HAWKSVILLE – We apologize in advance for interrupting your viewing of the NBA Finals with hypothetical questions about the Hawks, but admit it, you’ve seen enough of the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic to last all summer.
But what if Mike Bibby moves on?
And Zaza Pachulia, too?
What if Flip Murray finds a new home?
And Josh Childress stays in Greece?
What if all these hypothetical scenarios we’ve been speaking of recently go up in smoke between the draft and training camp?
What if the Hawks can’t keep their team together because of finances, dumb luck and the aggressive pursuit of their free agents by other teams?
Like most of you, I’ve (foolishly) been operating under several assumptions the past few weeks. But after speaking with several NBA players, coaches and other sources around the league over the last week, it seems we’ve all been a bit too optimistic about the chances of all these guys reuniting next season.
“Unless I’m mistaken, getting all these guys in uniform for next season will cost a whole lot more than the Hawks are used to spending,” one Eastern Conference front office man told me Monday afternoon. “Check their roster and see how many guys they spent serious money on. It’s a short list. They inherited Bibby’s big deal and now that’s gone. They signed Joe [Johnson] and Josh [Smith] to their deals. Beyond that, there wasn’t a single guy on their roster they spent mid-level money on, not one, and that says something.”
When I asked him to elaborate, he had an interesting take what we’ve watched the past few years, the last two in particular.
“They got more out of their money than a lot of other teams these last two seasons,” he said. “That’s good while it lasts. It just doesn’t last forever. Sooner or later you have to pay to win in this league. The Hawks have gotten away without paying that price the past two years. They’ve done some things that their payroll suggests they shouldn’t have. But those days are probably over, because the teams they leapfrogged in the standings the past two years are not going to stay down forever.”
That’s probably true. But maybe they just made wise decisions about how to spend. They didn’t spend the kind of money championship teams do, but you have to crawl before you walk. And the Hawks crawled for years.
One player pointed to last summer’s free agent season as proof that the Hawks didn’t exactly swing for the fences and insisted that their frugal ways will come back to haunt them eventually, perhaps as soon as this summer.
“They waited until the last minute on [Smith] and had to wait for Memphis to put something on the table to get a deal done,” he said. “They lost the other Josh to Greece and then filled the holes with role players. Let’s be real man, and I’m not disrespecting anybody but signing Randolph Morris, Othello Hunter and Thomas Gardner doesn’t translate into championship moves. That sounds more like a team worried about spending some real money. And to players, that’s the kind of franchise you don’t want to deal with when you’re a free agent.”
That’s the real question for the Hawks this summer. Are they going to spend the money required to compete at the level they’ve become accustomed to the past two years?
This summer is about dollars and sense. The Hawks have to spend their cash wisely or all the work they’ve done the past few years could disappear by Labor Day.
Keeping Bibby, if that’s what the Hawks intend to do, won’t be easy. Anyone expecting Bibby to work for anything less than the mid-level is dreaming. In a league where starting point guards are at a premium (and starters that shoot as well as Bibby command even more attention), the price usually starts at the mid-level and rises. The key in the Bibby situation will be the length of the contract. If three years works for both sides (and I can’t see why it would not), then I can see the negotiations having some legs. If not, get ready for a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable (financial) differences.
Pachulia clearly wants to come back here. He said as much during our conversation last week. But he’s been here before, in free agent land, so he knows what a player wants doesn’t always jive with the reality of his situation. Unlike when the Hawks nabbed him from Milwaukee four years ago, teams aren’t spending as freely as they were then. Still, Pachulia was a bargain four years ago at $4 million per season. He’s a bargain at that price now if the Hawks can swing it. But with the lack of quality bigs running around the league these days, that $4 million price tag might not be enough to retain Pachulia’s services.
Murray’s destined for a substantial raise from the $1.5 million the Hawks paid him last season. You don’t put together the type of season he did without seeing a surge in interest for your services. The Hawks have the benefit of being the one team in the league willing to take a chance on him last year. But sentiment crashes into reality and loses all the time in the NBA, particularly during free agency. If the Hawks want to keep Murray, a serious raise is in order.
Childress added to a bench that includes Pachulia, Murray, Mo Evans and whatever player the Hawks could take with the 19th pick in the June draft would be a massive upgrade over what they used during a 47-win season. But three different sources I’ve spoken to in recent days insist that they don’t expect Childress to return to the NBA this summer (he has until July 15 to opt out of his Greek contract or remain there for another season). The dynamics of his situation in the NBA haven’t changed from last summer. He’s still a restricted free agent and would be subject to dealing with a Hawks organization that couldn’t get a deal done with him last summer. So it was a serious miscalculation of mine to blindly assume he’d bolt Europe for the comfort of the states.
