OK, I messed up. I said I would ask Rick Sund about David Andersen, the Australian center who plays for FC Barcelona in Spain and whose NBA rights the Atlanta Hawks continue to hold, and I flat-out forgot. What can I say? We got to gabbing.
The Hawks’ general manager and I talked Wednesday for an hour and 45 minutes, and here, as promised, is a (slightly) truncated version of that extended audience. And you’ll be disappointed because Sund doesn’t volunteer any names of free agents he’d like to sign or details of any trade he’d like to make, but you’re going to have to deal with it. No GM ever talks about such things, at least not on the record, and Sund is more cautious than most.
But he is a winning conversationalist, and I think you’ll find some edification herein. And for all those who submitted questions I wound up using, you have my sincere thanks. For all those whose questions I didn’t pose, you have the same sincere thanks and my heartiest apologies. But I hope this little exercise enables you to feel, in some way, that you were part of this experimental process.
(And one final note: I just sent Sund an e-mail asking about David Andersen.)
MB: If you had to prioritize the offseason with your free agents, who would be the No. 1 target?
RS: We haven’t even put closure to the season. We put closure to it with the players last week, but the coaches have been off – they come back today. We’ll have meetings tomorrow and Friday, and then we’ll start doing the report cards on all the players. We’ll start doing analysis. I have a lot of exercises for our entire basketball staff to go through. And then we’ll look at that and start to prioritize.
MB: I guess what I’m asking is, Is Mike Bibby a greater priority than Marvin Williams?
RS: I don’t know. Is Flip [Murray] a greater priority? Is Zaza [Paculia]? We’ve got to sit down and talk about all of those, and then this year, unlike last year, we’ve got some key free agents at play – four of the players in our rotation are free agents, three of them unrestricted. And then you’ve got the [Josh] Childress chip. We’re not privy to his contract, but what I heard from his people when he left was that he has an out provision each year he can exercise. So does he want to come back, and where does he fit in? And then you throw in the draft pick and trade possibilities …
The one thing we have is a lot of moving parts, but they are moving. And you’ve got to juggle them with the other options that are available. And most of those moving parts can’t be dealt with until free agency starts in July.
MB: Are you confident you’ll have the financial wherewithal to get done what you need to do this offseason?
RS: Yeah, I am.
MB: A theoretical question. If money and free agency were not issues, would you be happy with the makeup of this team?
RS: Yeah, I like our club. The only reason I say that is there’s still growth from within. I think [Al] Horford’s going to continue to get better; I think Marvin’s going to continue to get better. I think Josh [Smith] is going to continue to get better – every year he’s gotten better … I think you still need to tweak it if you can.
MB: You said the season was an evaluation period for you. From what you saw, do you think this team and Mike Woodson fit together well?
RS: From what I saw, this team surprised me. I was not totally impressed with the team made the playoffs last season with 37 wins. I was encouraged by two things: One, their home record of 25 wins, and two, their performance in the playoffs. So this year I said I would like for this team to have a winning record and make the playoffs. Not necessarily in that order. I’d have taken making the playoffs without a winning record.
In my mind I thought, having not known this club, we would probably be fighting for the seventh or eighth spot and hopefully be above .500 for the first time in basically a five-year program. I was surprised and impressed. A playoff-caliber club has to be able to win your 25 games at home and win between 14 and 17 games on the road. That’s playoff-caliber. They won 12 the year before, which is why they were at 37 wins and not 40 or 41. Not only did they maintain that 25 [this season], they went to 31. Elite teams in this league get 30-plus wins at home and 20 wins on the road. Now we’re not elite on the road – we’re playoff-caliber. We had 16, right in the middle. The reason we got the fourth seed was that we were an elite team at home.
That impressed me. And I hated it when it happened, but in retrospect it turned out to be good that we lost at home in the playoffs because we had to win one on the road – and we did. The fourth and fifth seeds are always the toughest [series] because they’re usually pretty good home teams, and we had to win one on the road with our backs against the wall. And even better was that we got that seventh game at home, and that was a decisive win.
Let’s talk a little about [Round 2 against] Cleveland. One of my biggest disappointments was, with our team being hurt – three starters who obviously would have played tons of minutes if they’d have been healthy – we didn’t get the true barometer read with Cleveland. But there was some disappointment in our players, and that’s good. That’s the mark of a good team.
The four teams in the [conference semifinals], we beat them. That’s why we’re a playoff-caliber club. But we didn’t dominate them. We split with L.A., we split with Denver. You asked me if we’d be happy with this club going forward … I don’t know if I answered your question, but that’s the logic going into it.
MB: You had never worked with Woodson on a close basis before. Were you satisfied with what you saw?
RS: Yeah. We’re in a results business. A couple of things should be reviewed. Last year, when I came in – hired June 1 — I got a lot of e-mails on what to do on everything. From players and coaches, trades, staffing, the whole thing. I got a lot of help and suggestions. I said at that time I’m going to spend two weeks and take in as much information as I could, and my recommendation was to keep Mike. And I think he did a good job this year.
MB: This was a big thing with our readers. They see other teams having offensive coordinators or defensive coordinators. Would you be interested in that?
RS: I’ve never really thought about that. You don’t see it very often. It’s up to the coach. It’s really a question for you to ask Mike … It’s not my call.
MB: I know what you said last year about Al Horford being a center. Do you still feel that way, and do you feel like your team is big enough, given that you were outrebounded on the season?
RS: Yeah, I do.
