The Hawks had two choices: They could have kept what they had and continued to get the same results, or they could have done as Danny Ferry did. So long as the Core Four was intact, this organization had both a floor and a ceiling. The Hawks would be too talented to stink, too mismatched to win a championship.
Said Ferry, speaking Wednesday night: “The status quo wasn’t going to be good enough to reach our goals, and we weren’t even going to be able to sustain that.”
That’s a brutally accurate description of the Hawks before this general manager took hold of them. And where are they now, 2 1/2 weeks and two major trades later? Ferry again: “We’re in a situation where we made some changes, and hopefully going forward we can be more opportunistic — hopefully better and more sustainable.”
Thing is, “going forward” isn’t synonymous with “here and now,” and we live in an age where gratification is seldom deferred until tomorrow, let alone next year. Ferry’s way involves risk. As newly constituted, the Hawks seem at best a .500 team. And even as I applaud this GM’s vision and verve, I also recall a conversation with a former GM.
It was Year 2 or Year 3 – or maybe Year 4; they tended to run together – after the Billy Knight deconstruction, and I wanted to know how much longer it would be until the Hawks got good. Originally I’d voiced enthusiasm for Knight’s brass in dumping players and salary, but so many losses over so much time had silenced the hosannas.
“You’re getting impatient,” Knight said, and I guess I was.
The risk of taking a step back is that there’s no assurance you’ll step forward anytime soon. No, Ferry hasn’t sold off every asset — he still has Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague — but what if the 2012-2013 Hawks are indeed mediocre? What if there’s no postseason for the first time since 2007? What if all those folks praising Ferry for dumping Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams won’t care to watch the remnants of the Core struggle to break even?
If the new Hawks don’t deliver, the old Core could be pared further next summer. Smith is scheduled to be a free agent, and he has spent the past two seasons angling to get himself traded. How many difference-making free agents could be persuaded to take the Hawks’ suddenly available money if all they see is a losing team and an outbound star?
Clearing Johnson’s massive contract was a necessity. That said, losing him as a consistent scorer is a minus. It will take two or three guys to do what Joe did by himself.
Toward that end, the Hawks find themselves with a slew of off-guards and no real small forward. Ferry isn’t nearly done rebuilding this roster, but what he has mirrors a latter-day Duke team – lots of shooters (imports Louis Williams and Anthony Morrow, plus draftee John Jenkins) and not much heft. As we know, Ferry played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski.
When the Duke paradigm was mentioned, Ferry laughed. Then he said: “Shooting’s a good thing to have. People who can attack off the dribble are good things to have. So are people who make plays for others. Shooting helps with good spacing. And good big men are nice to have, too.”
Ferry’s time as Cleveland’s GM indicated that he believes in a team of balanced parts, or at least as balanced as a team that employs LeBron James can be. He had shooters (Mo Williams, Larry Hughes) and slashers (Delonte West) and big men (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao) and a real power forward (Antawn Jamison). No, it didn’t bring Cleveland a championship, but it was good enough to win 127 games over two seasons.
Asked about the potential of his remade roster, Ferry said only: “I think we can be competitive.”
The risk isn’t so much that fans will desert the Hawks — fans haven’t really embraced this team since 1988 — as that the anticipated follow-through won’t arrive. Ferry used the word “opportunistic” a half-dozen times in a 10-minute conversation, and having money to spend is an absolute must. The Hawks do now. But some big name has to agree to take it.
There’s a chance this way won’t work, either. That’s preferable to the old way, which was never going to work well enough. By taking a risk, Ferry has positioned the Hawks to reap a reward. No, not today. But someday soon.
By Mark Bradley