Friday, August 3, 2012

The Hawks Blog: Off-season Update

Hawks Off-Season Notes

Before putting away talk of the NBA and the Hawks for the rest of the summer and moving on to the pennant races, college football, and the NFL I felt it was necessary to go over the different transactions the Hawks have made since they were eliminated from the playoffs. This is because the Hawks have made some dramatic changes in the past couple of months. I don’t have time to go into great detail about each move, but I did want to make a few comments, as this has been a tremendously exciting time. 

Regardless of how things turn out for the Hawks in the future, we will likely always look back at the summer of 2012 as being a crucial turning point in the organization’s history. That’s not hyperbole. The majority of sports fans may not understand this, but for a lot of Hawks fans the past few weeks have been almost too good to be true. To the rest of the country the Hawks may appear simply to be rebuilding. For those in Atlanta and the surrounding areas, it’s much more than that. 

Those well versed in Atlanta sports know that its history has mostly been a tale of futility, failure, and humiliation. Still, even lifelong fans of Atlanta teams can look to recent local history for hope. Consider how fortunes changed for the Atlanta Braves when Bobby Cox took over in the dugout and John Schuerholz took over as GM. Or look at how different things have been for the Atlanta Falcons since Arthur Blank bought the team from the Smith family.    

This isn’t to say that the Hawks will become consistent contenders for the championship. It’s entirely possible that the Hawks won’t have any more success over the next decade than they’ve had throughout their time in Atlanta (longtime fans will guard against expecting anything different). But no matter what happens we’ll at least be able to look back on this period and say that after years of dysfunction, mismanagement, and settling for mediocrity the Hawks were finally and unexpectedly willing to try something different. 

So now that I’ve convinced you of the significance of the changes over the last couple of months, let’s take a look at those transactions, both major and minor. 

May 18th Exercised 2012-2013 option on head coach Larry Drew. 

Comments: I discussed this in detail in an earlier post. Originally I wasn’t too enthused about it. For one, it seemed like the Hawks were once again acting like they were satisfied with being a good team. Also, the lame duck coach thing rarely works out well. And most importantly, with GM Rick Sund not sure if he would return next season, it seemed counterproductive to sign a head coach, as GM candidates generally like to make their own call as to who the head coach will be. 

I’m still not sold on Drew as a head coach, but looking back on it now I think going ahead and retaining Drew for one more season (at least) was the right move. With the GM situation as cloudy as it was, it makes sense to ensure that at least you have a head coach in place. And it’s not like they were hiring a new coach to a new contract before hiring a GM. 

Most importantly, keeping Larry Drew on as coach didn’t keep the Hawks from making the best hire at GM they could have hoped for.  Drew has one more year left on his current deal, and if Danny Ferry wants to go in a different direction after next season he can just not rehire Larry Drew. 

I feel like Ferry’s arrival and his aggressive approach so far have also taken the whole lame duck coach thing out of the scenario. The players know that Drew is only assured of one more season, but it’s not like they can tune him out, because Ferry’s going to be around a while. I never got the sense it was like that before. 

It’s going to be a very different team next year, so we may actually learn more about Larry Drew than we have in the past 2 seasons. Also, it’s good to have some stability amidst all of this change. Plus, I’m not sure there’s really a super coach out there who would have been available. Ferry will know much more about Larry Drew a year from now, and he’ll know the team a lot better, and by that time if he wants to make a move he’ll have a better idea of the type of guy he wants to go after. 

June 25th Danny Ferry hired as president of basketball operations and general manager. 

Comments: For me, hiring Ferry as GM was a very pleasant surprise. It’s not that I thought of Ferry as some genius sure-thing. Actually, Ferry seemed to me like one of those guys who everyone thought would be a great executive but didn’t exactly live up to all of the expectations. What excited me was that Ferry—a guy who is still well respected and many teams would have interest in—wanted to come to Atlanta. 

When I first heard the rumors I didn’t take them seriously. During the last GM search nobody wanted anything to do with the Atlanta job. Moreover, ownership didn’t seem willing to make the sort of commitment that might attract a serious candidate. For these reasons I was surprised when Ferry accepted the job. 

Cleary things were different this time around. Ownership was willing to spend the money, and an experienced executive with great credentials actually chose to come to Atlanta. Not only that, but ownership committed to Ferry for the long term, hiring him to a 6-year deal. This meant that Ferry could come in and feel free to make the sort of changes necessary to turn the franchise around without having to worry about his job being on the line during the process. 

