Atlanta determined to change its free-agent standing in NBA

Al Horford (left), coach Mike Budenholzer and Paul Millsap comprise the Hawks' core.

Al Horford (left), coach Mike Budenholzer and Paul Millsap comprise the Hawks’ core.

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Perception and reality have a strange way of intersecting during the summer for the Atlanta Hawks.

A franchise “on the rise” in a world-class city and a robust free-agent crop would appear to be a match made in basketball heaven. NBA players love Atlanta and the proof is in the countless number of current and former pros who call the city home — even the ones who never wore a Hawks jersey during their playing days.

Yet the perception around the league is that the Hawks struggle annually to lure big-name free agents, while the reality is they are currently not in the business of chasing free-agent ghosts for the sake of changing perceptions.

Yes, the past two summers the Hawks have had the cap flexibility to be major players in free agency. And they’ve explored all of their options, with names both big and otherwise. They have also shown the restraint many teams can’t in throwing money at a name whose game doesn’t fit the system and program they are building under general manager Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer.

Both men have deep ties to the San Antonio Spurs and they’ve brought many of those sensibilities with them. That includes being extremely selective in the players they consider for inclusion into their program. But if the Hawks are going to shed their not-ready-for-prime-time label, they need a watershed moment (making a conference final) or signature player (the statute of limitations on Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins is up) to propel the movement.

The Houston Rockets won the free-agent sweepstakes last summer by snagging Atlanta’s own Dwight Howard. But it was a hollow victory after Howard and Co. had a disappointing first-round effort against the Portland Trail Blazers, proving that there are no guarantees when trying to make a roster splash.

The Hawks pursued Howard, who quite frankly never had any interest in returning to his hometown to play for various reasons that had nothing to do with the Hawks, and were first-round playoff fodder as well. But they did so after pushing the No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers to a Game 7, coming four quarters from shocking the basketball world. It gave the Hawks a momentum that has lingered around Atlanta and is spreading beyond the city limits.

Whether or not it spreads into free agency — so far Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore serve as the Hawks’ major acquisitions — is not the focus for the Hawks. They have a broader perspective than just this summer. (And in all fairness, the Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns all went into the summer swinging for the fences in free agency only to strike out on the biggest names as well.)

“We will make a very concerted effort, and I personally think we are going to become a haven for free agents,” said Hawks part owner and CEO Steve Koonin. “We have so much to offer … Coach Bud, the style of play and an incredible lifestyle in what I believe is the best city in the world to live in. We’ve got a team on the ascent and an organization on the rise. History is not an indicator of what’s to come.”

No team got more bang for its buck out of its free-agent pickup than the Hawks got out of Paul Millsap, who made the Eastern Conference All-Star team after signing a two-year, $19 million deal last summer. Again, a perfect fit in a new system for a franchise that’s going about the business of branding itself as something much more than just an afterthought.

The longest playoff streak in the league belongs to the reigning champion Spurs at 17. The second longest streak (seven) belongs to the Hawks. So if nothing else, the last year helps the Hawks bolster their case and allows them to stop defending themselves against critics who wonder why they haven’t done more and start selling themselves as a destination franchise for the future.

No one is better positioned to make that argument than Koonin, the former president of Turner Entertainment Networks, overseeing TNT, TBS and TruTV. He also spent 14 years at Coca-Cola, headquartered in Atlanta, and is universally recognized as one of Atlanta’s foremost business leaders and one of the most brilliant marketing minds in the industry.

He’s not an executive who needed to be convinced that Atlanta has what it takes to be a big-time player. He arrived with his own vision and understanding of what role the city and the Hawks can play in the NBA and the world of sports and entertainment, whose southern capital has been located in Atlanta for the better part of the past 15 years.

“We have work to do,” Koonin said. “We have to do a good job of convincing the players of what we have to offer. Raising the awareness of the players is important. Out of sight, out of mind, that’s not the position anyone wants to be in. We’re going to be active in the [free agent] market, and it changes every year, but we will make it a priority to find players that fit our system.”

Ferry and Budehnolzer have not shied away from the comparisons between what the Hawks are building, on and off the court, and what the Spurs already have in place.

“Why wouldn’t we want to be viewed in that light?” Ferry said on a local Atlanta radio show after the Spurs vanquished the Miami Heat in The Finals.

Koonin feels the same way.

“Go look at what San Antonio did to Miami,” he said. “They didn’t have one player average over 30 minutes a game. I don’t think we had one player play average more than 31 minutes. We extend careers and bring a totally different point of view and plan. We’re a place where a player can come get both sides of the equation, a great system and program to play in and great city to live in.

“Atlanta has it all. Were not a ‘love ’em and leave ’em’ town. We do keep these guys in the forefront. We have to work to continue to attract top talent. We have great heritage … and our program is going to built on play and stay, we want guys to play here and stay here. And we’re going to do some dynamic things to make that happen.”

