It took Danny Ferry a week to turn a franchise going nowhere into one with room again to grow. It took him a week to reach an agreement to send Joe Johnson to the Nets for a bunch of guys whose principal value rests in the expiration dates on their contracts. It took this general manager a week to ship Marvin Williams, enduring symbol of opportunity squandered, to Utah.
To follow the Hawks is to expect the worst, which means the initial response to this watershed Johnson deal was to figure it would be overturned on some technicality. Maybe we shouldn’t be fatalistic. At the rate Ferry is moving, he might be able to convince the NBA to replay the final seconds of Game 6 against Boston from 1988, and make it so that Dominique Wilkins (and not Cliff Levingston) takes the last shot this time.
A week ago we wondered if/when Ferry would dare to tamper with the Core Four. On Day 1 of Week 2, we got our answer. Ferry gored the Core without having to deal either Josh Smith or Al Horford, and by offloading Johnson he turned this capped-out club into one with a hangar’s worth of financial headroom.
Shedding Johnson’s contract was the only way the Hawks could get better. He makes $20 million per season, which is roughly one-third of what the NBA allows to fund an entire roster. It’s one thing if your $20-million-man is Kobe Bryant, but Johnson, over the two years since he re-upped, has sunk to being third-best among Hawks.
There are two wonders at play: That the plodding Hawks would find a GM bold enough to do what needed doing, and that he’d find such a willing partner. But the Nets are moving to a new arena in Brooklyn and they’re coming off a 22-win season and they’re looking to compete with the Knicks and Linsanity in their big-city marketplace, so they need someone of substance to pair with Deron Williams.
They’re also the property of a Russian named Mikhail Prokhorov, who is rated by Forbes the 57th-richest man in the world. Thus did super-sleuth Ferry identify the only NBA owner who could look on Johnson’s contract and not hurl.
Let’s not kid ourselves. There’s every chance the Hawks will be worse, basketball-wise, next season. On talent, a slightly diminished Johnson is still better than anyone the Nets are slated to send here. (Poor Marvin, however, won’t be missed. He might have been the league’s least essential starter.) That’s how the NBA works: To get better, you must get lucky in the draft or spend big in free agency, and the Hawks were positioned to do neither.
It wasn’t all his fault, but Johnson had become the flashpoint for Hawk failings. He wasn’t quite as good as they needed him to be, and his contract kept them from hiring better players to put around him. (Let’s not fault him for signing what was proffered. You would’ve, too.) But Johnson didn’t endear himself to fans, and it’s never a marketing plus when your biggest name is a sourball.
Neither was it Williams’ fault that Billy Knight chose him over Deron Williams and Chris Paul in 2005. But Marvin played so long here — seven full seasons — to so little effect that it became impossible to watch him without thinking of the point guard not taken. And that, sad to say, was just like the Hawks: They’d whiff in the lottery, and they’d hand Johnson a new $120 million deal at the time they planned to de-emphasize his Iso-Joes.
The Hawks had come to occupy a terrible place: The team as constituted had gone as far as it could, and without cap room there was little hope for tomorrow. Now there is. The Hawks will have money to spend next summer, when Dwight Howard and the aforementioned Chris Paul figure to be free agents. The team with no future just traded for one.
And the new man in charge? Well, he’s in charge. In four years as Hawks GM, the best move Rick Sund made was to trade for the sixth man Jamal Crawford. In seven days, his successor has halved the Core Four and moved the immovable contract. Which would seem to make Danny Ferry an irresistible force.
By Mark Bradley