The Atlanta Hawks? Gone till November

With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Atlanta Hawks.

The last time the Atlanta Hawks decided to clean house, its intentions were obvious, and the results were brutal. The team dealt for Al Harrington and traded for Antoine Walker’s expiring contract before the 2004-05 season in an attempt to remain competitive and intriguing to local fans while punting away a season, and that mishmash only gave the Hawk faithful 13 wins out of 82 tries. Atlanta then watched as their league-worst record only allowed the team the second overall pick, a place that saw general manager Billy Knight pass on both Chris Paul and Deron Williams to select Marvin Williams.

In the offseason, the team decided to throw drafts picks (draft picks that were later turned into Rajon Rondo and Robin Lopez) Phoenix’s way in order to secure a sign-and-trade deal for Joe Johnson. Johnson was a player that the Hawks could have just signed outright, but Knight wanted to give the scoring swingman Bird Rights-styled money that the Phoenix Suns were not offering him. The move drew a wedge between the team’s warring ownership factions, resulting in a court case, and it still was the second-worst contract Atlanta ever signed Joe Johnson to.

Newish Hawk GM Danny Ferry managed to pawn Johnson remaining four years and (geez) nearly $90 million on the Brooklyn Nets before 2012-13, initiating a semi-rebuilding project centered on cap flexibility. The 2013 offseason will be the first since 2005 that sees the Hawks with significant room to move under the cap, as the team could be as much as $40 million under the salary cap if every domino falls in that direction. Getting to the number means lining up a series of significant moves, though.

The biggest choice will come as the team prepares to deal with longtime forward Josh Smith. Smith played well at times during the team’s first round ouster against Indiana, but nine (!) seasons into his career it is obvious Smith just doesn’t understand smart shot selection. When Josh “played well at times” it was when his long jumpers were going in. Overall, against an admittedly very good interior defending team like the Pacers, he shot 43 percent while missing 22 of his final 32 attempts in the team’s last two losses. Josh took 20 three-pointers, and missed nearly half his free throws. He just doesn’t understand that he should be cutting and moving, instead of stopping and popping.

That won’t stop some teams from attempting to sign him this offseason, but we respect Dallas’ patience (and analytics) too much to think that the Mavs or other teams will fall over themselves attempting to give Smith a maximum contract. Which means the Hawks could have a chance to re-sign Smith at a reasonable rate. Which could cut into their cap room, and restart the love/hate relationship all over again.

One way around that could be to secure a coach that absolutely will not put up with Smith’s perimeter leanings, and with head coach Larry Drew without a contract for 2013-14, Ferry may attempt to go that route. Drew is a capable coach who did well to keep the Hawks reasonably on the same page despite all the expiring contracts that were on hand, but he was hired by the previous regime, and he’s been in that locker room since 2004. It’s very possible that Ferry, who “missed out” when his former Cavaliers weirdly re-hired Mike Brown, might go after his own guy. Someone with Popovichian roots, perhaps.

From there, Ferry has to determine which of his expiring players is worth taking a flyer on. Kyle Korver is always a sound piece to have on your side. Devin Harris could contribute if given a reserve role, and Zaza Pachulia may have something left in the tank. Beyond that, the rest of the free agents (Dahntay Jones, Johan Petro) have skill sets that can be replicated or improved upon, and the addition of a new coaching voice could go a long way towards either picking those replacements, or retaining the free agents. This isn’t to say Ferry doesn’t already have his ideas, but he had nearly two months to go until the free agent season technically starts, and time to take on all forms of input.

Then there’s the case of Jeff Teague. A solid enough guard and good starter, but not the sort of player to put a team over the top. He’s a restricted free agent this summer that could play for the qualifying offer this season in order to become an unrestricted free agent next year – and Teague seems like the perfect sort of middling player to either use the QO on, or encourage a restricted run around the league to gauge the market. Because Ferry did not draft Jeff, this seems like the appropriate approach.

The team will approach both Dwight Howard and Chris Paul this summer, but in spite of breathless Twitter nonsense about how much either player (especially Paul) hates their current teams, things will change in July when on a gorgeous summer day both players will be offered far more money and more years to stay with potentially very good teams in Los Angeles. It’s not happening, Atlanta, though Ferry will try.

What goes on from there will likely come in the form of trades, as Ferry uses that space to initiate deals and take in players working on unwanted contracts. It’s not ideal, but with the most recent NBA collective bargaining agreement set to encourage players to stick with incumbent teams, it’s the most likely scenario.

Don’t make a 2005-level mistake, though, whether we’re talking about Ferry’s mistake of a summer with the Cleveland Cavaliers, or Atlanta’s needless over-positioning for Joe Johnson. Understand the CBA and utilize it. And get out of the first round, for once.

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