Where Do The Hawks Go From Here?
Whether it is widely accepted by the mainstream or not, the Atlanta Hawks have been one of the league’s most successful franchises since 2008, boasting five consecutive trips to the playoffs over this time period.
The problem is the team has been unable to get over the proverbial hump and have failed to truly etch their place amongst the league’s elite, most notably, by not reaching the Eastern Conference Finals even once in their current postseason appearance streak.
On the surface, the 2012 season for the Hawks should be classified as a resounding success, being that the club persevered through plenty of adversity to record 40 wins and secure home court advantage during the first round of the playoffs, despite losing All-Star center Al Horford for the majority of the campaign.
But in reality, the Hawks will now enter the summer with plenty of question marks ranging all the way from their front office suites down to the twelfth man on the end of their bench, after a disappointing first round playoff elimination at the hands of the Boston Celtics.
The early postseason exit ended the team’s three year run of advancing to the second round and in the process rehashed the question of whether the team’s core of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Horford has plateaued as a collective unit.
The Hawks must also address the futures of executive vice president and general manager Rick Sund, and head coach Larry Drew, while also reloading a roster which has only six players under contract for the 2013 season.
All of these question marks must be addressed carefully over the next several months.
Front Office Management and Coaching
The Hawks have nine free agents to address and have to make a decision on who will be the team’s head coach next season.
But exactly who will be making those pivotal decisions has yet to be determined.
Sund’s current contract runs through the end of June and according to sources, he has been non-committal on extension talks preferring to gauge his own market value.
According to an ESPN report, Sund has drawn interest from the Portland Trail Blazers who are aggressively seeking to fill their own general manager void. The Blazers were also recently denied the opportunity to interview Sund by Hawks ownership, presumably until the team’s season ended.
Sund’s supporters reference his June 2009 trade for veteran guard Jamal Crawford, the salary cap friendly re-signing of center Zaza Pachulia and the drafting of point guard Jeff Teague, while his critics are quick to reference the seemingly unmovable contracts signed by Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams and the lack of draft success in Atlanta outside of Teague.
The uncertainty of Sund’s future makes Drew’s even cloudier.
If Sund does indeed decide to leave Atlanta, the new regime could very well elect to bring in their own guy to insert at head coach – which isn’t at all uncommon. Drew signed a two-year deal in 2010 with a team option for 2013 and he has compiled an 84-64 regular season mark in the two seasons, with an 8-10 postseason mark.
The head coaching candidate field figures to be an attractive one this summer with former Blazers coach Nate McMillan and Mike D’Antoni headlining a strong group. Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy may join the list as he isn’t expected to be back with the Magic next season after a drama filled campaign.
Hot assistant coach prospects such as Indiana’s Brian Shaw and Golden State’s Michael Malone are also sure to draw plenty of interest.
Keep in mind the Hawks were criticized for hiring Drew initially and a large contingent viewed the decision as strictly a financial savings type move (Drew was one of the lowest paid coaches in the NBA this season).
Whether that premise is true or not, Drew performed solidly in the head coach role and the Hawks have improved dramatically on the defensive end under his tutelage.
However, Drew was primarily hired to improve the club’s offense which was thought to be too predictable under former head coach Mike Woodson. Improving the team’s offensive execution has proven to be a challenge and an area which still needs to be addressed.
Once the future of Sund is decided over the next several weeks, Drew’s future with the franchise will likely go hand and hand.
The Hawks will enter the summer with only six players under contract for 2013 (Johnson, Horford, Smith, Teague, Williams and Pachulia).
The good news for Hawks fans are those players represent five starters and one of the team’s key reserves and this will make any front office transition period smoother based on their cohesiveness on the court together.
But outside of this, the roster situation gets a little murky.
The team must replace its entire bench from this past season with limited cap room to maneuver and the future of Smith in an Atlanta Hawks uniform, over the long term, is in serious doubt. Smith’s current deal expires at the end of next season and when pressed on the issue the veteran forward insists he’ll play out his contract and then evaluate his options once he hits free agency.
However, sources close to Smith maintain the veteran would wholeheartedly welcome a change of scenery if it meant going to a team ready to make deeper postseason runs.
