July 01, 2008
We've an interesting little situation in Atlanta right now.
The Hawks are coming off their first postseason trip since the lockout season, one that saw them take the eventual champions to seven games in the first round, though I attribute that more to a Boston team that was still feeling things out and getting back into playing shape than I do to spirited play from the Hawks.
Still, the Hawks were spirited, they played damn well in that series; and though the team was wildly inconsistent last year (great defense and bad offense in the first part of the season, only to see things completely reverse in the second half), this is still a solid, young team that has a chance to make itself a playoff mainstay.
But they're not championship material, even if the squad gets a best case scenario batch of contributions from every youngster on the roster over the next decade. Guys like Al Horford, Josh Smith, and the team's 27 year-old go-to player Joe Johnson are pretty good, but not the sort of transcendent stud you can bank on to move into the NBA's elite.
So, with that in mind, take in the idea of Smith and 25 year-old forward Josh Childress becoming restricted free agents this summer. Understand that the Hawks have already made it clear that they will match any official offer made to either player in order to keep the momentum moving forward. Really?
Consider that the Hawks have been dealing with ownership issues for years, the team just signed Mike Woodson to a potentially two-year contract extension, and it just sent some money toward Rick Sund to come in and make sense of former GM Billy Knight's up and down tenure.
Then understand that the 76ers, flush with just enough cap space once the cap holds are accounted for, can sign Josh Smith a front-loaded contract that would have the Hawks perilously-close to next season's luxury tax level (rumored to be about 71 million dollars) after the team re-signs Childress and adds to what would only be a nine-man roster once the two Joshes come back (Speedy Claxton may never play again).
The luxury tax for a team hoping to back it back to the eighth or seventh spot in the East, holding off Miami and Chicago as they race back into the playoff bracket, and with an ownership group that refused to make deals for years while they hoarded money and tried to figure out just who the head chef was. That doesn't add up.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Sekou Smith, Philly GM Ed Stefanski has long been smitten with Smith's talents, he's worked with the most prominent of Smith's many agents and representatives before, and the Hawks have a glaring hole at power forward.
Childress is an underrated player, and I spent most of last season imploring teams to look into signing him this summer, but he only stays underrated if his skills are undervalued and a team doesn't pay him what he's worth. Should a team go over the top, and Atlanta match, then this is out the window, and he becomes a millstone. A good, young millstone, but a salary cap millstone.
Also, and this is from Smith's blog, take this in:
A scout friend mentioned this to me in a conversation last night and it's a valid point that I didn't really consider until then, but the guys watching this stuff as closely as anyone are Marvin Williams, Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Mike Bibby and any other Hawks player that will be in this same situation in the near future.
"They're watching this to see how the Hawks handle Josh and Josh because it will be a sign as to how they'll deal with other guys," my scout friend said. "Smith and Childress are the two guys the Hawks started this whole [rebuilding] process with, and if they don't do right by them ... man, why would they do right by anyone else? People have long memories. They remember what happened with Al [Harrington] and how he waited all summer for something to happen and then got played. Players don't forget that stuff. Agents don't forget that stuff. And I guarantee you other teams remember that stuff because there is a lot of talent on that [Hawks] team. If they can't keep things together, people will come around trying to pick them apart."
I'm not entirely convinced that this is a bad thing, but then again I'm not convinced of anything regarding this team. Even with Smith and Childress on board, and the luxury tax being threatened, the Hawks could still find themselves with a fair amount of cap space in a few years - depending on how they invest and if they bid against themselves to retain Marvin Williams - when Johnson and Mike Bibby's contracts come off the book.
Johnson's been an All-Star, but let's face it, he also gets to put up great stats by playing a lot of minutes and shooting quite a bit. He'll be 29 when his contract expires two years from now, and though there have been plenty of career years from guys in their early 30s, any big contract sent Joe's way will likely be paying him for services as his contributions start to decline. It's just how it is. And if the Hawks handle the situation intelligently, which doesn't necessarily mean dumping Johnson, they could find the flexibility to move beyond the ranks of "pretty good."
But it starts this summer. And as it is with the rest of the incumbent Hawks, I'll be watching how they handle Mssrs. Smith and Childress.