Knight to step down after leading Hawks out of playoff drought

ATLANTA -- Billy Knight says he's leaving the Atlanta Hawks "in much better shape than it was in when I took over."

Knight stuck to his slow, often painful plan to build with youth. The plan meant enduring repeated last-place finishes, but the Hawks showed steady if slow improvement and finally ended a nine-year playoff drought this season.

Knight's critics have said the Hawks' climb to the playoffs wouldn't have taken so long if the general manager had enjoyed more consistent success with his high draft picks.

Knight, who announced Wednesday he's stepping down July 1 as general manager after six years in Atlanta, leaves with a mixed track record.

The good: Knight brought guards Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby to Atlanta in trades. He scored big by landing Josh Smith with a late 2004 first-round pick and rookie of the year runner-up Al Horford with the No. 3 pick last year.

The bad: Knight also brought free-agent bust Speedy Claxton to the Hawks' backcourt two years ago. He drafted Marvin Williams instead of point guards Chris Paul or Deron Williams with the No. 2 pick of the 2005 draft.

Williams was a steady starter for Utah this season but Paul emerged as an All-Star and MVP runner-up for New Orleans.

More bad: At a time point guard and center remained the team's glaring needs, Knight chose forward Shelden Williams with the fifth pick in the 2006 draft.

NBA front-office sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein that former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Billy King will be a strong candidate to replace Knight with the Hawks. Sources said Atlanta is also likely to ask the San Antonio Spurs for permission to speak with Spurs assistant general manager Dennis Lindsey.

Michael Gearon Jr., one of the Hawks' owners, said it was Knight's decision, not the owners', for the GM to resign.

Gearon also said Knight's resignation does not affect any decision to be made with coach Mike Woodson.

"You cannot tie the two together," Gearon told The Associated Press. "Frankly, this was not a decision by us, it was a decision by Billy."

Gearon said he had no list of candidates to replace Knight "because this was unexpected."

Knight said it was time to "take a break" following an often rocky tenure in Atlanta.

Most recently, Knight's authority appeared to be weakened when he lobbied unsuccessfully with the owners to fire Woodson this season.

The Hawks, absent from the playoffs since 1999, lost in the first round to the heavily favored Boston Celtics in seven games. Over six years, Knight played the lead role in rebuilding the Hawks and ended the NBA's longest playoff drought.

Knight, 55, rebuilt the roster with younger players. The Hawks were 37-45 in the regular season to earn the No. 8 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

"I am tremendously pleased with what we were able to accomplish this season in reaching the postseason, as the Hawks' return to the playoffs energized the city and our franchise," Knight said in a statement. "My passion for the franchise has never wavered."

Knight's best draft pick, rookie of the year runner-up Al Horford, provided much-needed inside toughness as a starting center.

Knight's last trade helped give the Hawks their final push to the playoffs. He traded Shelden Williams as part of a package of players for Bibby, who provided leadership for Smith, Josh Childress and Marvin Williams.

Knight went to ownership to discuss a coaching change after acquiring Bibby. Gearon and the ownership group stuck with Woodson.

Woodson said he learned of Knight's resignation "when I walked in my office" on Wednesday morning.

"That's all I know right now," Woodson said. "I'm trying to get some details on what's going on and what happened. They just told me and I'm trying to reach ownership group to see what's going on."

Woodson did not return e-mail or phone messages Wednesday afternoon.

Knight said Woodson and the coaching staff "are most deserving of the praise and accolades they earned during a tough, seven-game series against the Eastern Conference's top team entering the playoffs, and I wish them and the Hawks organization the very best in the future."

Knight's biggest trade was acquiring Johnson from Phoenix in a 2005 deal for Boris Diaw and two first-round picks.

Johnson has been a two-time All-Star in Atlanta, but the deal was so controversial it splintered the ownership group. The dispute between Boston-based Steve Belkin, who thought the Hawks gave up too much in the deal, and the other owners remains unsettled.

Knight was the general manager of the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies before he was hired as Hawks' director of basketball operations before the 2002-03 season. Knight was promoted to general manager after Pete Babcock was fired in 2003.

Information from ESPN.com's Marc Stein and The Associated Press were used in this report.