After consecutive years of first-round wins but second-round humiliations, the Hawks are in a precarious situation. They are mandating improvement at a time when their best — albeit sometimes unpopular — player, Joe Johnson, is entering free agency and owners have a death grip on their wallets.
The draft is Thursday. It’s safe to assume that the Hawks’ chances of taking the next step do not hinge on the 24th selection. It depends on almost everything else: Johnson’s re-signing; the front-office scramble if he leaves; the potential return or trade of expatriate, Josh Childress; any potential trade involving almost anybody else (save Al Horford, who might as well stick his feet in concrete because he’s not going anywhere).
As summers go, this one ranks up there in importance with any in Hawks’ history. If they take a step back, they potentially lose some of the goodwill they’ve built up. Even if they remain flat, there will be cries to blow it up again.
The team has made one move this off-season and it didn’t exactly jump start a season ticket campaign: Larry Drew’s promotion to head coach. Whether you believe that criticism was justified or not, it’s undeniable. How do the Hawks combat that? Or do they bother?
This is where general manager Rick Sund attempts to add perspective: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an off-season where people didn’t say this was an important year — and most years the media says, ‘It’s the most important year.’ I think every year is important. Last year was important. The year before that was important – you had Josh Smith and Josh Childress as free agents and they had just made the playoffs for the first time.”
Point taken. Here’s the counter-argument: Higher expectations bring greater demands. Sund set the bar himself when he decided to change head coaches.
Last summer, after the step up with the playoff series win over Miami, Sund re-signed three of the team’s free agents: Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia. It seemed big then. Doesn’t seem as big now. Bibby’s nose dive this past season didn’t help. Neither did another year of seeming underachievement by Williams. (The biggest move easily turned out to be the acquisition of Jamal Crawford.)
Sund will tell you draft plans are not impacted by Johnson’s impending free agency because, logically, the 24th pick won’t be on that level. Besides, nobody is sure where Johnson starts — possibly not even he. The Hawks can offer one more season (six years) on a contract than other bidders. But there’s also a sense Johnson might be fed up with fan and media criticism and prefers to start fresh elsewhere.
Even if the Hawks re-sign Johnson, they have to figure out how to re-market the All-Star, given the damage he caused with pedestrian playoff performances and comments during the Orlando series. But they’ll worry about that later.
This could be a chance for Sund to remake the team, but he doesn’t have any desire to do so. The problem: if Johnson bolts, he’ll need more than Spackle.
Here’s one idea: Chris Paul.
The throw-it-against-the-wall rumor quotient in the NBA is higher than ever. In addition to the free agency class, there have been several reports that Paul, arguably the best point guard in the league when healthy, has been put on the trading block by New Orleans. The Hornets deny this. But what a way for the Hawks to make up for one of their biggest draft miscues in history.
Here’s a dream scenario: The Hawks deal Smith for Paul, re-sign Johnson and then convince LeBron James to follow Paul, his close friend, to Atlanta. Then the starting line up looks like this: Chris Paul, Joe Johnson, LeBron James, Al Horford and Some Guy Off The Street. Sweet! Wait until that goes viral on the Internet!
Sund is low-keying it for now.
“I like our team,” he said.
And this: “I don’t talk about hypotheticals.”
But don’t believe he hasn’t thought about them. This off-season is too important not to.
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