Thursday, May 12, 2016

'Blow It Up' Is Not a, Or the, Plan

During the first 10 minutes of Monday's Lowe Post podcast, Zach Lowe gave some succinct thoughts on what faces the Hawks this offseason.

"Blowing it up and losing everything is not really a plan," said Lowe. "A plan would be using your cap space to try and get a two way wing who might be able to have a prayer against LeBron James. The Hawks are that kind of player away from being very good."

Lowe was emphatic in saying that the Hawks are too good to tear it all down and start over again.

"They probably are the second best team in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has played like garbage for the entire playoffs."

Let's assume the Hawks keep Al Horford but renounce the cap holds for Kent Bazemore and Kirk Hinrich. With a projected cap next season of $92 million, the Hawks would have just over $76 million committed to 11 players plus a $1.2 million cap hold for Kris Humphries and an $18 million cap hold for Horford. That leaves the Hawks with about $16 million to spend on free agents.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, this is a weak free agent class. With about half the league expected to have cap space to offer one or more maximum contracts, the demand for free agents has never been higher. However, the supply was diluted by last year's free agency, when so many players took the money that was on the table rather than bet on themselves in 2016 free agency. So supply is slim while demand is higher than the NBA has ever seen.

Here's a list of free agent wings I'd love to see the Hawks pursue:

Sergey Karasev was first in net rating for the Nets but only played 284 minutes. The Nets declined his option so he is an unrestricted free agent. He's known for his shooting and passing but not his defense.

Courtney Lee was second in net rating (minimum 400 minutes) for Memphis and Charlotte and first in defensive rating for Memphis.

Jared Dudley was third in net rating and fourth in defensive rating among Wizards players with at least 250 minutes.

Alan Anderson, who torched the Hawks with 62% shooting from three for the Nets in the 2015 playoffs, was first in net and defensive rating for the Wizards this season in minutes that were severely limited due to injuries.

Solomon Hill was a pleasant surprise for the Pacers this season, finishing seventh in net rating and 10th in defensive rating among rotation players.

Wesley Johnson, whom the Hawks reportedly pursued last offseason, was sixth in net and third in defensive rating for the dumpster fire that was the Lakers.

Luc Mbah a Moute, whom I pleaded for the Hawks to sign last offseason, was second in net and fifth in defensive rating for the Clippers.

Luol Deng, the subject of Danny Ferry's infamous remarks, was ninth in net and 10th in defensive rating among rotation players for the Heat.

Chase Budinger was fourth in net and defensive rating for the Pacers but performed poorly with the Suns after he was waived on March 5 by Indiana.

The Hawks could also renounce the non-guaranteed contracts of Mike Scott and Lamar Patterson then trade at least one player to open a maximum salary slot to pursue presumptive free agents Chandler Parsons and DeMar DeRozan, or make an offer to restricted free agent Harrison Barnes.

Short of the max-level free agents, do any of the players listed above fit the description of a "two way wing who might be able to have a prayer against LeBron James?" Um, no. To really understand the depth of the futility of Atlanta's search for that player, we've got to dig into some history. This is going to get a bit long so if you're not partial to my first-person musings, don't say you weren't warned.

In the preseason, at a luncheon for media hosted by Hawks PR, I informed Hawks VP of Public Relations Garin Narain that I was writing a book about the Hawks. I had some outsized expectations for Atlanta at the time and felt they could contend for a championship as long as Tiago Splitter returned to his career average form by the playoffs.

Splitter was one of the main reasons the Spurs lost in the first round to the Clippers last season. After posting an 18.9 PER during the regular season (league average is 15), Splitter plunged to a PER of seven in the playoffs due to injury. For comparison, Tristan Thompson has a career PER in the playoffs of just under 15. Unfortunately Splitter played only 579 regular season minutes before his season ended with hip surgery.

I've since suspended writing on the book because the Hawks didn't provide the ending I was hoping for. I'll revisit at some future point when the Hawks become a more complete story.

For now, I'll be making a series of posts here on RepATL.com to recap the Hawks' season, recap all the missteps that led to the current, flawed roster construction and present researched and detailed thoughts on how the Hawks can improve. Before we get into it, I'd like to state my qualifications. Anybody can blog about the NBA and delude themselves into thinking that their opinions hold relevance. Hopefully what follows will convince you that I'm less deluded than some.

