knocking down four 3-pointers while the team’s designated shooters were either cold (Kyle Korver, 0-for-3) or did not play (Anthony Morrow).
No, offense is certainly not the issue.
“I’ve said it all along, I don’t think from an individual standpoint you’re going to be able to shut guys down,” Drew said of his personnel. “But collectively, as a team, you’ve got to be on the same page.”
Obvious attributes forever resided at the forefront of any Joe Johnson evaluation: the contract, the scoring numbers, the attention. But, perhaps in some small paradox, those are the aspects and attributes that the Hawks will miss least in 2012-13.
His rebounding, his defense and, hell, his sheer size might be the most glaring absences as Drew and Ferry plunge forward for 81 more games.
Harris, the bolded name in the starting rotation, did not single-handedly bear the weight of Johnson’s shadow. He had plenty of help. He was not forced to answer for the team’s shortcomings in the locker room, like most of the league’s stars are required to do — he ducked out prior to the media invasion. There’s many of them now, scores of scorers trying (perhaps in vain) to fill No. 2’s void.
The Hawks’ two-guard position is no longer isolated.
At a certain point this season, though, Atlanta might reminisce on the days when it was.