Something else soon became clear.  Atlanta Spirit Group seems to have turned away from plans to sell the franchise (or at least a majority share). On its own, that sounds like horrible news for us fans. However, as hard as this is to say, there might be a more positive way of looking at it. While we all have dreams of an ego-maniacal billionaire basketball fan swooping into town and rescuing us from NBA irrelevance, it was always fairly unlikely. It wasn’t going to be easy for ASG to find a buyer. It’s entirely possible—perhaps even probable—that ASG would have eventually sold to another ownership “group” that would only have had a clean slate on their side, and might not have been any better in the long run. 

If ASG stuck to the plan of treading water until a suitable deal could be reached, the Hawks would have remained in NBA purgatory. It now appears that ASG has moved on from the idea of selling the team. They really have no choice but to try and turn things around. And it might not be as impossible as it sounds. The in-fighting and lawsuits are over with. The Thrashers (sadly) are no longer part of the picture. They’ve apparently decided that selling all or part of the team isn’t a good option. So maybe now they’ll be willing to put all (or at least more) of their energy and resources into building a team that can contend for titles. 

You may think I’m getting carried away here, but look at what’s already happened. They’ve spent money on a serious GM who is going to be the man making the decisions. They’ve at least outwardly expressed a willingness to go into the luxury tax if Ferry thinks it would be a wise move. And while the members of ASG have made a point of being more visible in recent years, they have clearly decided to step back and let “basketball people” do what they need to do to turn this thing around. 

Don’t underestimate how important that is. Think how long it took Ted Turner to figure it out with the Braves. And just think back to the two Joe Johnson deals. Who was really making those calls? Yes, there were “basketball people” involved, but it was primarily the owners who were calling the shots. Those decisions were in large part driven by other agendas besides winning championships. The hiring of Danny Ferry and the events that followed were definite signs that those days are over. 

The fact that Ferry was allowed to make drastic changes to the team was more evidence that things are going to be different. I feel hypocritical saying this considering many of my past statements, and perhaps I’m talking to myself as much as the imaginary reader, but people need to remember that Atlanta Spirit Group has a flesh and blood side. They weren’t just financially invested in Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams; they were also emotionally and psychologically invested in them. There was a relationship between ownership and those two players. ASG made a big statement in allowing Ferry to sever those ties and move on. 

ASG showed us something by allowing Ferry to make moves with the long term future of the team in mind, even if it meant the team might be worse in the short term. And moving on from Johnson and Williams was also very clearly an admission by ownership that they made some mistakes. Of course, we all sit back and say, “Well no shit you made some mistakes!” but they now appear ready to accept it. 

I thought the press conference that officially began the Danny Ferry era was very telling and uplifting for Hawks fans. Ferry came off tremendously well, seeming sharp and savvy. He gave the impression of having a plan without sounding like a know-it-all jerk. That can be hard to do.

 Amazingly, I thought ASG came out of it looking a little better too. How many times did Ferry mention how “humble” ownership was throughout the process of hiring him? That sounds like a group of suits who have come to the realization that they don’t know how to build a contender. It sounds like a group of owners who are tired of being loathed by an entire fan base. It sounds like Atlanta Spirit wants to win and knows that the only way to do it is to put the right people in charge. If true, that’s a dramatic shift. 

As for Ferry, I think there’s reason to believe he can be a big success. Perhaps he will turn out to be the top notch executive that everyone expected him to be. Sure you can point out some reasons to doubt. He failed to build a team around LeBron James that was capable of winning a title. But it’s not like he was run out of town. Nor, as it turned out, was building a team around LeBron such a simple thing, especially in Cleveland. 

He made some decisions that look awful today, but you know what? That’s not our problem. So he made some mistakes. Good. I’m glad he did it with the Cavs and has seemingly learned some lessons that he won’t have to deal with in Atlanta. Also, it was a very different situation. There’s no superstar like James in Atlanta. There doesn’t figure to be pressure to listen to any particular player’s feelings when deciding what roster moves to make. This will be Ferry’s ship and he’ll be the only one at the wheel. 

There are several other things to like about Ferry. For one, he’s always had a reputation for believing in advanced stats, and that’s something that a lot of us welcome. He’s coming from San Antonio; the smartest, most well-run organization in the NBA. And he’s clearly not scared. And that’s key. 

