HAWKSVILLE - Raise your hand if you thought we’d all end up here.
Go ahead, raise it up high. Let the rest of us see you. I need to make sure we count the hands.
Good. Now that the roll call is over, it’s time to get down the serious business that will be retooling this Hawks roster for next season. In case you missed it, nearly half the roster is going to be diving into the free agent waters this summer.
That means there’s a chance that the Hawks team you saw on the floor in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Cleveland will be no more as of July 1, the date the free agent negotiating season kicks off. That also means that the ball switches from Mike Woodson, Joe Johnson, Mike Bibby and Josh Smith’s court to that of Hawks general manager Rick Sund.
And judging by his 30-plus year resume in the league, Sund is well aware that now is not the time for snap decisions. Those are the things, as my guy Jeff Schultz alluded to his in his column from Game 4 of the Cleveland series, that can implode a franchise. Sund needs to do what his predecessor did not after last year’s Game 7 loss to Boston, and that’s take a week or so to decompress from this experience before coming to any conclusions about this team.
(Injuries to both Al Horford and Marvin Williams complicate any postseason studies into their performances, so basically all you can go off of is their healthy regular season work.)
We, on the other hand, don’t have to wait for anything to start making our assessments of what we saw, what we liked and disliked and what we think needs to be done to improve for the future (a wise . We can dive right in, as I know you have been doing for days. So without further ado, here is one thing that can’t wait:
Since he’s the one player Hawks fans ride worse than any other, it’s only fitting that we address Josh Smith first. No fewer than a dozen people came up to me in the minutes after the game to insist that he was the reason the Hawks lost yet another game. He wasn’t locked in on defense, I was told, and he was the one giving up all the big shots, and he let Anderson Varejao work him on the boards the entire series and that’s ultimately what cost the Hawks.
I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again, once again Smith serves as the easy scapegoat for the Hawks’ larger problems (their paper-thin depth, their flawed offensive scheme the wordsmith Mark Bradley nailed in his recent column and their inability to get ball pressure on the ball at the outset of offensive possessions, just to name a few).
In addition to outscoring all the Hawks other starters (26 to 25) in Game 4, Smith led the Hawks in scoring (17.1), rebounds (7.5), blocks (1.5) and steals (1.1, he tied with Flip Murray) in 11 postseason games. He only shot 42 percent from the floor and a putrid 13 percent (2-for-15) from beyond the 3-point line. But he raised his dismal free throw shooting percentage from the regular season up to 72 percent during the playoffs.
The point is, for every deficiency he has (and five years into his career, Smith, like scores of other pros in the same situation, still has plenty) Smith has a matching skill that can’t be overlooked. His mission this summer, forget about the 3-point line and hone the post skills that few teams can deal with. Take a page out of the book of New Orleans Hornets forward David West and come back with a money 16-footer that makes teams pay for leaving you open on the wing.
I place as much of the responsibility for that happening on Smith as I do his employers. There has to be some sort of marriage of philosophies this summer to make sure that he comes back next season a more polished player and one that fulfills his role as the Hawks’ truly most dynamic player.
We’re going to toss Bibby’s name around quite a bit in the coming weeks, so let me start by insisting that you consider what the Hawks looked like before he showed up and then compare that to what they looked like in his 130 games in uniform. It was a different world, folks. So keep that in mind this summer as the Hawks start weighing their point guard possibilities – and they are endless, what with the free agent market, the draft and whatever sign-and-trade possibilities might be out there.
Bibby’s status as an unrestricted free agent means he’ll have suitors other than the Hawks capable of presenting him with the opportunity to play at least three or four more years (Bibby’s been around for 11 years but just made 31 today). “The Hawks can get someone that’s a better defender and better distributor at that position, but I don’t know that they’re going to get a better shot maker or a better fit for their
team,” a scout friend told me via email earlier today when I inquired about his assessment of Bibby’s situation with the Hawks. “There’s not a team in the league that doesn’t need a guy who’s going to knock down the big shots he does. And the funny thing is, for all the talk about his big salary this year ($15 million in the final year of his deal), you know you’re going to get him for half that or even less on this next deal. He’ll actually be a bargain on his next deal, compared to what he was.”
Bibby is and remains the biggest question mark of the Hawks’ free agents. If you keep him, his successor has to be located immediately and then groomed (what the Hawks did the past two years with Acie Law IV was anything but grooming him) to eventually take over the starting job. If you decide against keeping Bibby, you almost guarantee that you’ll have to locate your new starter via some sort of trade. Because there is little to no chance of finding a point guard ready to be pressed into immediate starting service in the June draft, not where the Hawks are picking (deep in the first round at either 19 or 20).
The Hawks could pull a fast one and snag their point guard of the future and Bibby’s immediate replacement all at once. But as an Eastern Conference executive explained to me Tuesday morning, they’ll have to find someone else’s “garbage” (it wasn’t garbage in the sense you might think, he meant a guy that someone deemed expendable) and make him their own – sort of like what Cleveland did with Delonte West, who has blossomed into one of the league’s top young attack guards (a point guard in size but whatever he wants to be because of his tenacity and fearlessness). Guys that fit that mold to me, and I think there are plenty, including former Georgia Tech star Jarrett Jack, Lakers backup Jordan Farmar (he’s under contract for the next two years and under siege by Shannon Brown), Milwaukee’s Ramon Sessions (unrestricted free agent and ready for prime time) and Portland’s Sergio Rodriguez (still under contract for another year but clearly expendable with Steve Blake and Jerryd Bayless on the roster). There are
also veterans like Philly’s Andre Miller (unrestricted), Chicago’s Kirk Hinrich (hefty salary for the next three years but absolutely expendable with Derrick Rose at the helm and Ben Gordon an unrestricted free agent), Charlotte’s Raymond Felton (restricted) and Utah’s Ronnie Price (unrestricted).
Again, the Hawks’ options are limitless, especially when you consider that basically half the players on their own roster are free agents of one form or another. But make no mistake, figuring out what to do at point guard remains the Hawks’ highest priority.
And there are several reasons why – the first being their utter refusal to draft the right point guard year after year during the previous regime. The most important, however, is that point guard play in the NBA has become the equivalent of quarterback play in the NFL. Either you have a veteran hand capable of orchestrating almost any situation, a guy that can make everything run smoothly (Kurt Warner anyone) or you have the young phenom (the Falcons’ Matt Ryan comes to mind) that simply will not be denied. If you get caught between those two extremes, you’re gambling with your team’s future.
If you don’t believe quality point guard play can make the absolute difference between mediocre and championship worthy, you should spend a few minutes reading one of the best stories I’ve read about that very subject (courtesy of Tom Friend of ESPN’s Outside The Lines). Seriously, if you don’t do anything else, read this story from top to bottom to see how the right guy at the most important position on the floor (or field) can make all the difference in the world for a team … sort of like Bibby did for the Hawks the last year and a half.