HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — With a busy offseason behind him and a what promises to be an arduous 2013-14 NBA season ahead of him, it wasn’t surprising to see Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry sporting a scruffy summer beard Thursday afternoon at Philips Arena.
Like every other shot-caller in the Eastern Conference, Ferry has to find a way to stay in the mix in the playoff chase behind the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, while also maintaining the roster and financial flexibility he worked so hard to achieve when he took over day-to-day operations of the Hawks’ basketball operation prior to the 2012 Draft.
That job is tougher now than it was this time a year ago, what with all of the jostling for position in the East. The teams at the bottom are inching closer to the middle, while some of the teams that were considered contenders have fallen off the pace a bit. The middle class remains muddled. And Ferry believes the Hawks are still very much in the thick of the crowded East after a roster rebuild in the offseason.
“I think we have to get through the beginning of the year to get a feel from our group, but we’re not just putting together new players. We have an entirely new coaching staff that is working together. That being said, the guys will work hard and compete. And we have smart coaches and they’ll put guys in positions to succeed. I expect us to be competitive. What that means as it relates to wins, losses and so on … I don’t know. The East is better, first of all. You can go through the teams and see the East has gotten more competitive, which I like.”
The Hawks have had near-wholesale changes to their basketball operation since Ferry came on board. Mike Budenholzer was hired to replace Larry Drew this summer and that was before Ferry turned the roster over for the second straight summer, the most notable move this time being the parting of the ways with Josh Smith (Detroit via free agency). Ferry traded away both Joe Johnson (Brooklyn) and Marvin Williams (Utah) in his first couple of months on the job.
Only Al Horford and Jeff Teague remain from the previous regime.
And there is that crowded East race Ferry spoke of that is sure to factor into the situation.
“Charlotte’s a better team, their coach is going to do a better job, I have a lot of respect for him, and they have added more talent. Detroit with [Brandon] Jennings and Josh [Smith], that’s a better group. They’re going to be more competitive. Milwaukee will be good. Larry [Drew] will do a nice job there. That being said, I like where we are right now. We have options going forward to continue to get better. But we have a group of guys that are going to compete. We have to continue to make good decisions, and from there I think we’ll be competitive because of the nature and the spirit of our guys.”
With Derrick Rose returning from injury in Chicago, Brooklyn’s new-look roster, the anticipated rise of younger groups in Washington, Cleveland, Toronto and Orlando, Ferry is well aware that the landscape has changed dramatically from last season to this one.
There is undoubtedly more depth in the Eastern Conference, maybe not as much as there in the Western Conference, and that means the Hawks will have to scrap and claw their way into the playoffs for a seventh straight season.
“I do think the West, having been there, they beat themselves up more getting there [to The Finals] than Miami has had to,” he said before running down the list of improved teams that will factor into the Eastern Conference race this season. “You look at the East and the challenge is there, and if we’re going to be a team that competes and gets better every day, we’ll be there.”
Ferry mentioned guys like Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and the consistent level of play they bring to the floor every night as staples for a revamped Hawks team that will conform to a system rather than freelance the way they might have in years past. In addition to the core members of this new team having the sort of leadership qualities that have historically been critical to a team’s success, Ferry also suggested the Hawks will field a no-nonsense, blue-collar team fans in Atlanta will support vigorously as opposed to tolerating them the way many had grown accustomed before Ferry’s arrival.
Drafting well and having a sound player development program in place are other areas Ferry has focused on since taking over, upgrades and improvements that fans and the media either won’t see or simply don’t have access to.
Ferry’s focus is on the Hawks’ overall program as much as it is on putting a competitive team on the floor night after night this season. They go hand-in-hand, a factor that changes the way a team operates if that hasn’t been committed in that way before.
“I think we’re in a position where we have started to build on the values we want to work as a team,” Ferry said. “I think we have professional guys that will compete every night, and pretty good characters guys as well. With that, we want to keep flexibility as strategic option for us right now with where we are as a team. With where we are lined up, with contracts and the future we have the opportunity to still take different paths. I think we have a value system that is going to guide us along that way. But we still have the option to make changes and do things going forward that allow us to continue to build and to continue to try to get better.”