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.