Last summer, the Atlanta Hawks were part of one of the biggest trades of the offseason – trading Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets for sharpshooter Anthony Morrow, Lebron rival Deshawn Stevenson and a bag of masugar nuts (if you were really interested with the trade, the other pieces were Johan Petro (a career journeyman), Jordan Williams (waived by the Hawks), a 2013 1st round pick and a 2017 2nd round pick).
If you’ve been following the blogosphere whirlwind after the trade, it seemed like the Hawks were looking to reload in the FA of 2013. Newly appointed GM (who was also the GM of the Cavs in Lebron’s era) Danny Ferry pursued flexibility over “contendership” when he traded 2 of his team’s most reliable perimeter players in Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams for what was looked at as a salary dump. That is usually accompanied by a non-competitive season.
But a day after doing 2 cost cutting trades, Ferry went on to sign Louis Williams to a 15+ million/3 year deal. He followed this up with a trade for Kyle Korver – both players were incredibly productive with their teams in 2011/12. 20 games into this maturing season and the Hawks are nesting well as one of the top teams in the East (tied for 2nd with MIA) at 14-6.
And this provides an interesting view into team building. Currently, there are three known ways into how a team builds a contender – draft based, trade based or free agency based. Draft based contendership is all about internal development. Trade based contendership is all about finding bargain deals while free agency based contendership is all about finding great bang for the buck deals. And for teams that don’t have the leverage of history, tradition, big market and money, the draft is the best way to find talent – develop talent no matter where they were picked.
Of course, true contendership is all about finding the right balance between the three – the San Antonio Spurs have done a great job of maintaining excellence by using a combination of these three (trade, sign and draft).
At first sight, Atlanta’s rise to the top might look like an aberration. Personally, it feels like it’s a team that has a lot of potential to be really scary. This is in huge part because GM Danny Ferry has done 4 straight good transactions all with an eye on both the present and the future. He’s (so far) threaded the line really well among three of the known team building techniques.
Despite losing 2 of their better perimeter defenders, the Hawks still rank among the league’s stingiest defense, 4th in the league in DRTG. The return of Al Horford – long known to be a great defensive anchor – from an injury that caused him to miss a huge chuck of 2011/12 helps to cushion the blow. Couple this with Teague’s rise to an at least above average starting PG – both on offense and on defense – and everything seems to be going well for the Hawks.
The Hawks are probably not going to come out of the East and beat MIA. Nor are they probably going to get to the Eastern Finals versus NYK or BKN. But that’s actually a good thing, because this will be the last time that this (hopefully) will happen.
Danny Ferry has done a good job of making bargain trades (Korver for cash was a practical gold mine in an offense that’s built around Josh Smith/Horford) and making smart signings (Louis Williams provides scoring off the bench that can relieve Teague in a pinch). The scary thing? The Hawks, on pace to win anywhere between 52~57 games, have tons of flexibility going forward to improve what’s already a good rosters. The Hawks could have around 35+ million in cap space to work. Horford and Williams would be the only ones signed through the 2013/14 season and Jeff Teague getting a probable qualifying offer (since they want to maintain as much flexibility as possible). This means that in a free agency list that contains 2 superstars (Paul, Howard) a bunch of quasi-stars like Jefferson, Millsap, Iguodala and Bynum, to name a few, then Atlanta’s clean 2013 bill is their greatest leverage to title contendership. They probably won’t be able to sign Paul and Howard but pair Horford/Teague/Williams with one of those 4 guys and you’ll clearly get somewhere.
In the NBA, the margin of error for constructing a team that wins are so thin that one costly trade/signing could set you back for years. So far, Ferry’s made shrewd decisions that have not only allowed the Hawks to remain competitive in the East, but allows for greater improvements in the future. This is a far cry from the debacle he’s done in Cleveland when he made one lateral move after another. He’s determined to not make the same mistake twice. So far, he hasn’t.
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