Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry will take in some rightful heat from both fans, NBA critics, and possibly the league office for a poor choice of words concerning his team’s status as playoff contenders. With a deep 2014 NBA draft and the potential for lottery luck to ring out, some would rather paint the Hawks as “lottery contenders,” willing to drop out of the playoff bracket and watch as its first round pick vaults up several spots. Possibly more, if the lottery balls end up in Atlanta’s favor.
Those critics will have their points, even if they’re likely not tuning into see the beaten-up Hawks try really hard to win games. Here are Ferry’s on-record quotes, via Jeff Zillgitt at USA Today:
"Throughout the year, I felt we've been on a good path," Ferry said. "When healthy, we've been a very good team. I like the way we play. It's system-based. I like our players. There's some substance to them. With the way we're set-up from a salary cap standpoint and a roster standpoint that good things can continue to unfold.
"We're not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that's not our goal. We're trying to build something that's good, sustainable and the components are in place for us to do so."
This may remind of something Danny Ainge told reporters earlier in the year, prior to clarifying. Either USA Today left out some pertinent quotes, or Ferry (who said similar things to the New York Times over the weekend) passed on such clarification.
Atlanta has been in an absolute freefall of late, they’ve lost 20 of their last 27 contests, and are just a game ahead of the hard-charging (you heard me) New York Knicks for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Were the Knicks able to overcome a tougher schedule over the last two weeks of the NBA season, something that is a possibility with Tyson Chandler’s improved play and Carmelo Anthony’s brilliant touch, the Hawks could miss the playoffs and watch as a certain 15th overall selection would jump up to earn the tenth-best odds in May’s draft lottery. From there, lottery luck could take them higher.
It has been a bit of a lose-lose situation for Atlanta this year, draft-wise. Ferry was rightfully hailed as hot stuff for earning the right to swap first round picks with the Brooklyn Nets in the 2014 and 2015 NBA draft in exchange for Joe Johnson’s massive contract, a move that allowed the Net GM Billy King to stay cap legal as he tossed away pick after pick. Because of the swap technicality, King was allowed to send his 2014 first rounder to Boston for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
(Mind you, Billy King is the same guy that also sent the pick that became Damian Lillard to Portland, as well. Brooklyn may be playing well of late, but this is no way to run a team.)
For a while there, it looked as if Atlanta would be earning a high playoff seed in the East while also glomming onto Brooklyn’s pick, which for a while there was ranked in the top five in terms of lottery odds. The Nets have ascended to a point where not only will Atlanta not want to swap picks with Brooklyn (and move down in the draft), they’ll most likely end up making the playoffs (the Knicks’ schedule is rather tough) while two Western teams with better records join the lottery race.
This is leaving Hawks fans split on whether or not they actually want their favorite team to make the playoffs, which is not good. And it’s going to allow columnists a chance to harp on the Hawks should they ultimately fall out of the bracket.
What is worth addressing is the “we're not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs”-end of things. To some, this might come off as a sure sign that Ferry built the Hawks to lose, dealing Johnson and letting Joe Smith go for nothing, while picking a project in Dennis Schroeder in the 2013 draft and hiring a rookie coach. Just because Ferry’s team happens to be an eighth seed this year, though, doesn’t mean he’s referring to this particular season.
Ferry doesn’t want a mediocre team that just makes the playoffs, and does little else. In drafting Schroeder, dealing for cap space, passing on Josh Smith’s supposed “prime” and hiring one of the more highly-regarded assistant coaches in the NBA in Mike Budenholzer, he’s cleared out room to build a ceiling. The foundation for that ceiling isn’t in place yet, but at least the Hawks aren’t maxed out and still well short of elite, as was the case during the Joe Johnson and Josh Smith eras.
Ferry was keen to have other teams enjoy their own particular Johnson and Smith eras, away from Atlanta’s books. The team’s cap situation is fantastic, and while they won’t have maximum money to offer a free agent this summer, but they will be well under the cap with Al Horford, All-Star Paul Millsap, a hopefully improving Lou Williams, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver all on board. Before Horford went down with a season-ending injury it was the Hawks that seemed firmly entrenched as the East’s third seed.
The freefall (again, losing 20 of 27 games) is worrying, on both ends of the ball, and it would certainly cast a pall on the franchise if they managed to let the Knicks (who have no first round pick of their own) sneak into the playoffs.
And, because Ferry didn’t properly articulate his message about long and short-term goals, he’s going to be in plenty of hot water should the trends continue, and the Hawks hit the lottery.
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