I was impressed with the way Ferry came in and treated the people he was replacing and the people he was now in charge of. He was complementary of the team and the coaching staff and the front office. I’m sure that’s nothing new, but my point is that he didn’t come in with a “there’s a new sheriff in town” attitude. That sort of thing does nothing but stir up controversy. 

Look at the situation with Rick Sund for example. He’s apparently going to stay on for at least the next few months and perhaps will remain with the team in some capacity on a permanent basis. That seems rare to me. It can only help to have a guy like Sund around to help Ferry connect and get to know the organization. I really believe Sund will be able to give him insight into certain aspects of the team that he wouldn’t know right away on his own. 

Just think about the Josh Smith situation. How to handle Josh’s upcoming free agency is going to be one of the biggest decisions Ferry makes. Sund will be able to clue him into things that might make a big difference in the end. And it simply can’t hurt for the previous GM to actively assist the incoming GM become acclimated. 

Sund certainly made some questionable moves (and non-moves) during his tenure, but overall I thought he was okay (certainly a major step up from Billy Knight). And you have to remember that he was dealing with some restraints placed on him by ownership that hopefully Ferry won’t be hindered by. That being said, I can already tell that Ferry is more my style of GM. 

First off, despite being introduced as GM just days before draft night, Ferry was clear that he would be the guy calling the shots. This was in stark contrast to Sund, who at least publicly claimed to have delegated all areas of the draft to subordinates. 

More importantly of course, the moves Ferry made in the weeks following the draft showed a vision, a willingness to take risks, and a proactive approach that Sund never had (again, the restrictions placed on Sund by ownership have to be taken into consideration). Look at it this way: the Hawks went from having a guy who didn’t even seem to know if he wanted to continue on as GM (Sund) to having a GM who is clearly expecting to hold the position for at least 6 years (Ferry). That’s huge.  

June 28th Drafted John Jenkins with the 23rd pick and Mike Scott with the 43rd pick in the 2012 draft. 

Comments: Of all the moves Ferry has made in the short time that he has been at the helm, I questioned the draft night decisions the most. In light of the changes Ferry made to the roster soon after, the selections of Jenkins and Scott are a bit surprising in that it doesn’t seem like the Hawks drafted for “potential.” 

Jenkins would seem to have a decent chance of making it in the NBA simply because he has one very important trait: he’s a tremendous outside shooter. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that he’ll develop into anything more than that because he doesn’t seem to do anything else well. 

Scott does not have as good a chance to make it. In fact, there’s some question as to whether he’ll even make the team, but he doesn’t in any way appear to be a project. In other words, if he can hang, he’ll likely be able to contribute right away; if he can’t hang right away, he’ll never make it. Scott is actually already 24 and he spent 5 seasons at Virginia, so he’s at a different place in his development than, say, a guy who showed promise in 1 year of college ball. 

But I’m not all negative about this year’s draft. For starters, I just don’t think you can expect too much from late 1st round and 2nd round picks. By the middle of the 1st round there’s a lot of guessing going on and there’s a lot of guys being picked who are never going to amount to much in the NBA. With the 23rd pick I think you hope for a rotation player. With the 43rd pick I think you hope for a guy who can make the team for a low salary. For now, I’m willing to believe the Hawks may have gone 2 for 2 in this regard. 

It also doesn’t bother me that the Hawks didn’t draft a couple of long term projects. For one thing, I’m not convinced that strategy is really worth it. If you draft a project and he doesn’t pan out at all, you wasted a pick. Even if the guy does eventually develop into a decent player it could still be a waste.  You will have had to deal with the growing pains and the slow progress, but another team may reap all the benefits because by the time he’s reached his potential his first contract will be up.

More importantly, I don’t have a problem with the Hawks taking “low ceiling” guys if they think they can contribute right away, because I actually don’t believe the Hawks have to fall off the face of the Earth in order to eventually get to the next level. It might actually be better in the long run if the Hawks do bottom out and completely rebuild, but I don’t think it’s totally necessary. 

It’s far from a sure thing that you’re eventually going to be a great team just because you have several top 10 picks in a row (I realize I don’t have to explain this to Hawks fans). I do agree with the theory that you either want to be contending for a title or at the bottom of the league, and that the worst place to be is in the middle. However, I don’t believe that in order to rise to contender status you have to first fall to the very bottom. So for me, drafting a couple of guys who you think can help out right away isn’t bad. I don’t at all anticipate the Hawks being in the lottery next season, so if you aren’t going to tank, you might as well take players you think can be of some use immediately.  