In 2005 I was the producer for a sports talk program on Braves Radio 640 WGST in Atlanta. Art "Madman" Mehring, currently the traffic reporter for 92.9 The Game, was the host. Frequent guest hosts included former Atlanta Hawks PA announcer Craig Ross and world champion second baseman and WGST Braves analyst Mark Lemke. Art was himself a veteran PA announcer for the Atlanta Falcons.

That summer I booked AJC columnist Jeff Schultz to talk about the upcoming NBA Draft in which the Hawks held the second overall pick. Schultz informed us that the Hawks, according to information he had developed, would select North Carolina forward Marvin Williams with the second pick. Everyone in the studio was stunned. The Hawks had a gaping hole at point guard and, with Deron Williams and Chris Paul available, it looked to be the greatest point guard draft in a generation.

Schultz provided no opinion as to what the Hawks SHOULD do. He only informed us what the Hawks were likely to do according to his info. From then until the draft, I stated on air repeatedly that the Hawks should not draft the player that wasn't good enough to start for North Carolina. I asserted that the Hawks MUST draft one of the two point guards rated at the top of the draft. I was partial to Deron Williams but had no qualms about the Hawks selecting Paul. I also emailed AJC Hawks beat writer Sekou Smith to ask why he hadn't written anything questioning the Hawks' presumptive selection of Marvin Williams. Smith informed me that he had no intention to second-guess the pick since he was 100% sold on his superstar potential.

After a year of sharing the air with Art, Craig and Mark, the radio industry being what it is, I got laid off. With a year's worth of air checks, I had the opportunity to market myself for a full-time on-air position. However, I knew that to get my break in radio, I would probably have to move to a small market and make a name for myself.

Instead of pursuing that dream, I decided my life was in Atlanta. After managing a bar for a year, I took a desk job where I met the person I would start a family with. Years flew by and my NBA fandom remained fairly casual. The Hawks' annual NBA Draft blunders were as much a part of the scenery as Stone Mountain.

To really appreciate how much the Hawks have struggled to find a star small forward since trading Dominique Wilkins to the Clippers in 1994, we should look at some of that draft history. I'll go back to 2001 when the Hawks were at a crossroads and decided to take a shortcut in the rebuilding process. The first pick of each draft is noted for reference.

2001/Kwame Brown: The Hawks traded the third pick (Pau Gasol) to the Grizzlies for Shareef Abdur-Rahim and the 27th pick, which they used on Jamaal Tinsley. Tony Parker was selected 28th by the San Antonio Spurs. No need to go into much detail here. Hawks fans know this was one of the worst trades in NBA history.

2002/Yao Ming: Hawks selected Dan Dickau 28th. This was the final selection of the first round. Roger Mason and Carlos Boozer were selected in the first six picks of the second round.

2003/LeBron James: The Hawks selected Boris Diaw with the 21st pick. This was actually a visionary pick by the Hawks. They selected a Euro big man who preferred ball movement to isolation scoring. Unfortunately, Atlanta's coaching staff wasn't as forward-thinking as its front office. Hawks coach Mike Woodson asked Diaw to focus on scoring and Diaw requested a trade. This still turned out to be an excellent pick for the Hawks as Diaw was used in the trade for Joe Johnson, a move that allowed Atlanta to embark on the current run of playoff appearances.

2004/Dwight Howard: In 2013, Lowe wrote about the growing importance of defensive wings in the NBA. In the 2004 draft, the Hawks had a real chance to become early adopters of the 3-and-D era. In 1991, the Hawks selected Stacey Augmon from UNLV with the ninth pick. Augmon became the starting small forward on the Atlanta team that featured Mookie Blaylock, Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Smith. Unfortunately, the form on Augmon's jump shot was irrevocably broken. Throughout his career, Augmon would kill Atlanta's spacing.

Thirteen years later, the Hawks went into the 2004 draft looking for their next small forward. Atlanta selected Josh Childress with the sixth pick and local high schooler Josh Smith with the 17th. Both were considered small forward prospects although Josh Smith would play most of his career at power forward. Josh Childress was Stacey Augmon 2.0 except he wasn't nearly as good on defense. Selected immediately after Childress were Luol Deng (7th) and future NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala (9th), both of whom have been among the premiere 3-and-D wings of the modern era.

