Friday, March 09, 2012

Comparing the Twilight of Two Hawks Eras

By Buddy Grizzard

With Thursday's revelation that Josh Smith still wants out of Atlanta, despite belated common acceptance that Josh Smith is (and has been) the team's leader and best player, it seems like a good time to compare the impending conclusion of the present Hawks era to the dissolution of a previous era.

The failure of the current Hawks regime to establish a championship culture has interesting contrasts and parallels with the Hawks' failures during the Dominque Wilkins era. No Hawks team since the franchise moved to Atlanta from St. Louis has ever advanced to the conference finals, much less the NBA finals. What follows is an analysis of that sustained futility, followed by suggestions for changing the franchise’s course.

In May of 1988, the Atlanta Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics dynasty in the conference semifinals. Hawks star small forward Dominique Wilkins engaged in an epic scoring duel with Larry Bird in Game 7, but the team came up one victory shy of advancing to the conference finals. The team lost in the first round to the Milwaukee Bucks the next season, missed the playoffs in 1989-90 and an era was over.

When franchise leadership saw a team that notched at least 50 wins in four consecutive seasons begin to decline, decisions were made that are still matters of intense debate among Atlanta sports fans two decades later. One key decision was letting coach Mike Fratello go after the team missed the playoffs in 1989-90. The other was the decision to trade Wilkins for Danny Manning in 1994 rather than grant him a contract extension to remain with the Hawks during his declining years.

The present-day Hawks organization finds itself in a similar position of near-contention. The revelation that Josh Smith does not want to be a part of the team's future comes after the franchise has already made staffing decisions with major implications. Here's a comparison of those decisions in the two eras:

The head coach

Mike Fratello is the most successful coach in Atlanta Hawks history with 18 playoff victories. By 1990, however, a sizeable portion of the team’s roster had stopped listening to him. When Bob Weiss was hired to replace Fratello, Wilkins praised him as a "player's coach." There’s no question that if Fratello had Wilkins’ support, he would have remained as coach.

Fast forward to 2010 when the Hawks were destroyed in the second round by the Orlando Magic in the most lopsided playoff series in league history. Once again it seemed that Hawks players were tuning the coach out, and the franchise decided to make a change. History repeated itself as a coach with quantifiable success (Mike Woodson, 11 playoff victories) was replaced by a coach with questionable qualifications.

Prior to joining the Hawks, Weiss coached the San Antonio Spurs to two losing seasons. Larry Drew had no previous head coaching experience. Nevertheless, when Drew was introduced as head coach of the Hawks, almost every rotation player was present at the press conference. Rather than base a coaching hire on a successful track record, the Hawks once again hired the coach the players wanted.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, players should not be relied upon to pick the right person to lead a franchise. That's what you hire competent front office personnel for. In the case of Drew's hiring, general manager Rick Sund's presumptive choice (Dwane Casey) was passed over, subsequently served as the lead assistant on a championship team and was hired as head coach by the Toronto Raptors. Ownership apparently overruled Sund and picked Drew, a coach whose qualifications included serving as lead assistant during the most spectacular playoff failure in NBA history.

The second problem with giving players influence over coaching decisions is that once the coach is installed, players may feel like the coach owes his position to them, thus undermining the coach's authority. This problem is compounded in Drew’s case by the fact that he is possibly the lowest-paid coach in the league. If ownership values the coach so little, why would players hesitate to defy the coach? A perfect example of this is how Josh Smith's three-point attempts skyrocketed in Drew's first season after Woodson had successfully reined Smith in the previous season.

For all we know, Smith may have lobbied the hardest for Drew. But once again, players are responsible for performing on the court. Team ownership and management are responsible for hiring the best coach to lead the team, especially when the franchise has a quarter-billion dollars in player salaries committed.

The star player

With Fratello out of the way, Wilkins got the coach he wanted. The result was two playoff victories in three seasons and the end of an era. After the Hawks were swept by the Chicago Bulls in the first round in 1993, Weiss was replaced by Lenny Wilkens. As the trade deadline approached the following season, the Hawks had to make a decision about Wilkins' expiring contract. Wilkins wanted to retire as a Hawk and was seeking a long-term extension. Hawks management and ownership decided not to tie the team's future to a player in his 12th season who had already suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon.

