HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The locals will talk about it forever.
What would the Hawks have been like with Chris Paul or Deron Williams instead of Marvin Williams? Or Rudy Gay or Brandon Roy instead of Shelden Williams or basically anyone other than Speedy Claxton?
Conference finals appearances instead of first round exits? Global recognition of a basketball brand reborn with superstar talent instead of a league laughingstock (after a 13-win season in 2004-05) and the team that can always be counted on not to come through when they should?
Hypothetical questions with no clear-cut answers make the Hawks’ past every bit as murky as their immediate future. They enter free agency this summer with only six players under contract, four Draft picks (two in each round) and approximately $33.1 million in cap space for their GM, Danny Ferry, to work with in rebuilding the roster.
The Hawks choices in the Draft and free agency have come to define the franchise over the past eight years more so than anything they have actually done on the court. They ended an eight-year playoff drought after the 2007-08 season with a core group of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Mike Bibby, Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Shelden Williams and Acie Law. That group kicked off a run of six straight playoff appearance that came crashing to an ugly end Friday night at Philips Arena in a Game 6 loss to the Indiana Pacers in their first round series.
It was the official end to not only their season but also an era for the Hawks, who have just three players — Horford, Lou Williams and rookie John Jenkins — under guaranteed contacts for next season. Even Hawks coach Larry Drew, who has been on staff (the last three as head coach) throughout this entire era, does not have a contract for next season.
We’ve seen the last of these Hawks as we know them, Drew acknowledged as much after the Game 6 loss.
“Even with the injuries to Zaza and Lou, we were able to juggle some things around, move people around,” Drew said. “And we stayed together. We did not fragment. We stayed together even when it got tough. A lot of people didn’t predict us to make the playoffs. No one gave us a chance, but this group hung in there. They persevered and I’m really proud of them.”
It was an honorable finish to a tumultuous season for all involved. A team loaded with three times as many pending free agents as players under guaranteed contracts, has issues that go above and beyond the professionalism required to do the job under those circumstances.
That said, Ferry is sticking to his plan. He’s going to be rebuilding basically from scratch, with nine players heading into free agency July 1.
Smith, one of the only remaining building blocks from the franchise’s last rebuild and a long-time source of division within the franchise (some folks loved the hometown kid who flashed signs of being an All-Star caliber player over the years while others loathed the enigmatic performer who clashed with his coaches and drove fans nuts with his play), going into the summer as one of the marquee names on the market.
It’s time for Smith and the Hawks to go their separate ways, amicably, of course. Everyone involved knows that it’s time for a mutual parting of the ways for the good of all involved.
Point guard Jeff Teague is a restricted free agent and while he’s shown loads of improvement since Drew took over for Woodson, there remain questions about whether or not he is best suited as the starting point guard for this team.
Ferry can make a clean break from the Hawks’ recent past, from all of the second-guessing, head-scratching and eye-rolling that has surrounded the Hawks for years. No one will vilify him for cleaning up the mess made before he arrived last summer, the one he started clean up himself by moving both Johnson and Marvin Williams in trades last summer.
It’s the uncertainty of what’s to come, however, that makes skeptical Hawks fans nervous. There will be big fish on the free agent market, guys like Los Angeles Lakers’ big man and Atlanta native Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Paul, stars capable of turning an uncertain situation around by signing their names on the dotted line.
The Hawks have the necessary resources to pursue those two, who will be first and second, in whatever order, on every free agent wish list of a team with money to spend this summer.
The summer of 2013 is the Hawks’ biggest since the summer of 2005, when Johnson (sign-and-trade) and Marvin Williams (No. 2 pick overall in the Draft) were added to the mix. That was the beginning of a painstaking rebuilding process that ultimately led to six straight playoff appearances, the second-best stretch of its kind in the Hawks’ Atlanta history.
For a franchise that has endured a recent stretch of complete insignificance during that playoff drought, followed by the past six postseason runs, a return to the non-playoff abyss is a bit frightening.
That’s what made the end of Friday night so bittersweet for Horford, who has only known the playoffs during his time with the Hawks and in the league.
“I feel for our fans,” he said. “I know they wanted us to do better. I felt like, as a team, we did about as much as we could. We had some adversity and we handled it well. We had a good season, looking at the big picture. One thing I appreciate about these guys was how they competed. Even tonight, we could’ve gone the other way. That is something I’m proud of the guys for.”
The “guys” will look a lot different next season.
In fact, Horford might be one of the only truly familiar faces around if Ferry carries out his master plan.