Never Trust the Hawks.
It’s a saying, a meme, a phrase, and most importantly, a way of life. It’s not only been a running joke on ESPN’s Daily Dime Live (DDL) for the last few years, but it’s also been the mantra of a perplexing franchise that never seems to do the expected—or even the unexpected.
The Atlanta Hawks have been the symbol of mediocrity in the NBA for the last 5 seasons, and a laughing stock the 10 before that. But for the first time in what seems like ages, somebody finally has had enough.
Now, you’ve known never to trust the Hawks for 18 years. Ever since Dominique Wilkins was traded in 1994, this team has done nothing but fluctuate between the middle and lower tiers of the league. The Mookie and Dikembe years were exciting, sure, but those were all too brief and never amounted to anything thanks to that Michael Jordan guy. The Jason Terry and Shareef Abdur-Rahim era was a sick joke, cemented in awfulness only by Dan Dickau and Dion Glover. Don’t get me wrong– Terry was awesome as a Hawk and my favorite player growing up, but no level of his young brilliance could’ve lifted the overall play of a failure-ridden franchise to anything respectable. Only after Terry did a light appear, and oh how quick it was to dim.
The Atlanta Hawks signed Joe Johnson as a restricted free agent in 2005 from the Phoenix Suns, and thus began the ascent to mediocrity. They paired him with the two young Josh’s, Smith and Childress, and then filled the roster out accordingly by wasting draft picks like it was part of the GM’s job description. Marvin Williams was taken before Chris Paul and Deron Williams, Shelden Williams was a top-5 pick, and Acie Law was the bust picked to ameliorate the terrible situation they created by picking Marvin over CP and Deron. I’d be remiss not to include the one draft success reached in this era—the selection of Al Horford in the 2008 NBA Draft, but it’s not like it’s truly done anything thanks to management’s inability to surround him with the right players as he progressed.
From 2005-2007 the Hawks continued to sit at the bottom of the league, piling their hopes in the hands of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and for a short time, Salim Stoudemire, who in case you forgot, was the 2nd round pick who dropped 37 points on the Magic on March 23, 2007, but burnt out faster than a faulty match in the middle of rainstorm. It wasn’t until 2008 when the Hawks traded for Mike Bibby that they finally cracked the playoff barrier, pushing through the egregiously awful Eastern Conference bottom-feeders, and sliding into the 8th spot with a less than impressive 37-45 record and a date with the eventual world-champion Boston Celtics.
That series is what brewed hope in Atlanta. A team 8 games under .500 took the best team in the league to 7 games, thanks to a miraculous series from Johnson, Smith, Horford, and a home crowd so loud you would’ve thought you were in Madison Square Garden. Optimism for the future was palpable, but it would only last for another year or two, for the Hawks were sliding into limbo, a treacherous place that ensures mediocrity for a prolonged future, a place that you really can’t escape.
The honeymoon was over. Johnson was inked for 6 years and 126 million, Marvin was extended, Smith’s offer sheet from Memphis was matched, and suddenly, the Hawks were stuck; stuck financially with a core that had a definite ceiling, stuck with players who didn’t complement each other in any of the right ways, and worst of all, stuck with an ownership who didn’t really give a shit. With money at a premium, the Hawks tabbed Larry Drew to replace Mike Woodson, a popular assistant coach amongst the players during Woodson’s tenure. Never mind the obvious red flags of the hire, like the fact that Drew was groomed by the very same coach the players had grown sick of, or the fact there were many better options on the market (see: Casey, Dwane), or the fact that he was made the lowest paid coach in the NBA and only brought on for 2 years, a clear lack of commitment from management. Never mind all of that. The Hawks sealed their future in a box, and threw it in a river, only knowing it would sink. There was no true competing in the distance, no championship, no Eastern Conference Finals, no tangible offensive system, and no real order or structure to go about anything basketball related.
Now, there isn’t really more background to it than that. The Hawks committed themselves to a future of 42-50 wins for the foreseeable future with Johnson’s contract, and thus hamstrung their ability to sign any meaningful free agent by stuffing the team’s cap space with bad contracts. With an ownership that is looking to avoid the luxury tax at all costs, that’s quite a hole to dig yourself into; a hole that I, along with the rest of the world, thought was too deep.