2005/Andrew Bogut: Having drafted two small forward prospects the year prior, and being in dire need of a point guard, the Hawks burned the highest pick in recent history on Marvin Williams. Deron Williams went third and Chris Paul fourth. The Hawks also selected Salim Stoudamire with the first pick of the second round, leaving Brandon Bass (33rd), Ersan Ilyasova (36th), Monta Ellis (40th) and Lou Williams (45th) on the board.

2006/Andrea Bargnani: Atlanta selected Shelden Williams with the fifth pick. Whereas the Sonics/Thunder got Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden from consecutive high lottery picks, the Hawks got Josh Childress, Marvin Williams and Shelden Williams before fortune finally smiled in 2007. While many wish the Hawks would have drafted Brandon Roy (6th) or Rudy Gay (8th), I believe both did more harm than good to the franchises that drafted them. First rounders the Hawks passed on included J.J. Redick (11th), Kyle Lowry (24th), Thabo Sefolosha (13th) and Rajon Rondo (21st). Paul Millsap went 47th during the second round.

2007/Greg Oden: For once, fortune favored the Hawks. Atlanta owed a top-3 protected first rounder to Phoenix from the Joe Johnson trade. During the draft lottery, the Hawks moved up to third and were able to keep the pick. This draft was foolproof. Greg Oden, Kevin Durant and Al Horford were the obvious top three. KD and Oden were always going to be gone by the time Atlanta picked, so Horford was the only kind of pick the Hawks seem to have success at: the no-brainer.

2008/Derrick Rose: After trading for Joe Johnson and drafting Al Horford, the Hawks finally made the playoffs and conveyed the 15th pick to the Suns to complete the trade. Johnson was not without cost. The Suns used the pick to select Robin Lopez but the Hawks could have had any of these players: Roy Hibbert (17th), Ryan Anderson (21st), Kosta Koufos (23rd), Serge Ibaka (24th), Nicolas Batum (25th), George Hill (26th), Nikola Pekovic (31st), DeAndre Jordan (35th), Omer Asik (36th) or Goran Dragic (45th).

2009/Blake Griffin: In Rick Sund's finest hour, he selected Jeff Teague with the 19th pick. I wanted Ty Lawson but he went to Denver, which traded up to select him 18th.

2010/John Wall: The Hawks traded the 24th pick (Damion James) to the Nets and the 31st pick to the Thunder for the 27th pick (Jordan Crawford) and $3 million in cash. The Hawks essentially sold the highest pick in the second round to cover operating costs.

2011/Kyrie Irving: In February of 2011, the Hawks traded Jordan Crawford, Mike Bibby and their first round pick that summer for Kirk Hinrich. I believe this was Sund's way of forcing Larry Drew to play Jeff Teague rather than Bibby's corpse. After trading two first round picks for Hinrich, Drew refused to play him in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of Atlanta's 2012 first round series with Boston. Instead Drew went with Jannero Pargo. Here's a net rating comparison for that game.

The Hawks went on to lose Game 3 in overtime and lose the series in six games. After Sund burned two first rounders on Hinrich, Drew sat him in favor of possibly the worst player in the NBA. Here's a list of players the Hawks could have selected with the 18th pick in 2011: Tobias Harris (19), Donatas Motiejunas (20), Kenneth Faried (22), Nikola Mirotic (23), Reggie Jackson (24) and Jimmy Butler (30).

2012/Anthony Davis: Mere hours before the 2012 draft, the Hawks hired Danny Ferry as GM. The Spurs owned the 59th pick so some observers give Ferry a pass for not being prepared. Some also theorize that Sund and Drew were the brainchilds behind the Hawks' selection of John Jenkins with the 23rd pick. First of all, nobody gets a pass for one of the worst picks in NBA history. Nobody had Jenkins rated as first round talent. The Hawks didn't need to draft the next Jannero Pargo. He was already on the roster. Following are players the Hawks could have had with this pick: Festus Ezeli (30), Jae Crowder (34), Draymond Green (35) and Khris Middleton (39). Ezeli was my pick.

2013/Anthony Bennett: The Hawks had two picks in this draft, including the 18th pick from Houston via the Nets to complete the Joe Johnson trade. On draft night, the Mavericks traded back two places to 18th in exchange for the Hawks taking on the salary of Jared Cunningham. That gave the Hawks the 16th and 17th picks. This draft was also the first time I did my Hawks NBA Draft Depth Chart. I listed my top 18 potential selections in order of preference.

