Success in the NBA is a zero-sum game. If you are winning, another team is losing. It’s a constant struggle to find a slight advantage in the race for a championship team makeup.
Before landing in this position with the Atlanta Hawks, Danny Ferry spent five years as the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, starting in the summer of 2005. He was thrust into a position of trying to build around then budding superstar LeBron James.
Many consider the fact that the Cavalier front office was unable to put a championship-level supporting cast around the game’s best player as a great failure; possibly being the reason for James to take his talents elsewhere. Now he finds himself in Atlanta with presumably a long leash but also a longer hike to get to the top.
Recently, ESPN put out a ranking of all 30 front offices in the NBA. For the social media savvy, you can follow along with the hashtag #NBAfrontofficerank. The Hawks were right in the middle at 17th overall. The entire list can be seen here. They used a 0-10 rating system, and the top and bottom few franchises are no real surprise for fans who have followed the league for a while.
This survey was put together by a very knowledgeable panel of seasoned basketball writers. Who am I to disagree, especially in the light of probable homer bias? But there’s no reason not to take a stab at it anyway. I believe Atlanta’s ranking is too low due to the context of the Hawks franchise in the past 2 years.
Before I jump into reasoning, let’s look back at all that has transpired in the past 22 months. There are three major ways to change a roster: drafting, trading and free agency.
First, let’s look at the trades. And boy is there one that certainly sticks out. Joe Johnson, who was signed in 2010 for $126 million over 6 years, was sent to the Nets in the summer of 2012 for a pile of flotsam in an obvious attempt to clean the future cap sheet for the Hawks. It was a massive overpay for a player who profiled as nothing more than league average as he entered his 4th decade of age. GM Ferry managed this trade because of his longtime relationship with Brooklyn GM Billy King.
It certainly accomplished the intended goal, in conjunction with the flipping of 2 years of Marvin Williams for 1 year of Devin Harris. The Hawks found themselves with gobs of cap space in 2013, and put it to good use as outlined below. The same is true for 2014 and beyond. This allows the team to be flexible in case a maximum level player desires to become a member of the Hawks. There have been some other trades since then but none near the impact that the Joe Johnson deal created.
Second is free agency, and I would argue the players that the Hawks did not sign were as important as the ones they did. In the forefront of that claim is Josh Smith, who signed a 4 year, $54 million deal to head to Detroit when his contract was up last summer. Smith was an elite level defender for the majority of his 9 year term in Atlanta in addition to being an absolute box chart suffer. But fairly or unfairly, his poor shot selection was the target of much criticism spanning over two head coaches. Josh had his ups and downs in the red and white uniforms but never has he had as atrocious a season as he is having this season as a Piston. Letting Josh walk was a big direction on a team that now demands accountability and efficiency on the court.
In the same offseason, there were some very big free agent acquisitions and reacquisitions. Paul Millsap was brought in from Utah to hopefully complement Al Horford better than Smith could. Kyle Korver was given a long term deal to keep him in Atlanta until 2017. But the real turning point was the awkward tango the Hawks front office did with point guard Jeff Teague.
Teague has been a talented but inconsistent player from the get go, and was given an opportunity to seek out his own deal in restricted free agency. This came just days after the Hawks spent a first round draft pick on German sensation Dennis Schröder to possibly supplant Teague as the team’s starting point guard sooner rather than later. The Hawks would match the 4 year, $32 million offer, but feathers may have been ruffled.
In the end, both sides communicated that it was just business and nothing more than a hiccup. The front office wanted to see an outside dollar figure and weigh the costs and risks to letting him go for nothing or keeping him in Atlanta’s control for 4 years. In this sense, it was smart for the Hawks not to outbid themselves when trying to retain Jeff Teague. This is the mark of a quality front office.
Lastly, let’s look at the draft history under this new regime in Atlanta.
