Michael Cunningham of the AJC is reporting the Hawks have agreed to send Joe Johnson to the Nets for expiring contracts and a first-round draft choice.
Rick Sund arrived as general manager in June 2008 with the intent of keeping the Hawks’ young core intact. Seven days on the job, Danny Ferry is seeking to unload Joe Johnson to Brooklyn. Where Sund saw himself as a caretaker, Ferry intends to be a catalytic converter.
There’s no way forward for this franchise until the new GM finds room to maneuver. Johnson’s salary — he makes $20 million per season — means that anyone employing him is a third of the way toward the salary cap. Add Josh Smith ($13 million next season) and Al Horford ($12 million), and you’re at 75 percent capacity without having filled out a starting five.
The young core Sund inherited isn’t young anymore. Johnson is 31, and the other three — Smith and Horford plus Marvin Williams — are 26. Oklahoma City’s three best players are under 24, and the Thunder just crashed the NBA finals. The Hawks’ Core Four has been intact since 2007 and hasn’t reached the Eastern Conference finals.
Four years ago stability was the proper course. Sund took the job just after the Hawks made the playoffs for the first time this century and pushed the champs-to-be Celtics to a Game 7. Back then, nobody knew how good this team could be. Four years later, we’ve been given every reason to believe the window has closed.
The pivot point came in 2010. The Hawks won 53 games butwere swept by 101 aggregate points by Orlando in Round 2. That prompted three major decisions: Mike Woodson was fired as coach, assistant Larry Drew was promoted and Johnson, who was an unrestricted free agent, was handed $120 million over six seasons.
The decision was roundly criticized, but the only choices the Hawks faced were lousy ones: Had Johnson signed elsewhere, management would have been ripped for letting its best player — which Johnson was then — walk away; by spending $120 million to keep him, they were essentially hoping that a 29-year-old would become the superstar he hadn’t quite been and take them places they’d never gone.
My feeling was that keeping Johnson was the lesser of the two evils, and it might have been — had the Hawks not just hired a head coach whose intent was to de-emphasize Johnson. The Hawks overspent for a jump shooter at a time when everyone else was given license to shoot jumpers. Instead of being their best player, Johnson was rendered just one of the gang. In each of his final four seasons under Woodson, he averaged better than 21 points; he hasn’t averaged 19 since.
That, sad to say, was how the Hawks operated: They made moves that didn’t mesh. Billy Knight loaded up on wing players at the expense of more vital positions. Sund traded for Kirk Hinrich when Jeff Teague, whom Sund had drafted, was already on the roster. The Hawks re-upped Johnson at massive cost while trying to wean themselves from Iso-Joes. There was no grand vision, no sense of a plan in place.
Ferry darn sure has a plan. Reports hold that he’s seeking mostly expiring contracts from the Nets, and that’s the sign of a team prepared to bite the won/lost bullet. But what’s the alternative? Keep bleeding out 40-win seasons until the Core Four retires? Keep making the playoffs to no real effect?
The Hawks have become a team without upside: They can’t spend to get better because they’re capped out, and they’ve proved their best isn’t good enough. There will be other avenues to explore if this deal doesn’t get done, but trying to unload Johnson and his contract was always the place to start.
By Mark Bradley