“I don’t know why he would come back,” a Western Conference scout told me. “There’s so much uncertainty in the league this summer. Teams are holding back because of the economy and plotting for the summer of 2010. Plus, he’s still bound by restricted free agency, which means he can’t really come back and shop around for the best situation. If the Hawks didn’t get a deal done with him last summer I don’t see any way they get one done now. No way.”
With Childress subtracted from the potential mix, that leaves the Hawks with gaping holes on the roster heading into the draft and free agency. And from all the conversations I’ve had, the Hawks are torn between using the 19th pick and Speedy Claxton’s contract (along with other potential considerations) to grab an established point guard or gambling that the player they deem worthy will still be available at 19.
Another split, from what I’ve gathered, is that there remains some debate as to whether any of the point guards available in this draft are better prospects at the position than Acie Law IV, who despite having spent two years on the roster still has to answer major questions about his readiness to not only be a potential starter but a solid rotation player.
The Hawks’ previous front office regime was notoriously unimpressed by point guards in past drafts. Chris Paul was “too small,” Deron Williams worried them because his “body looked too soft” and Rajon Rondo was a “reach” with the fifth pick, just to highlight a few of the explanations given for passing on three big time NBA starters at the position. That sort of faulty logic led the Hawks to draft picks like Shelden Williams (a reach if ever there was one) and botched free agent signings like Claxton (who was Paul’s backup when the Hawks whisked him away from the Hornets for a cool $25 million).
I won’t pretend to speak for Hawks GM Rick Sund, who has not indicated that he has any sort of prejudice against rookie point guards. But I also won’t assume that he’ll address the Hawks’ point guard situation in the draft.
There’s just so much work to be done in such a short period of time. For once, I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to be the Hawks’ general manager right now.
MY SPLIT SCREEN IS WORKING THESE DAYS. I’M WATCHING THE FINALS, TOO. I’m watching Orlando suffer through the same things the Hawks did when they faced Cleveland in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the same thing the Cavaliers did when they fell to the Magic in Eastern Conference finals.
Some teams just present matchup nightmares for other teams. The Magic and Lakers are about as evenly matched as two teams could be in the Finals. Spot for spot up and down the rotation there are compelling matchups (my man Mickael Pietrus did his thing again, pushing Kobe Bryant late, sinking two free throws in the final 30 seconds to help seal his team’s Game 3 win). You can’t ask for much more than that at this stage of the season, save for the somewhat tiresome Van Gundy family reunion going on every game night (Stan’s a riot from the national anthem to the post game presser but I’ve listened to just about all I can take from Jeff on the broadcast).
One thing I noticed that’s been bothersome I have to ask you to weigh in on. Is there a more disappointing player in all of these playoffs than Andrew Bynum? I know the Lakers’ big man has already had to battle back from two serious knee injuries in his young career, but he doesn’t have any bounce at all.
He’s a shell of the dude the Lakers refused to give up in any deal a couple years back and for the life of me, I don’t see why. I don’t see anything in Bynum that would make him untouchable other than he’s a legitimate 7-footer. And these days, that’s just not enough.
Like most people whose team of interest is already do for the season, my attention has shifted dramatically in the direction of the NBA draft.
I know it’s fool’s gold, thinking teams are going to find answers to all their problems in a shallow draft. But what else can we bank on?
Combining my two pet topics of the month, I came up with another theory that requires your input.
After watching the Magic shoot a blistering (and Finals record ) 62.5 percent from the floor to win Game 3, I wonder if some teams will have the guts to rethink their draft strategy and identify the best shooters available?
For a team like the Hawks that would mean giving serious consideration to a player like North Carolina’s Wayne Ellington with that 19th pick. If Ellington’s still on the board, chances are there won’t be a better shooter or offensive player the Hawks could take in that range. I know he doesn’t address a particular position need for the Hawks (point guard or center) but he does address a skill need (the Hawks are in desperate need of more quality shooters).
Some teams aren’t going to wait until the draft to start adding shooters. Philadelphia pulled off a trade Tuesday for one of the league’s best shooters, stealing Jason Kapono from the Raptors for Reggie Evans.
Kapono, even in limited minutes, can change the game for the 76ers just by parking on the perimeter and posing as a deep threat. That’s a weapon teams will need, especially in the improving Eastern Conference. I suspect this won’t be the last trade of this kind we’ll see between now and draft night. Teams are going to be forced to explore every option they can to improve without adding salary.
Finally, and before I forget, the best NBA news of the week comes not from the Finals or the draft but from the real plague of the league – brutal officiating. We’ll have three fewer relics to pick on next year if this report in the Boston Globe is true.
Reportedly Jimmy Clark, Luis Grillo and Jack Nies are taking their combined 73 years of experience/service to the retirement village with them. Adios fellas, the hecklers will miss you.