Tired of one year blending into the next, with little progress in either direction, the Hawks decided to take a dramatically different path heading into this season. Joe Johnson was traded. So was Marvin Williams.
Atlanta was left with a guard-dominated team that could be highly entertaining — certainly, scoring shouldn’t be a problem — but may be hard-pressed to win as many games. New general manager Danny Ferry has put together a roster filled with expiring contracts, making it clear that he’s got his eye more on the future than the present.
Still, coach Larry Drew believes the team has enough talent to make a run at its sixth straight playoff appearance. He refuses to call this a rebuilding year, even though he’s one of those in the last year of his contract. The Hawks picked up his option year, but very pointedly didn’t give him an extension.
“I’m looking at this as a very unique opportunity, not only for me but for this team,” Drew said. “I’m not coming into this thing looking at it like we’re starting over. We’re going to build off what we’ve done in the past.”
Indeed, the Hawks have plenty of talented players. Josh Smith is coming off perhaps the best season of his career. Al Horford is a former All-Star who missed most of last season with a pectoral injury, but made a dramatic return in the playoffs. Jeff Teague is coming into his own as a point guard. Lou Williams, one of the league’s top sixth men, was signed as a free agent.
But the roster Ferry assembled through trades and signings tilts heavily toward the backcourt. In addition to Teague and Williams, the Hawks also have guards Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson, Devin Harris and John Jenkins, the team’s top draft pick. The result is almost certainly a three-guard starting lineup, augmented by a center (Horford) who is probably better suited to play power forward, and a power forward (Smith) who might be more effective as a small forward.
Drew plans to counter the obvious defensive shortcomings with a run-and-gun style that will be a striking break from the isolation plays that were Johnson’s forte on the way to making six straight All-Star Game appearances.
“When you look at us on paper, everybody says we’re a team that has some good players, can make shots, will be able to get up and down the floor, will be able to score,” the coach said. “But will we be able to defend? That will be the big question.”
The most intriguing player on the court figures to be Smith, an often-enigmatic figure who took on more of a leadership role after Horford went down early in the season. J-Smoove put up career bests in points (18.8 a game) and rebounds (9.6), while being much more prudent about his shot selection. But this is the last year of his contract, and it’s not clear how much longer he’ll be playing for his hometown team.
Smith certainly considers himself one of the league’s better players and expects to be compensated like one. Ferry may not be willing to dole out that sort of money, fully aware of how Johnson’s maximum contract left the Hawks with little financial flexibility but didn’t produce any major success in the playoffs.
That’s why Johnson, only two years into a six-year, $119 million contract, was dealt to the Brooklyn Nets for little more than a bunch of players who will soon be off the books. That’s why Williams, a former No. 2 overall pick with two years left on a $40 million deal, was dealt to the Utah Jazz for Harris, a point guard the team didn’t really need.
“You obviously build a relationship with those players,” Smith said. “Joe and Marvin had been on this team for a long time. To see them go, it is different. But you knew something was going to happen with a new GM coming in, looking to try to turn this program around.”
The Hawks finished 40-26 last season, the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference and a better-than-expected showing after Horford went down. But they were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by Boston, ending a streak of three straight appearances in the second round.
Atlanta has never advanced past the second round since moving to the Deep South in 1968. That’s the sort of blight Ferry was looking to change when he started wheeling and dealing.
Just don’t expect an immediate turnaround.
The Hawks might have to take a step or two back before they can start moving forward again.
“We’ve been winning for some years now, but we’re trying to take it to another level,” Smith said. “I’m on board with the decisions and the moves that were made. I’m pretty sure everyone around here is, too.”