Jacob Eisenberg details how the Hawks escaped the NBA’s purgatory….
The Hawks were stuck. Mired in a purgatory of marginal success, the team was too successful in the regular season to earn high draft picks but lacked the firepower to translate that regular season success into a deep playoff run. For the past five seasons, the Hawks had been the model of consistency. Unfortunately, their consistency was not ideal. While the team made the playoffs every year, they were constantly overmatched by the elites of the Eastern Conference and failed to ever make it past the conference semi-finals. To make matters worse, the Hawks lost all of their financial flexibility during the 2010 free agent frenzy when they signed Joe Johnson, the franchise’ star, to the most lucrative contract any NBA player was given that summer. (For perspective, Johnson re-signed for almost ten million more dollars than the Heat gave LeBron James.) With Johnson’s contract consuming a third of the team’s salary cap, the Hawks were faced with limited opportunities to improve through free agency and were stuck with a stagnant roster.
Josh Smith, the team’s leading scorer from last year and the youngest player in NBA history to reach 1,000 career blocked shots, noted, “With the unit we had for the last five years, we felt ourselves stuck in one place. It was almost like we were stuck in cement. For a new General Manager coming in, you see the history of what’s happened the past five years and applaud us for our success. But at the same time, you had to wonder how long it could last.”
Now, hope for a miraculous breakthrough in the playoffs is not what keeps the team motivated. Rather, it is the team’s new composition and room for potential that has players gushing. Al Horford, a two-time NBA All Star, shared, “I’m really excited for this season – more than ever really. We have a totally new team and we have a lot of potential. It’s the unknown of our team that is most exciting for us.”
Following a hard fought first round defeat to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2012 Playoffs, the Hawks knew a shakeup was necessary. The team was not getting any younger and salary inflexibility was only becoming more of an issue. The team seeked guidance from an executive with a proven track record of success. Enter Danny Ferry.
Ferry, a former NCAA Player of the Year at Duke and longtime NBA role player, held a position within the San Antonio front office during the Spurs’ rise to prominence at the start of the 2000s and was the General Manager of the Cavaliers during the height of LeBron James’ reign in Cleveland. At only forty-five-years-old, Ferry was precisely the young-but-experienced executive whom the Hawks needed to get them back on track.
Within his first weeks on the job, Ferry managed to assess the Hawks’ biggest problems over both the short and long-term, and fixed them seemingly instantaneously. After recognizing that the team could not win a championship with Johnson’s contract clogging up the payroll, Ferry acted fast and traded the aging star to Brooklyn for several quality role players and cap relief. Point Guard Jeff Teague admitted, “I didn’t ever think (Johnson) would be able to leave Atlanta. But when he did, it was an eye opener that (Ferry) wanted to get things done. I’m behind the move one-hundred percent.”
Head coach Larry Drew echoed similar praise toward Ferry’s decision-making, “His track record speaks for itself… I’m really excited with the direction this organization is headed.”
Even after relieving his team of Johnson’s $120 million contract, Ferry did not grow complacent. On the same day he traded Johnson, Ferry also managed to swap the largely disappointing Marvin Williams, who was signed through 2014, to Utah in exchange for former All-Star Guard Devin Harris and his expiring contract. Moreover, throughout the summer, Ferry assembled several of the league’s top shooters, including Kyle Korver, former Georgia Tech standout Anthony Morrow and 21-year-old prospect John Jenkins – who was widely touted as the best pure shooter in the Draft – to help the Hawks up their offensive tempo and get the ball out in transition.
Perhaps one of Ferry’s most understated successes this summer was managing to convince Atlanta native Lou Williams, the leading scorer for the 2012 Philadelphia 76ers, to return back home on a one-year deal. Coach Drew believes Williams will help replace the scoring that was voided with Johnson’s departure.
“Lou is certainly a guy who could really put points on the board in a hurry,” Drew said, “I think every team needs a guy who could come into a game and change it. Lou has that ability. I’ve always been a big Lou Williams fan. Whenever we played Philadelphia, we spent a great majority of our time talking about how we would defend him. I’m glad he’s in a Hawks uniform now.”
In a league dominated by super teams in Miami, Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City, the Hawks finally have the financial freedom to potentially build a super team of their own. By acquiring value players on cheaper and shorter contracts throughout the roster, Ferry has made it possible for the Hawks’ present depth chart to be every bit as strong as it has in recent years. More importantly, however, is that the team’s future looks brighter than it has in years.
“I’m definitely more excited with this team,” Teague said while grinning giddily. “We’re building ourselves for a contender. Danny Ferry knows what he’s doing. Everybody’s ready to go. I don’t think anyone here thinks we’re rebuilding. I’m looking forward to the present and future as well. We’ll have a lot of cap space soon and I’m sure we’ll be able to attract some really good players.”
Finally, the Hawks are the masters of their own future. And that is just how Danny Ferry likes it.
Originally Published in The Emory Wheel on 10/05/2012