MB: Do you still see upside for Josh?
RS: Yeah. Yeah, I do. Every year he’s gotten better, and I thought he played reasonably well in the playoffs.
MB: Understanding that you’re still in your evaluation process, what do you see as a greater need – more size up front or backcourt help?
RS: I don’t know. I’d have to look at it and talk to my staff a little more. I like Zaza. I think Zaza and Horford did a really good job at the center position. We weren’t beat at the center position very often this year.
MB: Do you talk to Childress?
RS: He’s playing right now in Greece … When their season is over, they’re going to inform us. Evidently he can opt out of his contract. If he opts out, we’d have to tender him a [one-year] qualifying offer. Otherwise he’d be an unrestricted free agent.
MB: So you’ve had no contact with him during the year?
RS: We’ve had scouts go over and watch him. [Assistant GM] Dave Pendergraph has texted him. And I’ve talked to his agents – they represent other players.
MB: And what was your read on Childress?
RS: They played it pretty close to the vest.
MB: This is another issue with our readers. Kenny Smith apparently said on TNT that the Hawks lack an identity. Do you feel your team has an identity?
RS: I don’t pay attention to that. When I watch a game, I turn the sound down so I can draw my own conclusions. I think our identity is that we have the ability – and I think I said this to you last year – to do both [meaning fast-break and play halfcourt ball]. If the game and the tempo and the referees dictated an up-tempo game, we played it – and played it well. Like the first [playoff] game with Miami. But if it was going to be a slowdown type of game – like with Detroit – we won three games against them. I think the good teams have the ability to do both. I think sometimes people see Josh Smith’s athleticism and they think we have to be just a running team. Well, we’re not.
MB: Would you like to see the offense go a little less through Joe?
RS: That’s not for me to say. I don’t tell the coaches how to coach. I want the results, however the results may be.
MB: There was some comment after the Cleveland series that you’d go as far as you can with Joe Johnson. Do you believe that?
RS: I don’t think you can draw any conclusions from anything from the Cleveland series. They’re obviously the best team in the league over 82 games, and we were too injured. Couldn’t draw conclusions from it.
MB: Did Joe’s struggles, even against Miami, make you think he has gone as far as he can go – that this is what he is?
RS: I’m not going to throw anything on one playoff series. Joe had some big assist nights in there. I thought Joe, particularly in Game 7, stepped up. All the defenses were geared to stop him, and Joe was a part of [winning] … I’m a Joe fan, and I thought Joe played reasonably well … No, I don’t put any stock in that [appraisal of Johnson].
MB: Have you targeted any position in the draft?
RS: We’re just getting started into it. We have to zero in on it – what’s the best player and in what area do we need help most – and then you compare the two and you come up with a decision. I pretty much lean, when you’re picking 19th, to take the best player with the most potential. Particularly at 19.
MB: You liked Acie Law …
RS: I liked him. I didn’t draft him – I inherited him – but I thought it was a pretty solid draft pick, and I liked him when I saw him in college. Like most rookies, he didn’t get a lot of playing time. We knew when we brought in Flip that [Law’s] minutes were going to be suspect if Flip was a good fit, which he was. So he ended up being the ninth man, which is typical of a lot of guys in their second year. And I really thought the first half of the season he was contributing in that ninth-man role. Then he got hurt. And then, as the season progressed – and this is typical – [Woodson] tightened the rotation. That’s what you do because you want to get into the playoffs.
MB: Would you like to keep Marvin Williams?
RS: The one thing you have with free agency is that they hold some cards, too. I’ve never been one to predict anything that’s going to happen in free agency because you never know. What I do say is that I like the core of this club and I’d like to keep as much of this core as we can and I’d like to improve our club if we can with trades. If that happens, great. But what I do like about this club is that it’s young enough there can be improvement from within. When you get beyond that, then you’ve got problems. Then you’ve got to start talking about major, major moves.
MB: And you don’t feel you have to make a major move?
RS: I think we’re in a position where we can do both. If some major moves make some sense for us and we can do it, great. If not, we have growth from within. We’re in the best of all worlds at this point. We’re at the point where we are a bona fide playoff club. So we went in the past five years from bad to good. Now we’ve got to go from good to great, and that’s the really hard part in the NBA – going from good to great.
MB: Can you do that without a superstar?
RS: Define “superstar.”
MB: Is Joe?
RS: I didn’t say, “Ask me.” I said, “Define it.” [Laughter all around.] See, I listen to your questions. It gets into my theory …
MB: This is the “top 10 guys in the league” thing.
RS: You got it. Can you win championships and be an elite club with three or four players on your roster who are in the top 10 or 12 at their position? You can. Detroit showed that [in 2004]. Now [Chauncey] Billups today is an All-Pro All-Star, but he wasn’t when Detroit got it, and neither was Rich Hamilton. And neither was Tayshaun Prince. But Ben Wallace was in the top 10 of power forwards, and Rasheed [Wallace] went from a top five player in the league when he was at Portland to a top eight.
If you get enough players collectively who are in the top 12 or 13 at their position, you can win a championship. It’s been proven. And that’s what we have to do … We’ve got to do it collectively if we don’t have an MVP candidate.
Late-breaking addendum! The extremely thoughtful Rick Sund responded to the e-mail about Andersen. Quoth the GM: “We are in the process of evaluating David Andersen via film. He is in our discussions and is another ball we will be juggling. He is another moving part that we will consider.”
And now, I believe, my work here is done.