Solving Problems: Hawks Must Tighten Bench
The Atlanta Hawks franchise is at a pivotal crossroads.
Will the club rest on its laurels and be content with just being a perennial playoff team or will the organization apply the gas and pursue true title contention?
The Hawks were purchased this past August by California developer and pizza chain owner Alex Muruelo who has vowed to revitalize the team’s hot and cold fan base and more importantly has the vision of pushing the club into the ranks of the league’s elite.
With new ownership seemingly not content to just make the postseason the pressure is now on executive vice president and general manager Rick Sund to make the necessary adjustments to the core of a roster which has made four consecutive playoff appearances.
With all signs pointing toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) seriously reducing salary cap flexibility and the use of exceptions, Sund’s title building project won’t be easy to accomplish by any stretch of the imagination.
The biggest hindering point is the organization’s position to the salary cap.
The Hawks currently have seven guaranteed contracts already on the books for the 2012 season totaling $64.9 million which in all likelihood will take them out of the running for marquee free agents this offseason.
In short there is a stacked laundry list of areas to address in order to take the next step such as holes to fill in the frontcourt, question marks at point guard, interior defense concerns and the need to get more production from the wing.
Hawks Most Pressing Need: Bench Depth
Many point to All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson’s contract as an anchor in Atlanta’s short-term plans. While it’s true paying a player $18 million a season puts a dent in a team’s payroll flexibility, the Hawks’ starting lineup isn’t the problem.
Johnson is arguably the third best shooting guard in the game today behind Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, center Al Horford continues to emerge and is fresh off his second straight All-Star selection, while the extremely athletic Josh Smith possesses All-Star potential and is just one year removed from an All-Defensive (second) team selection.
The biggest issue facing the franchise is reshaping the bench with quality players in a quick fashion on a presumably limited financial budget.
Unrestricted free agent shooting guard Jamal Crawford, the 2010 Sixth Man of the Year, was an integral part of Atlanta’s offensive flow over the past two seasons.
There is still a chance the club can re-sign Crawford to a deal if the new CBA remains somewhat flexible for teams trying to retain their own talent, but it’s also important to note the club had almost a full year to extend his old deal but decided to pass on the veteran by making Horford’s extension the top priority.
The loss of Crawford is a 15-17 point per game blow and signals a major loss to the Hawks’ perimeter oriented offensive approach.
The Hawks also have no one under contract with significant NBA experience to backup Marvin Williams at small forward.
Williams, who has been somewhat durable during his playing career, showed signs of breaking down last season and underwent back surgery during the summer. It was an outpatient procedure and wasn’t described as serious, but the lack of depth behind him on the wing is troubling if the aches and pains become problematic long-term.
The interior is also in the need of major work.
Veteran center Jason Collins did an outstanding job frustrating Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard in the playoffs last season, but he’s an unrestricted free agent who may draw interest in free agency around the league because of his toughness, experience and grittiness.
Seldom used big men Josh Powell and Hilton Armstrong have taken their talents overseas, but both never earned consistent minutes in head coach Larry Drew’s rotation.
Can the Hawks fill these gaps with such limited flexibility with regard to payroll?
History shows, from a lack of games missed due to injury standpoint, that the trio of Horford, Johnson and Smith are capable of logging heavy minutes on a night in and night out basis.
This somewhat eases the burden of having to find bench guys needing to contribute 20-25 minutes in the rotation.
However, Horford continues to chirp about his desire to play more power forward despite his stellar play at center. While Smith in the past could slide down to small forward over large stretches, his bulking up to handle the rigors of power forward and erratic jump shooting makes that less of an option these days.
As stated previously, the Hawks don’t have the cap room to aggressively target top free agents to upgrade their bench depth. But there are some options within their reach.
The In-House Pipeline?
With only seven players boasting guaranteed contracts for the 2012 campaign, the in-house pipeline is pretty bare bones.
Center Zaza Pachulia is the lone big man left on Atlanta’s bench. While the eight year veteran has made the transition into a niche role player over the past few seasons it must be noted he averaged 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as a starter with the team from 2005-07. The 27 year old Pachulia is more than capable of handling a larger role on the interior if utilized correctly.
Pape Sy logged only 21 combined minutes in three contests last season as a rookie which doesn’t seem to make him a viable option to handle a significant role off the bench at small forward.
Former LSU standout Magnum Rolle put up strong numbers in D-League action last season, but likely won’t be in contention for consistent minutes in Atlanta.
The Hawks selected Keith Benson out of Oakland University with the No. 48 overall pick in this year’s draft. Some have called Benson one of the most NBA ready centers in this year’s rookie crop, but it’s also hard to imagine him becoming a pillar of the second unit in his first season without summer league or training camp to get him ready for the pro game.
It remains to be seen how the new CBA deals with salary exceptions (mid-level, bi-annual), but there are some veterans winding down their respective careers who the Hawks could target.
Former All-Star Michael Redd is out to prove he can still be a solid NBA performer after battling knee injuries over the past two seasons. If completely healthy, Redd should be able to produce steady scoring off a team’s bench which would make him a solid replacement for Crawford in the backcourt. But the Chicago Bulls are also reportedly interested in his services and are better positioned to make a championship run than Atlanta next season – which could be a tiebreaker.
At small forward there are some intriguing veterans and a few guys looking to restart their careers.
Veterans Grant Hill, Shane Battier and Tayshaun Prince all seemingly have the right combination of defensive prowess and offensive punch to fit into the Hawks’ framework immediately. The problem is all of those guys will likely command more money than what the Hawks can pony up.
Players looking to redeem their careers at small forward include Josh Howard, Al Thornton and Rasual Butler – all of whom may be willing to play for the league minimum for a season.
The free agent crop likely available to Atlanta at power forward isn’t as impressive; Andrei Kirilenko, Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy and Chuck Hayes are some options at the four spot.
Filling a major need at center via free agency is unlikely, but there are some veteran legs such as Jeff Foster, Kwame Brown and Kurt Thomas floating in the land of unrestricted.
The Trade Market?
Although the Hawks have built on their current success by riding its continuity, a trade may be necessary ingredient to bring in a new batch of talent and get to the next level.
The likely candidate to be moved is the highly talented Smith, but Williams and veteran guard Kirk Hinrich could also be dealt for the right pieces.
There a number of players around the association who may be put on the trading block once the lockout is lifted.
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Anderson Varejao would allow Horford to slide into the power forward slot full-time while also strengthening the Hawks’ center slot and reducing the production needed from the bench’s frontcourt.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Kaman has been linked in trade talks with Smith for the majority of 2011. Kaman is a former All-Star who is apparently not in the Clippers’ plans for the future. His presence would also allow Horford to slide to his natural position.
The Sacramento Kings reportedly offered forward Jason Thompson to the Hawks last season for Jeff Teague, but Atlanta refused. With the Kings acquiring J.J. Hickson during the summer Thompson could be on the block once again.
Phoenix’s center Robin Lopez struggled tremendously last season after previously showing promise. With Marcin Gortat primed for a breakout campaign will Lopez become expendable?
The Hawks rebounded strongly last season by erasing the bad taste of their 2010 postseason flameout.
However the club was once again bounced in the second round.
The pieces are in place for another playoff appearance and the potential to flirt with 50 wins, but the franchise remains a couple pieces away from the ranks of the elite.
Can Sund put it all together?