At Hoopinion, Bret LaGree uses his Cavs game recap to imagine how Hawks fans might have accepted a team without Joe Johnson:
Last night might have been a glimpse of an alternative present, one where the Hawks, at 12:01am on July 1, 2010, did not immediately offer Joe Johnson every cent they possibly could. A present where the Hawks, following a sober assessment of their current state and future options, chose to take a chance on their young frontcourt, trusted their fan base to accept short-term mediocrity as part of a bid for long-term relevance, and let someone else be the highest bidder for Joe Johnson’s thirties.
Last night’s Hawks game doesn’t prove anything about anything and I acknowledge that this alternative present I envisioned assumed some manner of Mike Bibby disposal to remain a pleasant thought. But say the Hawks had sold the 2010-11 season on the basis of the future. Imagine a 2010-11 season wherein the Hawks still extended Al Horford to a reasonable deal, either got rid of Bibby in some fashion or just played Jeff Teague anyway, looked forward to the options inherent in Jamal Crawford’s expiring contract coming off the books, struggled mightily against good teams, and beat up on bad teams.
It would, I suspect, be, empirically, much like this team. The difference would be the path taken to achieve similar results and if that path frequently included nights like this . . . would the Hawks be significantly worse off in terms of short-term perception? Would the future seem, if not more hopeful, at least less sadly certain?
Of course all of this assumes the Hawks would have a) received some useful players/assets in a sign-and-trade for J.J. and/or wisely used the cap space left over after his departure; b) done the same with Jamal; and c) used whatever assets the team acquired in such a way as to build a team that provided fans real hope for the future. Considering the team’s recent history of drafting, player evaluation, and resource allocation (both in terms of money and player roles), there would be some understandable skepticism about the prospects for such a scenario bearing fruit.
Still, I do think it’s a vision ASG could have sold to fans without much trouble. Normally teams that let their best player walk face a potential backlash. But J.J. (or really any of the current “core” outside of Al) wasn’t popular after last spring’s surrender to Orlando. The Hawks could have leveled with their fans and told them while the team may not have been as good this season without J.J. it still could make the playoffs (and, if not, get a lottery pick).
Then the Hawks could have gone about the process of turning J.J., Jamal, and any of their beloved “core” into a group that plausibly would be better next season than in 2010-11. All the while the Hawks could have whispered that they plan to make an all-out run at Dwight or CP3 in the summer of 2012 because ASG knows you need a top 5-10 player to win a title and will pay the tax for that chance. Failing that, the Hawks could have built a team that truly follows the Detroit model and includes tough-minded, defensive-focused players while still looking for opportunities to acquire a top 5 player or luck up into drafting one.
Instead, ASG found itself in the curious position of giving J.J. the richest contract in the league, in direct contradiction to its (unfair) cheap image, and getting ripped for it. The criticism increased when they failed to follow that bold move with others and settled into a familiar stasis. Now the Hawks are a mess with the playoffs to begin soon.
Their attendance has sagged. As LeGree points out, their esteem in the eyes of fans has declined both among those who are casual and not interested in the Hawks as entertainment, and those who are serious and stay loyal to the team but are dismayed because they saw this coming and now have little hope for future improvement.
So, even if you are skeptical that the Hawks could have competently embraced LeGree’s J.J.-less “alternative present” and then made smart moves for the future I’m sure they could have sold the plan. It turns out that would have been better than what they are selling right now.
Michael Cunningham, Hawks beat