It was of my opinion that we’d really be forced to ride the whole thing out. Joe Johnson is too good to amnesty, too good to pay while he plays for another team. It’s also expensive. While it doesn’t count against the cap, the owners still have to pay the money, and it would be around 90 million over 4 years. So with amnestying out of the picture, I carried the small hope of a trade in my back pocket, but I thought if there was ever an immovable contract, this was the one. Johnson is still a good player. He’s a solid defender, a great spot-up shooter, a guy who can create his own shot (granted, he needs all 24 seconds and the rest of the team with their hands in their pocket to do it), and a perfect second option. The issue is that being paid like a first option when you’re really a second option is incredibly detrimental to any team’s cap space. They’ve committed their franchise to a sidekick who is without his super hero. Johnson could very well be a championship player, but he couldn’t be the best player on a championship team. Us Hawks fans found that out quickly, and so most of us accepted a tainted future of 4 and 5 seeds until his eventual decline in which we might snag a 7 seed once more before falling back to lottery territory and having his albatross of a contract off the books. By that time, Horford would be entering his post-prime years, Smith would likely be gone, Marvin Williams would be walking on all fours, and Jeff Teague would be in his prime—whatever that comes to mean. It would have been a wasted era of talent, an era in which a franchise failed to find their way out from under a heavy rock, an era when said franchise accepted their mediocrity—no—embraced their mediocrity and rode off non-heroically into the sunset. It could’ve been that. It would’ve been that, but Danny Ferry (the man, the myth, the legend) had other ideas (gasp!).
I’ve said for a longtime that Rick Sund was a decent General Manager. He may be a terrible drafter, but his pickups had generally been productive given the limitations placed on him. His ability to shake things up, however, was nonexistent. Granted, he was playing the game with one hand tied behind his back and the other hand being worked like a puppet by the ASG, so maybe I’m jumping to conclusions with that as well. Sund operated under situations far from ideal, and often made the best of what he had. It wasn’t until his contract ran up, though, that I foolishly allowed myself to hope.
I say “foolishly” because merely seconds after I opened my heart and mind to a possible turnaround, the Hawks extended Drew for a year, not getting rid of his shaky coaching, but not committing to him long term. There was no active GM when the decision was made and no coaching search to even see if there were better fits (there were) for a similar price (maybe not if you aren’t willing to throw some dough). Extending Drew was the most Hawks thing ever. You couldn’t trust them to for once be smart and wait for their General Manager situation to develop. In case you forgot, you can’t really trust them for anything.
Situations only worsened in my mind when Atlanta refused to let Portland speak with Sund about their vacant GM position. Most writers took that as a sure-fire sign that the Hawks were planning on negotiating a new contract, but guess what: you couldn’t trust them to work on a new contract with Sund, and so finally reports surfaced that Sund was unlikely to return. Thus started the most glorious two-week period of my Hawks life. The Hawks hired Danny Ferry, the former GM of the Cleveland Cavaliers (in the LeBron era), on June 25, 2012. However, his best day was yet to come.
Ferry’s arrival didn’t come without some questions. Many thought he didn’t maximize his time in Cleveland, and I agree with that to a certain extent. He made some questionable moves, like throwing tons of money at Larry Hughes, but he also made some good ones, like performing highway robbery en route to trading for Mo Williams. I’d always been impressed with his late round drafting as 4 players he selected after pick number 20 have turned out to be decent role players (JJ Hickson, Daniel Gibson, Danny Green, and Shannon Brown—only Gibson and Hickson ever got real run in Cleveland), but my expectations weren’t through the roof when he was announced. It was said he was looking to have a large amount of control within the franchise he would land with, so naturally under the ASG, I thought he wouldn’t be too thrilled.
Apparently the ASG has seen the light. They’ve given Ferry the keys to the car, and what he’s done with them have been nothing short of spectacular. In just a few short hours on June 2, 2012, Danny Ferry changed the course of the franchise by ridding the Hawks of their two worst contracts and creating more cap space than anybody could dream of in Atlanta.