Selling that vision to elite free agents like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and others is hard to do without more evidence than what the Hawks are working with right now. Selling it to players in that second tier, the Pau Gasols and Luol Dengs, remains a challenge.

But one that Koonin and the Hawks seem eager to embrace during these seemingly endless free agent summers, when perception and reality intersect on a daily basis.



  1. Robin sherman says:

    Being like SA with Tim Duncan is one thing. Being like SA without Duncan is quite another. At best, the Hawks are like the latter. You cannot win without a superstar plus an excellent all-star.

  2. e636l30 says:

    You can’t have a team with backbone and a winning attitude until you have ownership with the same, check and mate!

  3. e636l30 says:

    Can’t have a team with backbone until you have ownership with backbone!

  4. Mirko says:

    @Tim NBA Fan

    >>Great players like Davis, Irving, and Blake come almost every other year or so, and even those once-in-a-generation guys come every 4-6 years or so (not a whole generation). Durant (2007), LeBron (2003), Duncan (1997), Kobe (1996), Shaq (1992).

    Not to mention guys like:
    Tim Hardaway (1989, 14th pick)
    Shawn Kemp (1989, 17th pick)
    Latrell Spreewell (1992, 24th pick)
    Kevin Garnett (1995, 5th pick)
    Dirk Nowitzki (1998. 9th pick)
    Paul Pierce (1998, 10th pick)
    Tony Parker (2001, 28th pick)
    Dwyane Wade (2005, 5th pick)
    Russell Westbrook (2008, 4th pick)
    Steph Curry (2009, 7th pick)
    Paul George (2010, 10th pick)

    Just to give a hint. There are various superstars. I would say you can draft some of those guys about every 2-3 years. And you can also draft them late – e.g Tony Parker, John Stockton, Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili and and and

  5. the rock says:


  6. Adp says:

    The problem is they don’t do a good job promoting the team and charge outrageous ticket prices. No player wants to play for a franchise that can’t even put an audience in front of them. They’ve made the right roster moves since ferry came in, but they have to do better in putting people in the stands.

  7. Dominique was indeed a statue of defensive limitations.

  8. kahlel torrence says:

    Lets be honest al horford is an average big man whos best position i believe to be power forward he has never averageg20 points a season i believe he can be and is a double double machine but as far as being a player you build around he is not that. They may even want to trade him because there is not as big a need for dominant centers not saying he is one but you get my point, even the houston rockets who have the best center in the league in dwight howard couldnt beat the inexperienced portland trailblazers. The atlanta hawks neeed a scorer period if i was in the hawks front office al horford would have been gone 2 years ago but you dont know what you will get for him now because of the injury hes coming back from.

  9. David Delice says:

    Atlanta should get another wing defender because first of all the eastern conference is getting better and i saw the summer league game. Cj had 30 or sonthing. they need someone that can fight for the ball and a 3pt shooter and athletic and maybe a vederan. Matt Barnes comes to my mind.

  10. Air Zaza says:

    Let’s be real. Atlanta needs to move Al Horford to PF.
    They need someone who can player. Greg Monroe is available. They seems to fit as they are both movement players who don’t operate in the same space.
    Atlanta needs to add more depth. Bazemore and Thabo were okay signings. Getting someone like Boozer for 3-5 mil would be ideal as a amnesty candidate.

    That should help us more than anything. Al at his natural position. A center who fits Al and Depth.

  11. Truth says:

    StLouisRams, take that Atlanta isn’t a sports town garbage back to your sports talk radio jocks. Atlanta is one of the best sports towns in the world. We’ve hosted Super Bowls, World Series, MLB All Star games, NBA All Star games, final fours, PGA Championships, SEC Championships, major college bowl games, track & field championships and the f*ing Olympics. I’d take that resume over any in the world and certainly over anything St Louis has to offer.

    • josephus says:

      Nothing against atl …I am a hawks fan since the 80s….but u ostensibly national events as you named doesn’t make a great sports town. Atl fans are notorious for low turnouts for solid Braves teams, the Hawks, the Thrashers and, in the past the Falcons. There are a lot of transplants in atl that make it tough for the locals sometimes.

  12. luis marquez says:

    I think the reason is most of these players have families no offense to atl but atl isnt really a family friendly city not where u raise kids

    • Jason says:

      Go check where some of the former and current NBA players live. Atlanta is a perfect place to grow up. It has so much potential for everyone. But yea the actual downtown may not be the best place. But travel a few miles out and you’ll see where the millionaires spend there millions

  13. Bang says:

    This was a good article. I wish, oh I wish, that the Hawks could land a big name, But i really don’t see it happening. Until one elite player sits down and finally notices what could happen if they came to the Hawks, along with the hawks solid core. Thats a championshiop. All the hawks need is ONE superstar. Then they would keep coming.

