Hawks have talent but no hardened postseason vets among regulars

Look at any NBA championship team and most of their vanquished Finals opponents and notice a common thread.

They have All-Star players, of course, because no one wins big without talent. The Hawks have that as they look to finally make it past the second round of the playoffs.

But those championship teams also had something the Hawks lack among their rotation players, an element they didn’t add at the trade deadline but would get if they are successful in their pursuit of Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

“Young guys can get it done, but I think you’ve got to have some veterans, some strong-minded veterans that have been through some things, sprinkled in there somewhere,” said Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups, who won the 2004 title with the Pistons. “You don’t all have to be 31 [years old], the whole team. But I think you have got to have some vets that demand some respect and have command out there.”

The Lakers had it last season, not just with star Kobe Bryant but other seasoned players who had been under postseason pressure. The Celtics overflowed with those types of players while winning the 2008 Finals.

The Spurs had them in abundance while winning four titles since 1999. The Heat had the same kind of makeup while winning it all in 2006.

“You need to have experience,” said former Knicks center Patrick Ewing, now an assistant coach for the Magic. “If you look at any great team, there is no great team that doesn’t have some veteran leadership on the team.”

The 2008-09 Magic might be the one recent exception in the Finals. But they won the Eastern Conference finals against the Cavaliers, who also didn’t have many players who had spent a lot of time performing on such a big stage (that includes LeBron James).

“I think it has been proven [over time] that that’s what wins, really wins,” said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, the 2006 Finals MVP. “It still holds to this day. When it comes down to winning big in this league, you have to have those veteran guys that can make adjustments on the fly, that have been in those moments and it’s not nothing new to them.”

The Hawks have players who have experienced those moments, but among them, only starting point guard Mike Bibby has been part of coach Mike Woodson’s regular rotation.

Bibby has played 69 playoff games and was a star for the Kings when they advanced to the Western Conference finals in ‘02. Jason Collins leads the Hawks with 75 playoff games and went to the Finals with the Nets in 2002 and ‘03. Joe Smith’s 53 career playoff games include a trip to the Finals with Cleveland last season.

But those veterans are playing career-low minutes for the Hawks, so it’s not clear if they will play a big role for the Hawks in the postseason. Woodson said they might.

“When the playoffs come, they can be a big, significant part of it,” Woodson said. “I haven’t told them that, but I hope they can sense it. In the playoffs, your rotation thins and you tend to play the guys that have done it. They become more valuable in the playoffs.”

Other than Bibby and Mo Evans, the Hawks’ regulars are relative playoff neophytes.

Evans, the top wing player off the bench, has played in 45 postseason games and is the only Hawks rotation player aside from Bibby to advance as far as a conference final. But Evans averaged only 6.3 minutes as the Pistons advanced to the 2006 East finals and his minutes this season are down from last season with the Hawks.

The Hawks added Smith and Collins this season and also Jamal Crawford, who has never played in the postseason.

“I know that good, veteran players, the right pieces of the puzzle, can help you win games,” Woodson said. “It doesn’t always have to be a ‘home-run’ veteran. You just need pieces, guys that have been around the block and been in winning situations and know how to play a little bit.”

Ilgauskas, who is seeking a buyout from the Wizards, fits that mold. The Hawks would like to sign him when he’s released, but they don’t necessarily think they need to add a player with his background to the rotation.

In addition to Woodson’s belief that he can get something in the playoffs from Bibby, Smith and Collins, the Hawks believe they’ve been developing postseason toughness with their younger players.

“It can be both,” Ewing said.

The Hawks went eight years without playing in the postseason. They then lost a seven-game series to eventual champion Boston in 2008. After beating the Heat in the first round last season, they were swept by Cleveland.

Considering the Hawks are a relatively young team, it could be that one day in the near future they are in the Finals and talking about how it all started with those experiences.

“You can do it that way,” Billups said. “You never know how it will turn out. But I am sure [the Hawks] can get it done like that because they’ve got a great nucleus. And they’ve got some veterans sprinkled in there.”