There lies the dilemma for the Hawks, where an important decision must be made regarding Smith.
If the team has indeed plateaued, like many believe, under the trio of Johnson, Horford and Smith is this the summer the team should deal one of the three players?
The Hawks simply can’t afford to let a talent like Smith just casually walk out the door for nothing in return in free agency next summer. Smith is on the books for $13.2 million next season, but is coming off a career year in which he averaged 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. There will undoubtedly be a market for Smith’s services this summer if the Hawks look in to granting his on and off trade demand.
Decisions must also be made on shoring up the team’s bench with Kirk Hinrich, Tracy McGrady, Vladimir Radmanovic, Ivan Johnson, Jason Collins, Jannero Pargo, Willie Green, Erick Dampier and Jerry Stackhouse all expiring.
McGrady spent the season frustrated by his lack of playing time and is unlikely to return. Dampier and Stackhouse may elect to retire and hang up the high tops, but neither were major minute-grabbers in the rotation either way.
Hinrich has expressed his desire to remain in Atlanta, but with the current cap situation and the need to fill so many bench spots it would be hard pressed to see the Hawks paying the veteran what he could garner in free agency this summer.
Pargo and Green are the likely guard candidates to remain with the team and both filled their roles solidly when healthy (both battled injuries).
Collins is a locker room favorite and strong low post defender when healthy, but the veteran has been battling injuries as of late and may elect to retire as well.
The Hawks currently have $61 million in salary commitments for the 2013 season for six players. The salary cap will be no lower than $58 million next season, but could rise slightly.
If the Hawks stay their normal course of avoiding the luxury tax, then the team will have roughly about $9 million to work with in signing up to nine players by utilizing salary exceptions to the cap.
The Hawks could create more salary cap room and become players in free agency by using the amnesty provision on Williams, which would create about $8.3 million in space, although the team going this route appears unlikely.
The team would like to deal Williams and return talent as opposed to paying him to go away, since he’s a productive player who added a reliable three-point shot to his arsenal this past season.
One of the big areas which hurt the Hawks down the stretch this season was their lack of depth on the interior. Horford, Pachulia and Collins all missed significant time this season with various injuries and the Hawks will surely look to address frontcourt depth this summer. Possible veteran frontcourt candidates entering free agency who may be willing to sign a veteran minimum deal are Ronny Turiaf, Reggie Evans, Troy Murphy, Ryan Hollins, Chris Wilcox and Louis Amundson amongst others.
The NBA Draft
Here is the Atlanta Hawks draft history over the past three years:
2011: Keith Benson, Center, No. 48 overall
2010: Damion James, Small Forward, No. 24 overall (later traded for Jordan Crawford, who was also dealt by Atlanta)
2010: Pape Sy, Small Forward, No. 52 overall
2009: Jeff Teague, Point Guard, No. 19 overall
2009: Sergiy Gladyr, Shooting Guard, No. No. 49 overall
Only Teague remains with the team, so the current youth pipeline waiting in the wings on the roster is non-existent. This isn’t an uncommon problem for perennial playoff teams relying on experienced veteran talent for success.
This year the Hawks will hold the No. 23 and No. 43 overall picks in this year’s draft. If the team is going for size, UNC’s John Henson, Syracuse’s Fab Melo, Iowa State’s Royce White and St. Bonaventure’s Andrew Nicholson could be on the board in the first round. The team has also been looking to upgrade talent on the wing behind Williams, so Vanderbilt’s Jeff Taylor, St. John’s Moe Harkless and Washington’s Terrence Ross may still be available in the latter stages of the first round as well.
In round two, versatile big man prospect Kyle O’Quinn hailing from Norfolk State may be worth a look to develop in the frontcourt. O’Quinn burst on the scene with a strong showing in Norfolk State’s surprising NCAA Tournament run back in March.
The Hawks are legitimately very close to title contention, but are in the search of that ever-elusive piece that gets them there.
This summer will ultimately be a make or break for the team, and will determine if they finally make the leap or need to tear down their model and try an alternative method for long term success.