More from my interview yesterday with Hawks GM Rick Sund.
MC: What is your evaluation of the season?
Sund: There are two seasons. Once you become a real playoff team, there are two seasons. I thought we had an unbelievably great first season: 40 wins, key people hurt, the players and Larry [Drew] kept their focus. We ended up having the fourth-best record in the East. I thought with all the adversity it was really a great year with the compressed schedule and all the obstacles a team has to climb, which every team has those obstacles. I thought it was good.
The second part of the season is the playoffs and that’s disappointing. I think a great thing when you go through the [exit] interview process you get to talk to the players, and to a man—I still have a couple to do—but to a man they all think we should still be playing. And that’s a good thing. There’s disappointment in their heart. They look [at the playoffs] and feel they are good enough to be playing at the championship level.
MC: When you evaluate the team, are you able to separate out the effects of all the injuries from where you need to get better?
Sund: Two-and-a-half weeks after the season, you are a little bit more pragmatic. The emotions are out of the focus. When you look at it and you have to say, the last four years this team in the Eastern Conference has had the third-or fourth-best record either by the end of the regular season or by getting through the first round and getting to the second round. We’ve had the third- or fourth-best record in the last four years. Our goal is to get into those top two [in the East], because that’s when you have a legitimate shot to get to the finals. That’s that championship level. That’s the NBA’s version of the Final Four. You want to be one of those top two teams playing at the end of May and into June because you’ve got a legitimate shot to win a championship. We’ve fallen short of that. That’s our goal. Having said that, we have to look at our club and say where are the areas we can improve, what can we do without taking a step back. So we will have to explore all opportunities.
MC: The team’s deficiencies were mostly on offense, which came to fruition against the Celtics, a very good defensive team. From a personnel standpoint, how can the team improve offensively?
Sund: Again, you say separate the injuries, you really can’t, because if your key personnel are core members of your club, you are going to miss the points that that person may bring or the rebounds. I think we were one of the better defensive teams in the league, something last season we really wanted to focus on. I think Larry and the team did a great job. Points-wise it was Chicago one, Boston two, Philly three, Miami four, Memphis five, we are sixth. Defending in certain areas [like] field-goal percentage. In all of that, we really improved. I think that was the strength of our team. Now we have got to focus on, can we score a little more. Having said that, our offensive efficiency—which I know you are a big stat guy—was really good in the fourth quarter, particularly the last five minutes of the game. Joe [Johnson] in particular [was good] in crunch time. We were good in the fourth quarter, we were good in overtime games, close games. You are always looking at how you get better. I think some of that will come, if the team is the same, from [Jeff] Teague. Teague is going to continue to get better. He got a lot of easy shots for us in the playoffs for some of our players. Joe really improved his 3-point shooting. Marvin [Williams] shot the 3-pointer pretty good. You are asking me questions that really Larry should answer but I think, overall, the dialogue from the coaching staff and the management last year was [about] defense. We’ve got to focus on that and we can manufacture and we have enough talent to get shots.
MC: Why do you think things like good offensive efficiency in fourth quarter didn’t translate to the playoffs?
Sund: I haven’t really zeroed in on that. I think with the exception of the blowout game, all of the games—and we pretty much dominated Game 1-you take those two games out and the other four games were pretty close and could have gone either way. It was a missed shot here and a missed shot there.
MC: We saw the tension between Joe’s deliberate style that he likes to play and LD’s motion offense, something that he expressed his frustration about at one point. Can that tension be resolved with this personnel?
Sund: That question should be to Coach.
MC: Do you plan to extend a tender to Ivan [Johnson]?
Sund: I’m not going to comment on that right now.
MC: Will you try to sign Josh Smith to an extension?
Sund: I’m not going to get into contract stuff.
MC: Josh had a great year production-wise but–
Sund: I think it was the best year Josh has had, at least in the four years I’ve been here. I’ve said it for the record and I’ll say it again: Irrespective of how the voting came out, he should have been an All-Star. I thought Josh had an absolutely terrific year. He did a great job of making sure, hey, we lost some huge production with [Al] Horford and he picked it up.
MC: But his offensive efficiency fell off, and a large part of that is because he’s taking more shots away from the basket and not shooting–
Sund: You have to ask those questions to Larry.
MC: But from a personnel standpoint, do you think he fits with what Larry is trying to do offensively?
MC: Does that mean the migration away from the basket–
Sund: Those are questions you have to ask Larry. I think he’s an All-Star player. He played a total All-Star caliber play this year. He’s been exceptional in the post. I thought his defense was great. He’s one of the better passing power forwards in the league. I think he had a very good year.
MC: Is it your perception Josh is still happy being here with the Hawks?
Sund: I’m going to have his exit interview sometime this week. But, yeah, when you read the things of him saying . . . He’s such a competitor. I was talking to his dad the other day, and he mentioned we all think we should be playing, and that’s great. And [Josh] is one of them.
MC: Can you discuss tour team salary situation going forward?
Sund: I don’t like to talk about it until we find out what the taxes are and the league does its audit. We are in a situation where we have six guys under contract and we will have to fill in either via trade, first-round pick, second-round pick. How much room [under the tax level] do we have to use the mid-level, the bi-annual. We have all of those exceptions. Its’ too early to say.
MC: Is it possible you may have to build the same way as last year, when you had to find some value with minimum-salaried guys?
Sund: Many of the good teams are going to have to finesse their way around and look at that as an option. If you don’t want to be a perennial taxpayer, you have to look at those options. . . . I thought our team this year had a legitimate chance to get to the one or two spot [in the East]. We ended up with the fourth-best record in the [East] but we thought we could still be playing. I asked ownership if we think we are going to have a chance to make a run at it, we are going to have to dip our toe into and go into the tax and pay a little bit of tax. And they did it with no problem. We are an official taxpayer this year and I thought that was a good move for us given the injuries.
MC: I know you probably haven’t had much chance to study prospects in detail, but do you have an idea of the quality of depth in the draft?
Sund: I’m a real division of labor guy and that’s Dave Pendergraft and Mike McNeive, they focus on that all the time. I am getting more involved. During the year I go out and see some people but really focusing in on the groupings, where we pick at 23 who is going to be there, who do I really need to look at, who do you like in the combines, who do you not like. Chicago [combine] has become a really good tool because it’s basically all interviews for two or three days. That’s turned out to be really more productive than even in the past, when they just play.
MC: Have you gotten a feel from Dave and Mike on what they think about the draft prospects?
Sund: They’ve handled the draft pretty good the last couple of years. We got a good player in Teague and we got a good player in [Jordan] Crawford, which we parlayed into [Kirk] Hinrich. They feel that we will get a quality player at the 23rd pick, or there are quality people there. There are a few people they like that they might want to move down to get. Who knows. It’s way too early to tell. The lottery is tonight and next week is when it really starts to focus.
MC: How do you think that Crawford trade turned out now that Hinrich’s contract is expiring?
Sund: We felt we could make a run last year. Not quite as good as this year [but] we had to get through Orlando. It was the first time in four years we didn’t have home-court advantage and many people picked Orlando to win the conference. And then we took the best team record-wise [the Bulls] where we won the first game and then won another game. Hinrich didn’t play in that [series]. We like to think if Hinrich did play we would have advanced that round. It’s just unfortunate he came in with the injury this year. But I don’t think there’s any question in my mind that we wouldn’t have advanced to the second round last year without Kirk on our team.
Michael Cunningham, Hawks beat