When the Hawks selected Lucas Nogueira with the 16th pick, I had him ranked 11th and he was my highest-rated player available. I agonized over rating him ahead of Gorgui Dieng, whom I had rated 12th. There were some injury concerns with Dieng ahead of the draft and his age gave me concerns about his upside. As it turns out, Nogueira's career has been far more impacted by injury than Dieng's. Nonetheless, my philosophy was that the Hawks should draft and develop two big men if those were the best players available. The Hawks needed size and rim protection.

Dennis Schroder, 18th on my depth chart, I vastly underrated. Schroder is literally the only thing that salvages Ferry's reputation as a talent evaluator. If he had picked, say, Shane Larkin, his draft record would be as bad as Pete Babcock's. Just imagine if he'd selected Dieng and Schroder, though.

2014/Andrew Wiggins: By this time the quest for a 3-and-D wing had become an obsession. With Mike Budenholzer having been instrumental in the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the Spurs, and with Danny Ferry having originally drafted Danny Green in the second round while GM in Cleveland, it seemed like destiny that this pair would find a similar set of wings for the Hawks. But the 2014 draft was so riddled with defensively-challenged wings that I named my depth chart, "Year of the 'Tweener."

The Hawks had barely squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the East with a sub-.500 record. This meant the 48-win Suns, which missed the playoffs in the West, would pick in the lottery while the Hawks picked 15th. After the Suns selected T.J. Warren with the 14th pick, Rodney Hood was the highest-rated available player on my board. The Hawks drafted Adreian Payne, who this season had the third-worst opponents' field goal percentage within five feet of the rim in the D-League among former first round picks (minimum 50 shots defended).

People get sick of me talking about Rodney Hood. Happily, we can all sit back and listen to Lowe talk about Rodney Hood.

"A lot of people pitched the Jeff Teague for Rodney Hood deal straight up," said Lowe in the podcast mentioned above. "I got news for you. There's no universe in which Utah is dealing Rodney Hood straight up for Jeff Teague. You're going to need to attach a lot of stuff to get a quality wing for Jeff Teague, who is a perfectly nice point guard in a league filled with perfectly nice point guards."

2015/Karl-Anthony Towns: The Hawks made a bewildering series of moves that involved trading back from 15th to 19th, then trading that pick to the Knicks for Tim Hardaway Jr. My highest-rated player available at 15 was Sam Dekker, who missed a large chunk of his rookie season with back issues and never had much of a shot at minutes on a veteran squad. My next two highest-rated available were Kelly Oubre, who went to the Wizards at 15, and Justin Anderson, who has been described as the best Mavericks draftee since Josh Howard in 2003. Both appear to have 3-and-D potential.

In my next post we'll look back on the season for the Hawks and try to figure out a way forward. Blowing it up is not a plan. Blowing it up is not the plan. More to follow. Thanks for reading!

2 comments:

  1. Regarding Lowe's comment that Atlanta is "one wing player away," it could rightfully be stated no less than a handful of decent-to-middling teams currently comprising the NBA are theoretically "one player away."

    Taken out of theory and placed in to practice, we gain a greater perspective of this when considering the 15-16 Bucks. Following a 41-win campaign, Milwaukee was universally viewed as being "one player away" from ascension. However, pursuant to acquiring supposed "missing piece" Greg Monroe, then consequently failing to make the post-season, we see the "one player away" theory is just that, a hit-or-miss theory.

    Not only this, but as stated, Atlanta's pool of available wing-options aren't keeping LeBron up at night. It is for the above-listed reasons, among others, that I don't listen to Lowe's podcast. It's inane to suggest Atlanta retain an aging, declining core, while simply "adding a piece."

    Any logical Hawks observer realizes re-signing Horford to open-market value would prove as disastrous as the Joe Johnson situation.

    As listed in your historical section, followers of this team have scant reason to place faith in team management. The Marvin Williams/Chris Paul scenario is shining testament to that.

    It boggles the mind as to what motivating factor would lead a so call " professional NBA observer" -- or even casual fan -- to deem Horford a top off-season retention priority for this team.

    But I digress. Great piece, I look forward to reading more in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Milwaukee picked the wrong player. Monroe is defensively challenged and kills your spacing. I agree with Lowe that the Hawks are a legit small forward away from being good. What I hoped to show was that such a player simply isn't available.

    Even if they get one of the max candidates, do you think LeBron is staying up at night next season worrying about facing Chandler Parsons in the playoffs? Or even DeRozan, who can't shoot?

    ReplyDelete