The aforementioned inherent difficulties in evaluating Rick Sund's 2010-11 season were founded on his lame duck status throughout the season. Not just was Sund universally perceived as a lame duck GM, but also one who did not have authority over either of the head coach hiring decisions made during this tenure. How do you evaluate a man over moves he may or may not have initiated, moves with which he may or may not have agreed?
I'm not sure that the one-year extension he signed this week really changes my reservations about both his performance and the role of the general manager in this franchise. If Sund was extended out of convenience, so the current owners did not have to engage in a job search while trying to identify the franchise's future owners, then the Atlanta Hawks are likely to spend one more off-season (though a long lockout might change things) bereft of long-term planning. If Sund was extended by owners who are not hell-bent on selling the team, then his continued employment (essentially a renewal of his lame duck status in this scenario) working under those who undermine their general manager and present the greatest impediment to the franchise developing a unified basketball identity validates every bit of skepticism directed at the organization.
As best as I can determine, Rick Sund, much like the team on the court, capped a mostly uninspiring season with a faintly impressive finish. Whether the faintness represents a relatively dim chance of future success or merely reflects past disappointments remains to be seen.
There's no reason to believe that Rick Sund initiated either the hiring of Larry Drew nor Joe Johnson's extension. Following orders is an understandable (with the example of Billy Knight serving as a cautionary tale) though not a sufficient defense in both cases. Drew may yet develop into a competent NBA head coach. If he does so quickly, he'll be a bargain. There is, I suspect, no chance that the remaining five years and $107 million due Johnson ever reflects competence. Even in a best case scenario, the contract will likely overshadow whatever value Johnson provides on the court.
Nor was it just Johnson's contract that came home to roost this season. Whereas that deal will seriously hamstring the Hawks in the future, it was the prior re-signings of Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams which seriously hurt the 2010-11 Hawks. The amount of money invested in two sub-par starters limited the utility of eminently reasonable contracts for Josh Smith and Al Horford and was partially responsible (shockingly poor talent evaluation being the other factor) for the team's lack of depth. The lone upshot of the Bibby and Williams contracts might be the refusal to sign Jamal Crawford to an extension, thus potentially keeping the quantity of defense-averse shooting guards in their thirties on the 2011-12 roster at one.
Now, the events of March, April, and May revealed that the Hawks might have had better depth all season than Larry Drew acknowledged. The recent success of Zaza Pachulia, Jeff Teague, and Jordan Crawford works to Sund's advantage in every way. Pachulia's contract is very reasonable for a third big man and Pachulia works best in such a role while Teague and Crawford the Younger both appear to be very sound use of late first-round picks. That all three of these players were out the rotation for some or most of the season really can't reflect poorly on Sund, either. What influence could he, a lame duck, have had over a head coach he didn't recommend hiring in the first place?
And, if Sund was general managing out the string, the trade of Mike Bibby, Crawford, Mo Evans, and a first-round pick for Kirk Hinrich was extremely defensible. The trade (beyond the cathartic aspect of getting rid of Bibby) made the Hawks better over the period of time for which Sund was under contract. Had Sund been working for anyone who had demonstrated an iota of basketball knowledge or strategic vision, such a deal, under those circumstances, might smack of cynical careerism on the general manager's part. Given Sund's age, the relative unlikelihood of him securing a similar executive role in another organization, and the relative likelihood that the current owners are quite pleased with a more competitive second-round exit for their team, I absolve him of any self-interested motives.
It should not, however, absolve Sund (and the organization) from the damage done in getting out from under the ridiculous contract Bibby signed in July 2009. The difference in cost between Bibby and Hinrich could reasonably be explained away by the difference in their quality, especially the differences in how they complement Joe Johnson. But in, rather improbably, making a bad cap situation worse, the Atlanta Hawks organization will surely come to rue the loss of both Jordan Crawford and the 18th pick* of the 2011 draft. Not that either are likely to become great players so much as the likelihood they could contribute, the possibility they could become good, and the cost certainty of their rookie contracts.
*Especially if any two of Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton, and Tobias Harris end up being available there.
Sund, you see, again showed little ability to acquire quality freely available talent for the bench. Damien Wilkins was a sound mid-season pickup but he still played fewer minutes than Mo Evans for the Hawks this season. Josh Powell and Etan Thomas were both predictably useless. Pape Sy has yet to demonstrate the worth of spending a draft pick and the buyout to secure his age 22 season. Magnum Rolle may yet prove to be the cheap, rookie complement to Pachulia off the bench for which the Hawks should have been searching since Billy Knight was wasting the 33rd pick on Solomon Jones but the inherent humor in Rolle being at least 25 should he make his NBA debut for the organization that gets caught off-guard by players aging can't be ignored.
It's not an evaluation of Sund so much as the organization as a whole to conclude that the best personnel decisions under his watch (extending Horford, drafting Teague and Jordan Crawford, re-signing Pachulia, not re-signing Jamal Crawford) haven't paid off on the court while some of the worst* (not letting the general manager pick the head coach, re-signing Bibby and Williams, signing Powell and Thomas) have already hurt the Hawks.
*Here I'm grading the Joe Johnson contract and drafting/buying out Pape Sy as essentially neutral on-court to date.
Until ultimate power in the organization rests with someone willing to grant the general manager ultimate power over basketball decisions it will be impossible for the Atlanta Hawks to progress toward a championship.