When Danny Ferry assumed the Hawks’ GM post this summer, he didn’t waste much time getting to business. And why not — the Hawks, like many teams under the new CBA, were laden with bad contracts and had bottomed-out as a mid-tier team in the East. Yeah, Atlanta was a sure bet to make the postseason year after year, but hardly a threat to make noise in May or June. In the Joe Johnson era, the Hawks advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals three times, but were swept twice and lost the other in 6 to Chicago. A rebuild was in order.
Enter Ferry. After a week on the job, Ferry gutted the Hawks, dealing Joe Johnson, and his $90 million through 2015-16, to a Brooklyn Nets’ team desperate to keep its star, Deron Williams, in town, and Marvin Williams, and thus his $16 million through 2013-14, to Utah. All within 24 hours.
Yes, the Hawks were taking an interim step back, but more importantly were re-tooling for a major run in the summer of 2013 — to potentially lure SF/PF Josh Smith to stay in town and maybe even attract the free agent services of Dwight Howard, an Atlanta native, should he decide to leave L.A. The Hawks, after all, have a roster chock full of expiring deals, with only $18.5 million on the books for next season.
I appreciated Ferry’s genius this summer, but didn’t expect the Hawks to make a playoff run. Fast forward to Feb. 3, and they’re 26-20, only 5 games back of the East-leading Miami Heat. Atlanta’s probably not a threat to make any postseason noise, but that they’re this competitive, with that much money to spend this summer, has to be a good message to Smith and other free agents this summer.
And Smith has, by all accounts, had another productive year. A fringe All Star who some say was snubbed, Smith is averaging 16.9 points and 8.5 rebounds in 36 minutes a night, all improvements from his career marks. But whether Smith can be a team leader remains a question; he was suspended 1 game for the oft-dreaded ‘conduct detrimental to the team’ last month and, in another vein, continues to settle for outside jumpers too often when he should use his rare combination of size and athleticism to attack the rim. Of course, Smith is hampered by the Hawks’ slower pace and could very much benefit from a run-and-gun style attack.
The Hawks’ other fringe All Star, Al Horford, is putting together another solid season despite some recent injury issues. He’s averaging 16 points and 9.8 boards a night in 37.3 minutes, remarkable for someone at the PF/C position. His field goal percentage, 53%, remains strong, but his FT percentage has dipped 14 points, to 60%, from his career pace. Horford, 18.42, and Smith, 17.49, rank 50th and 73rd in PER, respectively.
Atlanta has the luxury of riches at the point guard spot, a position of weakness worsened by the fact they passed on Chris Paul and Deron Williams for Marvin Williams in the 2005 NBA Draft, with Louis Williams, a FA signing this summer; Jeff Teague, presumably their PG of the future but a RFA this offseason; and Devin Harris, Utah’s return for Williams and a likely free agent departure. Williams, a high-volume scorer who can play the 2 since his days alongside Jrue Holiday in Philadelphia, was scoring 14.1 points a night and ranked in the top 100 in PER, before a torn ACL 2 weeks ago prematurely ended his season. Teague has a relatively high PER, 15.7, and is averaging well above his career marks in points, 13.7, and assists, 6.6, proving he’s worth keeping around.
Atlanta’s offense, 96.2 points per game this year as opposed to 96.6 last year, has barely taken a hit minus Johnson, who often dominated the ball and relied too heavily on isolation. At 23.5 per game, the Hawks are 3rd in the NBA in assists, with 5 10+ points per game scorers; Kyle Korver’s the fifth, averaging 11.5 points and 47.4% shooting from 3. Harris, also battling injuries, gives the Hawks another 8.5 points per night, with an increased role likely throughout the rest of the season.
Fast forward to this summer. The big decision will be on Smith, and whether Ferry wants to commit to him as a cornerstone; if he doesn’t, there’s a team out there who will, especially in a weak free agent class where the two biggest names, Howard and Chris Paul, are likely to stay put in Los Angeles. Horford, through 2015-16, and Williams, through 2014-15, are on the books for the foreseeable future. But Ferry also has decisions on Teague, likely to be back since he’s just restricted, and hustler Zaza Pachulia, who very well could demand more than mid-level exception dollars.
From his days in Cleveland, Ferry’s a free-spender willing to piece a team together around a star. If you’re a Hawks fan, you’ve got to be confident in his cap-shedding approach thus far. Now, let’s see what kind of splash he can make this summer.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.