  14. harrythehawk says:

    Let’s Go Hawks!

  15. theholyspectator says:

    hawks are the best average nba playoff team in the past decade plus….theyll make playoffs…if lucky make it past 1st round, will exit in the 2nd round..same story, different year…its getting old and boring folks.

  16. the fanbase, the team needs to be moved back to St. Louis. Huge swaths of empty seats to start the playoffs isn’t a good sign. That would never happen in a real sports city like St. Louis.

    • @joegreen23atl says:

      They playoffs was packed every game. But as a season ticket holder I can admit out fans must do better. No reason for the team in the 8th biggest market to be 28th in attendance. I don’t understand why Ferry didn’t rebuild & try to get a star in the draft like normal teams. This 1st or 2nd round purgatory is getting old.

  17. A.J. says:

    What a crock. Smith lathering Danny Ferry again. He’s talking about Ferry bringing with him “San Antonio sensibilities” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean), while the fact remains Ferry destroyed the Cavaliers with everything BUT “San Antonio sensibilities.”

  18. mark says:

    Modeling your team after a team like the spurs is not a bad idea they have made runs to the finals many times and have been major players in the rugh and tumble west for a very long time now why shouldn’t the Hawks try and strive for the type situation the spurs have allowed them self to be in every year I think ATL is taking the roots from a team that has grown from the dirt over 20 years ago now and trying to make them selfs the second coming of the spurs in Atlanta and if they can actual do it in the near future and if they belive they have the players and staff in place to do it then who are we or anybody else for that matter to tell them it’s the wrong way to do things history shows there are any ways to build a team but if you can do it the old fashioned way then why not get players via draft make there potential real and win games all that’s matters in the end is winning that championship for a team

    • A.J. says:

      There’s no such thing as a “San Antonio model.” It’s a media creation that means absolutely nothing.

      • TTKIN says:

        Doesn’t hurt to have the greatest PF in the history of the game either haha.

      • Carlo says:

        Yes. Apart from having been in the PO for 17 years, having drafted “top picks” like Parker, Ginobili, Splitter, Leonard, having hired “discarded” players like Finley or Diaw.
        That’s not a system? You mean that’s “luck”?
        I bet you’re one of those who think your wins are out of ability while others’ wins are out of luck, whatever.

    • @joegreen23atl says:

      How can you build through the draft while making the playoffs every year? It’s virtually impossible. Spurs hit the lottery and won Tim Duncan. We don’t have anyone near Tim Duncan caliber. Stars are a must to win in the NBA. We gave great complimentary players. We need a true star.

      • AYT says:

        Outside of Blake Griffin there haven’t been any 1st round picks in the lottery since to build around. 0 of them so where are you getting that nonsense. There hasn’t been a star in the draft probably since kyrie and that was 1 guy 1 out of what 50+ players drafted in the lottery over the last 3 years. and don’t give me no anothony davis nonsense. he is on NO and have you seen them make the playoffs in the last 2 seasons hell the last 4 nooo. So that build through the draft by tanking is dumbest thing in the world and you are actually suggesting it? There is not going to be the next LeBron james for years and years to come so trying to build from the draft lottery is just not going to work. It it would the 76ers would have a playoff team but they don’t. Millwaukee would be a solid young team but they aren’t. Keep that nonsense to yourself.

      • Tim NBA Fan says:

        The Spurs’ current Finals’ MVP was acquired via trade for a borderline starter. That wasn’t dumb luck, like getting #1 picks in good draft years ’87 & ’97. While the Duncan draft helped set things in motion for the franchise, and helped Popovich develop into a great coach and GM/VP/President of Operations, with too good to fail talent, clearly an excellent management system has emerged that has turned dumb luck into continuous contention. Developing a winning culture works, and tanking as a strategy generally doesn’t.

        Despite what I wrote above, getting a higher draft pick can really help. That doesn’t mean the team has to tank. The Cavaliers got Kyrie off of a pick they acquired from the Clippers, no tanking needed for that one. Ferry has been maneuvering the Hawks to be financially flexible, while simultaneously signing low-cost high-quality players and staying in the draft mix. The Hawks are in a good position to take advantage of any dumb luck that might come their way, unlike many other teams in the league. Lastly, Anthony Davis, barring serious injury, will be a great franchise-type player, better than Kyrie Irving and Blake Griffin. And it shows that such players do come around fairly often. While there is always talk of “once in a generation” players, such players come to the NBA more frequently then that. Great players like Davis, Irving, and Blake come almost every other year or so, and even those once-in-a-generation guys come every 4-6 years or so (not a whole generation). Durant (2007), LeBron (2003), Duncan (1997), Kobe (1996), Shaq (1992).