The first kicker came when I heard the Hawks were in trade discussions with the Brooklyn Nets for Joe Johnson. I was immediately cautiously giddy. I couldn’t trust the Hawks to pull it off, though. I’d become immune to hearing pointless trade rumors be shot down by something like “we like our core a lot and we’re going to stick with them.” I didn’t think Ferry had the balls to trade Johnson a week into the job, but he did it. Eight days after being hired, Danny Ferry traded Joe Johnson to the New Jersey Nets for Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Jordan Williams, DeShawn Stevenson, and a lottery protected first round pick. Now, that trade got the Hawks two serviceable players and possibly a decent draft pick. Morrow will be put to use as a three point specialist and Stevenson will get some run as a defender, but other than that? The Hawks got garbage, nothing but expiring contracts of players who don’t even know how to tie their shoelaces. So how was this a win for the Hawks?
Soon after shipping Johnson off to Brooklyn, the Hawks traded Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz for the expiring contract of Devin Harris. Not only is Harris a better player than Williams, but it finally rids Atlanta of Marvin’s ridiculous deal and also rids him of playing under the weight of “the guy who was taken before Chris Paul.”
I really didn’t care who the Hawks were getting in return so long as Johnson, his contract (yes we’re treating it like a separate person), and Williams were out the door. It’s impressive in itself that Ferry didn’t have to take back a bad contract in return, but the real pull here was eliminating Brooklyn from the Howard sweepstakes and plugging Atlanta directly into them. In one move, he ruined Howard’s chance to sign with the Nets in free agency, and made the Hawks potential frontrunners in both a trade and free agent scenarios.
You think I’m kidding? I’ll let John Hollinger of ESPN connect the dots for you:
"• Josh Smith is from Atlanta.• Dwight Howard is from Atlanta.• Dwight Howard and Josh Smith played together in high school and remain friends; in fact, Howard was the best man in Smith’s wedding.• Chris Paul is not from Atlanta but is from North Carolina and wanted to play in Atlanta coming out of college.• Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Josh Smith all will be free agents next summer.• Dwight Howard’s main target in 2013 free agency, Brooklyn, just used up all its potential cap space in Monday’s trade with Atlanta.• Atlanta now has only two players under contract for 2013-14, center Al Horford and first-round pick John Jenkins, and will have well north of $40 milion in cap room.• Atlanta could rather easily trade Horford, an All-Star center with a below-market contract, to create more room if needed."
The Hawks have a future now. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not directly tied to a barely passable season anymore. There are choices and options in front us, something I never would have thought possible just two weeks ago. Not only are we players for Howard’s services, but if Chris Paul doesn’t re-sign with the Clippers, Atlanta becomes a potential destination for him as well.
Again, I know it’s hard to imagine, but the idea of Howard, Paul, and Smith on the Hawks is one that makes me wet my bed. I’m not ready to claim it a real possibility as Atlanta is still light years away from making this happen, but that in itself is a whole light year ahead of where we were just two weeks ago. At the rate Ferry is moving, there’s no ceiling or floor for this. We could end up with Paul and Howard, but we could just as easily end up offering James Harden a max two years from now. Anything is possible at this rate, and really, that’s the most exciting part.
You can’t trust the Hawks to do anything this upcoming season. They’re probably still a fringe playoff team, but even then, who are we to assume their spot? I wouldn’t be shocked if this team gets nudged out of the playoffs by some of the up and coming teams in the East, and to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hawks won at the same rate they did with Johnson. Sure, it’s addition by subtraction, but something tells me if this team could cope a whole regular season without Al Horford, they can cope one without Joe Johnson.
It’s not next year you should have trust issues about, though. It’s what comes after that. You never trust the Hawks, that in itself is a given, but you do trust them to amount to nothing at the end of the day. You trust them to be the stabilizing mediocre force in this league, but I can’t say that’s what you can expect from them anymore. Change has come, and it only makes things more confusing. You’re used to the Hawks being terrible or just okay. That’s probably the only thing you’ve trusted them to do you’re entire life. That right there was your mistake. Don’t trust the Hawks to be anything. Ever. Because what they could become is something more than that. Then again, trusting them to become anything more than what they already are is just as foolish.
There’s a world of possibilities and a world of hope; something Hawks fans haven’t seen in a long, long time. No one knows what comes next, and that right there is the beauty of it.