The Importance Of Playing To Win: Why the Atlanta Hawks Should Avoid Tanking


Dec 5, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson (92) reacts to shooting a three in the first half against the Denver Nuggets at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The actions of Danny Ferry this past offseason are well documented but most figured the Hawks would be met with a less successful season than those during the Rick Sund era due to losing two important players. In the first 15 games, this year’s team has done everything in its power to prove prognosticators wrong. The reaction to the 10-5 Atlanta Hawks has been met with shock and awe from many who figured the Hawks to be simply fighting for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference but no more.

Whether the season was deemed a rebuilding effort or “restructuring” as the Hawks players did during preseason media day, it’s clear that the team in it’s current form is still every bit as good as they have been in previous seasons. In the current NBA climate, a common hurdle for organizations is to be stuck in a mediocrity purgatory: too good for high lottery picks but not quite able to contend year after year. These very Hawks were said to have been in this state from 2008-2012 in a similar fashion to the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets over the last half dozen years or so.

Bottoming out is one proposed solution, although it risks losing parts of the fanbase and its subsequent revenue streams. Many Hawks fans I’ve interacted with over Twitter, blogs, or other means have suggested that the Hawks follow suit, in order to try to snatch a franchise changing player. However, this upcoming draft has GMs talking about not even wanting the first pick in the lottery, with one even going so far to declare this draft “The worst I’ve ever seen”.

Feb. 27, 2011; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) puts up a shot over Atlanta Hawks power forward Josh Smith (5) during the first quarter of the game at the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The 2006 NBA draft was brought up in that piece as a recent comparison to the lack of high end talent in the 2013 NBA draft. That draft had only 3 future All-Stars, Rajon Rondo, who the 21st overall pick, Brandon Roy, who has a problem seeing the court anymore, and number 2 overall pick LaMarcus Aldridge. Andrea Bargnani, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, and Hawks fan favorite (read heavy sarcasm) Shelden Williams round out the top five along with LaMarcus Aldridge. Two of those four are on undeservingly large contracts and the other two are no longer in the NBA anymore. I invite my readers to try to recognize even half of the names in this list. If the 2013 class looks anything like 2006, teams may be smarting after having lottery picks that do not live up to their billing historically.

This brings us back to the 10-5 Atlanta Hawks. Even though 9 of the current 14 players on this team will be unrestricted free agents, they have meshed extremely well and may even be the third best team in the East in this early part of the season, at least as far as records go. It is important that the Hawks create a winning culture to help attract big name free agents that may want to push the team into serious contention.

Even with the large free agent class this offseason, which includes Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Andrew Bynum, Paul Millsap and others, there is a legitimate worry that Atlanta will be unable to land a big name to build around. However, building solely through the draft should not be a primary or even a backup plan. It is a very tenuous and slow process and often leaves teams like the Sacramento Kings or Toronto Raptors in a vicious cycle of rebuilding every single season. For every Oklahoma City Thunder, there are at least 5 stories of a franchise whiffing on a top pick or two, leaving an organization to remain stagnant for many years.

Frankly, it’s a myth that a #1 overall pick, for example, can or has historically lead the team that drafted him to a championship. LeBron finally got his first ring not in Cleveland but in South Beach. Dwight Howard brought Orlando to the finals only to eventually bolt to Los Angeles. Throw out Tim Duncan in 1997, and the last time a #1 overall player has brought a title back to the city they were drafted in was in the 80’s with David Robinson teaming up with Duncan for a title in 1999. Also in that decade back to back #1 overall picks Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon led the Rockets to a pair of titles and James Worthy joined Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for multiple Lakers championships.

What is the best available contingency to hedge against locking up elite players in the offseason? The answer is to save long term cap space but remain competitive. It is very possible to “retool on the fly” after missing out on free agents, similar to how Houston and Dallas have in the offseason. Houston was able to stock up on young assets and picks to swing a trade for James Harden and currently would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Dallas was able save longterm cap space by signing OJ Mayo to a one year deal and trading for the expiring contracts of Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones after whiffing on Deron Williams. They are also currently is in playoff contention even without Dirk seeing the floor yet.

A savvy general manager like Ferry, having seen the insides of the efficiently run San Antonio, has shown his creativity in forming this roster in the wake of large cap controlling contracts. If given a different but equally challenging problem of a big cap space but no one to spend it on, he can and will navigate the market to find the bargains in free agency while simultaneously retaining roster flexibility. That was Rick Sund and the Hawks’ ownership ultimate downfall, as witnessed by the signing of Joe Johnson to a gargantuan contract, but it’s a path never to be walked upon again.