Expanding my print edition story . . .
If the Hawks are interested in moving forward instead of standing pat, that means they are chasing the Magic. The disparity in talent (basketball, not physical), depth and single-minded execution in this series has been apparent. In addition to Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis, the Magic can send out at least seven additional players who effectively fill major roles.
To get to that level, the Hawks need more and better perimeter players, starting with a point guard. That’s true whether they re-sign J.J. or not, which I’ll get into more under the “Philosophy” heading. The Hawks need to see what they have with Teague, and sending him to summer league is a good start, but they also need a veteran other than Bibby who can possibly start or play big minutes.
The Hawks need more depth. Look at the bottom of the roster right now: Joe Smith, Jason Collins, Randolph Morris and Mario West. The Hawks need better players to fill those roles (backup center, power forward, and defensive wing) and either Woody or the next coach has to make it a point to work them into the rotation.
When the Hawks, including co-owner Michael Gearon Jr., say they are a better team when the ball is moving, what they mean is they are better when J.J. isn’t dribbling out the ball on one side of the floor while his teammates stand around. So before the Hawks even begin to ponder how much they think J.J. is worth, they first must decide if he can play a different style. If the Hawks re-sign J.J. and add a point guard who can get to the rim and create open shots, can J.J. thrive as a spot-up shooter and cutter? Or does he need to play his deliberate, slashing style? If the Hawks keep Woody, would he be able to get J.J. to change for the sake of the team? Can any coach do it at this point?
At first I defended the merits of Iso-Joe, which included the Hawks’ excellent efficiency numbers during the regular season. Slowly I came to realize the psychological toll it has on this team, which has several guys who need to be involved to stay sharp. And now we see that in the playoffs good defensive teams, which most of them tend to be, can neutralize Iso-Joe or Iso-Anybody. Actually, we saw that before the playoffs, when the Hawks kept losing those road leads with low-scoring second halves.
The Hawks’ need for a point guard ties into the defensive philosophy, too. Since two of the Hawks’ four primary perimeter players are weak defenders, Woody has had to use switches on screens (Woody is a big fan of Bibby but I think he’d use him as a reserve if he had a clearly better option.) If Woody stays and the Hawks acquire a couple more strong perimeter defenders, would he then scrap the switches? (I think he would.)
The chemistry issues also tie into philosophy. Perhaps if the Hawks ran an offense with more player and ball movement they wouldn’t suffer so many of those demoralizing scoring droughts. Surely a defense that keeps Al and Josh near the basket would help with the negative rebounding margins, fatigue and frustrations that can occur when big men are forced to defend on the perimeter.
It’s easy to say ASG simply needs to go for it and start spending serious money. The Magic has three guys (Dwight, Rashard and Vince) making more than J.J., and those three guys have taken it to the Hawks. Still, none of the rest of the Magic are particularly high-priced, but there are lots of them. The Magic picked the right guys behind the stars and a coach who’s gotten them to buy into a defense-first approach.
So it’s not only about payroll. But the Hawks didn’t use either of their salary-cap exceptions this season, and that’s a major way to acquire solid, veteran players who can fill a major role. It’s what teams with real championship aspirations do even if they don’t go out and sign max guys. The Hawks’ $66 million payroll is well below that of the serious contending teams. They’ve gotten next to nothing from the minimum-salaries guys at the end of the bench.
But the reality is, there are only a few superstars ASG could acquire who would provide a reasonable chance at a return on their investment in this market. The list starts with LeBron, Wade, and Kobe and doesn’t go on much longer, if it all. Without getting into the many reasons offered for why people haven’t turned out for Hawks games, the attendance and revenues haven’t kept pace with the victories. The Hawks had to sell deeply discounted tickets (or in some cases give them away) for playoffs games. This is not an environment that would inspire any owner to take on payroll unless they can get a guy on that short list of box-office draws.
I saw that effect in Miami. The Heat traded for Shaq and suddenly they were the hot thing in Miami. Three years of sellouts and dramatically increased revenues followed. Then things went south, teh crowds and revenues started drying up again and Shaq was on his way to Phoenix. That’s how it tends to go unless a franchise is located in a rabid basketball town with deep ties to the local team.
You can offer an argument that the city would rally behind (and spend money on) a low-key, superstarless team that plays fundamentally sound offense and rugged defense. But, really, is that realistic? The Hawks sent out an exciting, athletic team that won 37 games at Philips Arena while scoring a lot of points and still had trouble drawing. Would it really make a big difference if the newly-constructed team ran less isos and fought through screens?
As it stands now, the Hawks’ payroll is projected at roughly $45 million next season. The salary cap is expected to be at about $56 million. That means if the Hawks let J.J. walk without a sign-and-trade, they
can could possibly sign a free agent whose salary starts at $10-$11 million $9-$10 million (edit: reader Robert Dinterman emailed to note that this would require the Hawks to renounce several cap holds–see here for details). If they end up at the cap limit, they then could add a player using the mid-level (salary starting at about $5.5 million), bi-annual ($2.1 million) exceptions and/or minimum-salary exceptions.
Perhaps that plan might work in the short term if the Hawks got the Personnel part right and found good value for a starting point guard, defensive wing, center and whatever else they decide they need. Maybe losing an All-NBA talent like J.J. is offset somewhat by the change in Philosophy that presumably would happen with him gone and a point guard added. It’s doubtful it would be a team that can break through to the East finals but maybe it’s a small step back before something bigger down the line.