The hockey arm of the Atlanta Spirit might be headed out of town, and a key part of the Spirit’s basketball operation could be, too. This assumes the Spirit will keep the Hawks, which it might not. Confused yet?)
Jamal Crawford won’t be taking his talents to Winnipeg, but he might not be a Hawk much longer.
Crawford isn’t anxious to leave. Of his four NBA stops, this has been the sweetest: He made the playoffs for the first time, and last season he was voted the league’s best sixth man. But he wants more money. He’s not apt to find it here.
He made $10 million this season. He’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. He informed the Hawks a year ago that he’d like a new contract, and nothing much has happened. (Nothing beyond Rick Sund, the general manager, saying he’d like to keep Crawford.)
Unless the NBA thrashes out a new collective bargaining agreement that radically boosts the salary cap, the Hawks won’t be in position to spend. The Spirit, which funded the league’s seventh-highest payroll in 2010-2011, doesn’t want to pay one penny of luxury tax, the threshold for which was $70 million this season. (And even if the Hawks were sold, the sale wouldn’t be finalized until after the keep-or-dump decision on Crawford is made.)
The Hawks have committed almost $67 million to salaries for 2011-2012, which brings us to the greater issue. Their surprising playoff run notwithstanding, is there financial room for growth?
Joe Johnson will make $18 million next season. There was a time when — at least to some people, this correspondent included — it made sense for the Hawks to pay whatever it took to keep their best player. One year into his $120-million contract, Johnson is no longer that player. He slipped from 11th in the NBA in scoring in 2009-2010 to 28th this season, and he didn’t draw a single vote in All-NBA balloting. (He’d made third team the year before.)
Combine the $18 million due Johnson with the $8 million on Kirk Hinrich’s contract and the $1.5 million due Jeff Teague, and you’ve got nearly $28 million sunk into a backcourt without Crawford. And the price paid for Hinrich — the rookie Jordan Crawford plus the Hawks’ No. 1 pick in 2011 — wrecked the chance of developing young talent at an entry-level rate.
If the Hawks lose Jamal Crawford, they won’t be as good. He’s a difference-maker. He’s also 31, and Johnson is set to turn 30 next month. Even if the Spirit could afford it, would it be wise to spend big to keep another shooting guard of similar talent and age?
Small forward is the bigger concern. With his increasing reliance on size over skill, Larry Drew moved Al Horford to power forward, which enabled him to shoot more jump shots to lesser effect, and Josh Smith to the perimeter, which did the same. Marvin Williams, who’s under contract through 2013, has become a lost soul. If Horford and Smith remain at 4 and 3 — and I’m not sure that’s the answer — then the Hawks can get by with Williams doing little.
If not, could Johnson swing to forward and let Teague and Hinrich start at guard? The learned John Hollinger of ESPN has suggested as much, but I don’t see it. If we know anything about Johnson, it’s that he needs the ball in his hands. And would a team that ranked 22nd in a 30-team league in rebounding differential dare to deploy three guards as its base lineup?
It wouldn’t be a summer if we didn’t have Hawks drama. In 2008 they lost Josh Childress to Greece but kept Josh Smith. In 2009 they kept Marvin Williams, Mike Bibby and Zaza Pachulia but let Flip Murray leave. (Trading for Crawford had rendered Flip expendable.) Last summer the Spirit fired Mike Woodson, promoted Larry Drew and broke the bank for Johnson.
On the record, the Spirit has a pretty good history of keeping the guys it wants to keep. Crawford, however, will be the most severe test. The Hawks like him and value him, but they might not be able to afford him. And he’d be a real loss.
By Mark Bradley