There was something else that I really liked about what the Hawks did in this draft. For the first time in a while they seemed to use their 2nd round pick on a player that they actually thought could make the team. For several years the Hawks have taken European players or D-League “projects” that they could hold the rights to without having to actually pay. This not only failed to make the team better for obvious reasons, it also seemed really cheap. 

This year the Hawks went the old fashioned route and drafted a guy who graduated from a major college program. He’s either going to make it or not make it. There will be no thoughts of “stashing” him away in the D-League or letting him play in Europe for a few years and then trading his rights if he ever turns into something of value. 

Even with the positive aspects and the proper expectations, it is somewhat troubling that there seemed to be a consensus amongst the “experts” that the Hawks “reached” with both of their selections. Certainly there’s something to be said for the idea of “drafting for value.” However, in the NBA, I also believe in taking the player that you want rather than the guy who you think most others feel has the most “value.” 

In the NBA, there’s only so much value in a late 1st round or 2nd round pick; that’s why the idea of taking a “low risk/high reward” guy makes sense. You aren’t counting on the guy making a major impact, so you might as well go for a guy who could end up making it big. At the same time, if there is a player that you really like, it really shouldn’t matter how everyone else feels about him, because again, it’s not like you can’t afford to be wrong. 

July 2nd Extended qualifying offer to Ivan Johnson. 

Comments: I was glad to see this, as I would really like the Hawks to retain Johnson, and I was worried that Ferry might not be interested in him. Johnson could still end up signing elsewhere if teams are willing to pay more than Atlanta, but if the Hawks hadn’t extended a qualifying offer it would have all but guaranteed IJ’s exit. 

July 3rd Named Wes Wilcox Assistant GM. 

Comments: Look, I’m not gonna claim to have any real insight on the particulars of this move. All I can say is that it’s nice that Ferry got one of “his guys” to be his top lieutenant. Wilcox worked for Ferry from 2005-2010 when Ferry was GM in Cleveland. Most recently Wilcox had been director of player personnel for the Cavs and the GM of Cleveland’s D-League team. Seems like a nice addition from the outside looking in. 

July 11th Traded Joe Johnson to Brooklyn for Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Williams, DeShawn Stevenson, Johan Petro, a 2013 1st round draft pick, and a 2017 2nd round draft pick.

Comments: I don’t know a single person familiar with the particulars of Joe Johnson’s contract who thought there was even a chance that he could be moved. All serious Hawks fans were resigned to the fact that we were simply stuck with Joe Johnson for the duration of his deal. Even with the Hawks hiring a GM like Danny Ferry and ownership giving him the go-ahead to do what he needed to in order to reshape the team, there still was no realistic chance of him moving Johnson, because that would involve another franchise being willing to take him on. Enter the Brooklyn Nets. 

When I first started hearing that the Hawks were engaged in talks to move Joe Johnson I was even more incredulous than I had been when I heard the rumors about Danny Ferry. I just couldn’t believe it was possible and I wasn’t going to get my hopes up. Even when the deal was reported to be completed I still refused to believe it. When it was finally official I was ecstatic. 

A lot of the attention in the national media has concerned what Johnson can do for Brooklyn. That’s to be expected I suppose, as the Nets have turned into the Jets of the NBA. But in citing how big Johnson will be for Brooklyn, a lot of people seem to be looking at it as a big loss for the Hawks. This is far from the truth. 

It’s actually pretty simple. No one has ever questioned Joe’s ability. We know exactly what he is. He’s not a superstar; he’s not a great player; he’s a really good player. The Hawks were paying Johnson like a superstar and it wasn’t working. 

This trade was huge for the Hawks because they just needed to move on as a franchise. Dealing Joe will bring hope to the fans and allow the team to move in a different direction both on and off the court. No matter what players Ferry brought in or what coach he hired, the Hawks were always going to be tied to that “Iso-Joe” style of play that we’ve seen throughout Johnson’s time in Atlanta. Removing Joe from the equation will free up other players to become more involved. 

Most importantly, in getting out from under Joe’s albatross of a contract the Hawks put themselves in position to undergo a major transition that didn’t seem possible before the trade. Joe wasn’t going to get any better. The best Hawks fans could hope for was that he would maintain his level of play, and every knowledgeable basketball person said there was no way that would happen. Joe’s contract would have become more and more of a burden. 

