Atlanta Hawks fans – it is over. The Joe Johnson era has officially ended as all of the remnants from that massive transaction is all but off the books. The Josh Smith era may also be ending in a much more painless way. It won’t require taking back marginal parts in return; it simply opens up a large amount of cap space (but also creates a large cap hold). That bridge will be crossed once the free agency period begins July 1st.
This season’s roster was tossed together haphazardly not unlike a Christmas fruitcake and it seemed inevitable that the Hawks would have a slim to none chance of making serious noise in the playoffs from the start. Winning 44 games and taking the Pacers to 6 games in the postseason is a modest achievement for a team with merely average talent. But ask any Hawks fan and they will proclaim that this fight is not for playoff appearance banners to hang from the rafters in Philips Arena. This quest is and will always be for World Championship banners to hang for the world to see.
So, now what? How do we achieve this end?
Four draft picks. Oodles of cap space. A General Manager willing to make bold moves. A fanbase cautiously optimistic. This is the moment we waited for last season when Joe Johnson was gleefully shipped off to Brooklyn. This is the fulfillment of removing a burden weighing down a franchise that could only make Sisyphus jealous.
Of course cap space never won any championships. Cap space won’t bring a city together in support of a team. Cap space has never led off the Sportscenter highlights. In the end, salaries will have to allocated in such a way to at least reach a salary floor. Thus, the question isn’t if we sign players but rather who do we sign?
Oh, the possibilities are endless.
Dreaming of a long and athletic small forward that can do it all? Andre Iguodala and Andrei Kirilenko may be on the market. Want a talented, franchise-changing rim protector? There’s Andrew Bynum, Nikola Pekovic (restricted) and of course the grand prize Dwight Howard. Maybe just a complementary power forward if you’re comfortable seeing Al Horford at center permanently? Well hello there Paul Millsap and David West. Beyond those names the list is not too impressive, especially when compared to the looming 2014 free agency cast. Still, there is undoubtedly franchise-altering talent on the market this year.
In what image will next season’s team be shaped? Danny Ferry has long admired the way the Spurs have built a winning organization through an emphasis on a deep, cohesive team and strong international scouting among other factors. If flashy free agent moves are not in stow, then under-the-radar pick ups and shrewd diamond in the rough draft finds may take their place.
Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round after a record-setting regular season. The Clippers set a franchise record for games won and won their first Pacific Division title, but bowed out somewhat embarassingly in six games to a Memphis team transitioning to life without Rudy Gay (for the better it seems currently).
Dwight Howard is also a free agent after a wild Lakers season gone wrong. Early indications are that he hasn’t ever come out in favor of playing in front of his hometown permanently but on the other hand, Howard hasn’t been one to stick to a decision.
Of course both would have to turn down significant money and relocate from their cushy Los Angeles media spotlights. Are the chances either or both decide to make Atlanta their basketball home for the near future large? Not at all. Does that chance exist? You’d have to think so.
There could also be some amnesty candidates to choose from. Pau Gasol was a name that was often (ridiculously) floated as a trade candidate to Atlanta midseason, but would the Hawks jump at a chance to put in a waiver for him at a reduced price? There have also been rumbling of the Lakers choosing instead to use their amnesty on the face of the franchise, Kobe Bryant. He would certainly fill up seats in Philips if not improve the team. Here’s a full list of anmesty eligible players. Some other key targets could be Kendrick Perkins, Carlos Boozer and Metta World Peace.
If these scenarios sound far-fetched, then good; that’s the goal. These are not reasonably likely suggestions. But they are possibilities. You can dream again as a fan of this tortured franchise. It sure seemed like a pipedream that the Miami Heat would land the best player in the league in May of 2010. Narratives can be broken down and new heights can be reached with just one player signing.
Options, options, options.
What about looking internally? Jeff Teague and Ivan Johnson are restricted free agents. Both could easily see their return in a red and blue jersey next season with a long term contract on their mantel. It’s clear neither has reached their true potential and their increased contributions next season and beyond should not be overlooked. Mike Scott has a team option for next season that is almost certain to be picked up. Likewise, DeShawn Stevenson has a team option that is almost certain to be turned down.
Many questions will remain unanswered until next October regardless of free agency or draft activities. Can Lou Williams return from his ACL injury as the player he was before? Will John Jenkins be able to have an even bigger impact in season two?
This isn’t even to mention the head coaching position, which is equally as fluid. Who knows if Larry Drew stays in Atlanta. He’s reported to have interest in the Philadelphia head coaching job and General Manager Danny Ferry is also rumored to have a short list of possible replacements, including former Lakers assistant Quin Snyder.
The team’s position currently is something like the beginnings of a create-your-own stir fry bowl. There are an overwhelmingly large amount of possible paths to traverse, some ending well and others ending poorly. Finding the right flavors to mesh together and make the dish is key.
My advice for you? Don’t count the chickens before they hatch. No one has any idea what these 25 year olds are thinking with regards to their free agency or what their aspirations may be. They have an opportunity to chose a future for them in the prime of their careers and certain pros and cons may sway their decision in an unexpected direction. Nor does any common fan understand what goes on in the back rooms of Philips Arena and what direction the front office may choose to go.
No one has any idea what lies ahead for the organization. All that exists are hopes and speculation. It can’t hurt to dream but it certainly can to assume. Take it all with a grain of salt in hopes of a better day. The reset button has been pressed and a new path has paved the way. Enjoy the ride.