2012 NBA Draft:
- 23rd overall: SG John Jenkins
- 43rd overall: PF Mike Scott
2013 NBA Draft:
- 17th overall: PG Dennis Schröder
- 18th overall: PG Shane Larkin (traded to Dallas for 16th overall C Lucas Nogueira and 44th overall C Mike Muscala)
- 47th overall: PG Raul Neto (traded to Utah for cash)
- 50th overall: SF James Ennis (traded to Miami for future second round pick)
The 2012 NBA draft is an interesting case, as the Hawks look to have found a better candidate for a building block in the second round than in the first round. John Jenkins was renowned for being a deadly sharp shooter coming out of Vanderbilt as a rare junior entering the draft. And that carried over in his first season in the NBA. He shot a respectable 38.4% from behind the arc last season. He appeared in 61 games, averaging 14.8 minutes a contest while being restricted to an all-too-familiar short leash under former coach Larry Drew.
But entering this season, there were reports that new head coach Mike Budenholzer was unhappy with Jenkins’ effort on the defensive end and subsequently was left out of the rotation once the season began. Jenkins tried to work himself into more consistent minutes but soon succumbed to a back injury that would knock him out of for the majority of the season. Look for Jenkins to have one more season to prove himself in Atlanta, starting with a third Summer League appearance.
Mike Scott can claim almost the reverse trajectory in the NBA to date. With more playing time in his second season than his first, he has shown an ability to shoot from anywhere on the court. While other aspects like his rebounding and defense have dipped, Scott figures to be a valuable bench big as he enters the prime of his career.
The 2013 class has more promise but also more question marks. Like those before him, Schröder fell out of the rotation on multiple occasions, but as injuries have piled up, he’s become a vital part of the Hawks’ wins and losses. He is still a very raw point guard prospect at just 20 years of age, but his defensive reputation has already begun to gain hold around the league. Once his shooting and ability to run the offense catch up, Atlanta will be happy to have the slim German to lead the team going forward.
Lucas Noguiera and Mike Muscala have both spent much of the season in the top level Spanish ACB league, with Muscala being signed and brought back to the US in the wake of the multitude of Hawks injuries. Both are legitimate 7 footers with a projections to contribute on both ends of the floor.
While it’s highly likely no superstars emerge from this list, a number of the players above can contribute to a team looking to make a run in the playoffs. Some teams around the league cannot make the claim of having young players coming up through the pipeline, due to trading away assets like first round picks for the short term chance at a championship.
This brings me to some of the qualms I have with ESPN’s list, including the Hawks’ ranking in relation to the Brooklyn Nets. Some teams have access to financial resources that others simply do not. While the Nets haven’t quite had the season their fans had hoped for after dealing for Jason Terry, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to pair with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and others, they still have a chance for redemption of the colossal money and short sightedness of their recent moves in the form of the playoffs. However, should they lose to either the Pacers, Heat or anyone else in the East as is expected this postseason, the team will still be on the hook for a rapidly aging and expensive team. As stated earlier, Billy King was dealt a resounding loss in the Joe Johnson deal, a mistake a top 15 front office should not come close to making.
Also, if these ratings are for recent and future accomplishments, the Lakers brass has no business being ahead of the Hawks. The Lakers have been extremely successful in their many years as an NBA franchise, but since their last championship in 2010, they have failed stock up on young players to which Kobe Bryant can pass the proverbial torch. They swung and missed on a big offseason that included signing Steve Nash and trading for Dwight Howard and are left with a barren cupboard entering the 2014 offseason.
Al Horford is a very good player but short of a superstar. The Hawks have had no top 15 or even 20 NBA player to build around since presumably Dominique Wilkins. They are in a basketball market that has never seen success in the form of even a Finals appearance. Unlike some other organizations, the Hawks cannot cross into the luxury tax area without batting a few eyes. Given these restraints, the Hawks have done a solid job of positioning for a young roster, cap flexibility, and ownership of all future first round picks. It’s a job worthy of a top 15 ranking.