With this one trade, Ferry dramatically improved the Hawks’ chances of becoming serious contenders. If you think about it, it would have been really hard for the Hawks even to go into rebuilding mode without moving Joe. Now they can seemingly become contenders in the near future even without completely rebuilding. 

July 11th Traded Marvin Williams to Utah for Devin Harris. 

Comments: Ferry completed the Hawks’ dramatic 1-day makeover by getting rid of the other famous “mistake” that the franchise made prior to his arrival. The Hawks had reportedly been trying to give Marvin Williams away for the last 2 years and hadn’t found a buyer. Somehow Ferry did it, and even managed to get something decent back in return. 

Like the Johnson trade, however, this was primarily about creating financial flexibility and moving on from the past. Williams was an average player but the Hawks were paying him like a really good player. While I admit that the Hawks will likely miss Joe’s production, I don’t think the Hawks lose anything with Marvin gone. 

With these two deals, Ferry essentially cleared $90 million of dead weight off the Hawks future payroll. The Joe Johnson/Marvin Williams era is officially over. The Hawks can now begin the process of rebuilding.
These moves figure to make the Josh Smith situation much easier to deal with. If the Hawks want to commit to Josh long term they’ll have the ability to do so, and these moves have no doubt made Smith think differently about the future of the franchise. 

In addition, the Hawks will now be in a position to be serious players in the free agent market. Names like Dwight Howard and Chris Paul have been thrown around. Honestly, I doubt either one of those players will come to Atlanta, simply because I think it will take time for the Hawks to convince players that they are serious about trying to win.  

However, I’m not even worried about hitting a homerun with a superstar free agent. In my mind, Ferry has already done the impossible by moving Johnson. Moving Marvin was like placing a miraculous coat of icing on an even more miraculous cake. In my opinion, at the end of the day, Ferry was already in the running for executive of the year. 

July 12th Signed Lou Williams to multi-year deal. 

Comments: I liked this move. Williams will replace some of the production lost with Joe being gone, and he signed for a reasonable amount of money. The Hawks used the trade exception they got in the Joe Johnson deal to sign Williams. 

July 16th Waived Jordan Farmar. 

Comments: This was a no-brainer. The move saved the Hawks $2.5 mill in salary cap space. Farmar plans to play in Turkey. 

July 16th Sent cash to Chicago for Kyle Korver. 

Comments: I was surprised by this move but I like it. Korver’s due for a bounce back year and he’s one of the best shooters around. As long as he’s not over-extended, he should be a big help. 

July 31st Executed sign and trade of Willie Green to Los Angeles Clippers for the rights to Sofoklis Schortsanitis. 

Comments: Schortsanitis recently signed a 3-year deal in Greece and will probably never be on the Hawks roster. This was clearly a case of getting something for nothing, and using Green to get a trade exception. This is exactly the type of move the Hawks weren’t making before Ferry arrived. Green was going to sign elsewhere regardless, and while Willie was fun to root for, we all know the Hawks won’t be worse off without him. In fact, his dreadful +/- numbers suggest they’ll probably be much better off with Money gone.

Other Roster News

Jerry Stackhouse (Brooklyn), Kirk Hinrich (Chicago), and Vlad Radmanovic (Chicago) have all signed with other teams. The Hawks were always unlikely to resign any of these players. I was actually glad to see Hinrich sign elsewhere because there had been some talk of him returning and I felt that would only hinder Jeff Teague. 

Former 2nd round picks Pape Sy and Keith Benson were on Atlanta’s summer league roster. I wouldn’t expect either player to make the team next year but it’s possible. 

Closing Thoughts

Barring another earth shattering and unexpected deal (hey, it could happen) this will be my last Hawks Blog entry until next year. I’ll go over the roster in detail in a team preview before next season. One reason that I don’t want to spend too much time breaking down the roster at this point is that I’m fairly certain Ferry isn’t done reshaping the roster. 

The main reason for this is that at the moment the Hawks’ roster seems to be quite unbalanced. They have 3 “scoring” point guards (Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Lou Williams); 3 players who are basically just outside shooters (John Jenkins, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver); and really no one who seems like a good candidate to start at small forward. 

Even if the Hawks don’t make any other moves I still think they’ll be good enough to match what they accomplished last year. I’m not sure why so many have been quick to assume that the Hawks will miss the playoffs next season. With Al Horford back for a full season and Morrow, Harris, and Lou Williams replacing Joe and Marvin, I don’t see why the Hawks would be any worse than they were last season even if the roster stays as it is. They might even be better.