Billy King (far left) is shown where he'll be buried (James Devaney/ WireImage).
On Monday afternoon, the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets completed a major trade involving overpaid All-Star guard Joe Johnson and a set of make-weights and scraps. Almost immediately, conventional wisdom developed that the Nets had dealt themselves into, as our Kelly Dwyer argued, a couple years of middling playoff appearances (and losing out on Dwight Howard) while the Hawks had given themselves the flexibility to make a big splash in the future, either for Howard, Chris Paul (the man they famously passed on in the 2005 draft), or both.
In other words, the Hawks probably won the trade, especially after ridding themselves of two seasons of Marvin Williams for just one year of Devin Harris. Yet, whenever we analyze a trade, it's important to remember that they're concocted and carried out by general managers and personnel men operating in different work environments. In the case of this trade, the circumstances of new Hawks GM Danny Ferry and two-year Nets GM Billy King affected what looked like a good trade for both men.
[Adrian Wojnarowski: Atlanta makes a pair of franchise-altering trades]
Let's start with Ferry, who now has the chance to remake the Hawks as he wishes. With assets such as Al Horford and Josh Smith still on the team, Ferry can swing a deal for Howard if the Magic are ready to make a trade. Or, if that doesn't work out, the Hawks can be major players on the free-agent market next summer when Howard and Paul are scheduled to look for new teams.
Of course, Ferry might not have the job security to think towards the future if he hadn't just signed a six-year contract to lead Atlanta. When he interviewed for the job, this sort of rebuilding process was likely part of his plan for the club. But the fact that he's new also gives him the leeway to experiment in a way that other GMs cannot. The Hawks put their trust in Ferry, and he now has the chance to reward them for it. If he's learned from some of his mistakes in Cleveland, he could be wildly successful. But the key fact here is that he has the room to change the Hawks. If he were several years into the contract, Ferry wouldn't be so concerned with making the Hawks as good as they could possibly be. He would be fighting for his job, and he'd be more concerned with staying competitive in the short term.
In other words, he'd do everything that Billy King is doing right now for the Nets. When King joined the Nets in the summer of 2010, he did so at a time when the Nets had enough cap room (and the prospect of their Brooklyn move) to grab one of several high-profile free agents on the market. They ended up with many of the mediocre players traded in today's deal (e.g. Johan Petro and Jordan Farmar) and in subsequent seasons traded all future flexibility for Deron Williams (who might still leave in free agency over the next week) and Gerald Wallace. Despite obtaining solid veterans, they haven't sniffed the playoffs. This offseason, with the opportunity to get Howard or position themselves for another star, they could have become one of the real contenders in the East.
Grabbing Johnson will not do that. What it will achieve, though, is turning the Nets into a steady playoff team, the sort of club that tops out at fourth or fifth in the East every season and maybe wins a series. They won't challenge for the conference crown, and they won't really pose much of a threat to anyone in the established elite of the NBA. They'll be respectable, though, and that's worth something in a league where front-office bigwigs sometimes have a hard time holding onto their jobs.
That job security is a major issue for King. Two years into what he has termed a three-year plan, King is under pressure to put a winner (no matter how modest that success might be) on the court. A couple playoff appearances could keep King from being fired and earn him an extension. That might not be the best long-term solution for the Nets' problems, but general managers are rarely so selfless as to make moves that could result in regime change. King might not care if Johnson ruins the Nets' cap situation in a couple seasons, because he's just trying to make sure he still has a job when that happens. (It's notable that King acted similarly near the end of his tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers.)
That's not necessarily what Nets fans want to hear — they want a general manager who has the franchise's best interests in mind, not an employee trying to carve out the basketball equivalent of a comfortable life selling insurance. It's the mark of a man trying to survive. That's disappointing, in a cosmic sense. It's also worth wondering if any of us would act differently in the same situation.
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