When the Hawks traded Wilkins for Danny Manning, it became the only franchise to ever trade its leading scorer in mid-season while in first place in its conference. This may be the most heavily-scrutinized decision in Atlanta pro sports history. The prevailing opinion among fans is that the Hawks were championship contenders if the team kept Wilkins until the end of the season.

I hold a contrary opinion, based on how Wilkins performed for the remainder of his career. Nothing Wilkins did from the time he was traded until he retired showed me that he had transformed into a player capable of leading a team to a championship. By trading Wilkins and seeing Manning walk away, the Hawks were left with a slotted star salary and no star. This money was used to sign Dikembe Mutombo, thus launching a new Hawks era with minimal rebuilding.

In the summer of 2010, the Hawks faced a similar decision. After trading for Joe Johnson, the franchise watched him make three consecutive All-Star teams. With Johnson already 29 years old, the team had the choice to offer him a max contract of six years and $119 million or risk losing him to free agency. Shooting guards are not known to age well in the NBA (see Allan Houston). Hawks ownership made the decision to go all-in to win now in contrast to how the team had previously divested itself of Wilkins.

While I applaud Hawks ownership for its willingness to spend money to retain talent, my opinion at the time was that this money would be better invested elsewhere. My dream scenario was for the Hawks to trade Johnson to the Nets, a franchise desperate to build a winner ahead of its move to Brooklyn, for some of the assets it later gave up to obtain Deron Williams. I felt that Johnson’s production could be replaced, and that ball movement and team play would increase in the absence of Johnson’s tendency to dribble out the shot clock and shoot contested jumpers.

The present day

With all of that history behind us, we find ourselves today with Josh Smith apparently questioning the Hawks organization’s commitment to winning a championship. The Hawks without Al Horford and Joe Johnson for parts of this season have remained in playoff contention. Without Josh Smith, in my opinion, the Hawks are a lottery team. Horford will never be the rim protector that Smith is. Johnson has already begun a statistical decline that’s only going to accelerate. If the Hawks organization would like to counter the impression that it is not committed to competing for a championship, I would like to offer the following plan of action:

1. Trade Joe Johnson to any taker for any offer

In discussing the premise of this post with Bret LaGree, he expressed zero optimism that the Hawks will be able to find a taker for Johnson’s contract. I’m more optimistic. I see a number of NBA owners out there with more money than sense, Donald Sterling being chief among them. The Clippers are desperate for a shooting guard, Sterling has virtually unlimited resources and Johnson might be the most talented player they could potentially add.

A trade with the Clippers might look lopsided because of the flotsam the Hawks would be taking back, but the point is to get out from under Johnson’s contract while taking back shorter-term contracts to prepare the roster for being built around Josh Smith. The Hawks should trade Johnson to the Clippers for Mo Williams, Ryan Gomes and Chauncey Billups’ expiring contract (along with picks and cash if they can get it).

The other desperate potential trade partner with virtually unlimited resources is the Orlando Magic. Otis Smith has loaded down Orlando’s roster with undesirable contracts to the point where the Magic have very few trade assets. The Magic’s only real chance to add players to try to placate Dwight Howard is by taking on contracts other teams don’t want. If the Hawks want to have a future that doesn’t include visiting the draft lottery while paying Joe Johnson $25 million, then the Hawks don’t want Johnson’s contract. Trade it to Orlando for Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick. The latter will have an expiring contract next year and Turk will only have two years left.

2. Fire Larry Drew and retire or “promote” Rick Sund

Larry Drew has failed as an NBA coach because of the favoritism he has shown certain players, his inability to spot, utilize or develop the talent on his own bench, and because he has provided Josh Smith with a pretext for wanting out by throwing his players under the bus and not taking his share of responsibility for the team’s shortcomings. Nobody will EVER take the Hawks seriously as an organization with the will to contend for championships as long as the franchise employs a coach no other team would hire.

As for Rick Sund, I have sung his praises on these very pages for drafting Jeff Teague, improving the team’s defensive accountability and strengthening the bench in the offseason on a limited (on the verge of non-existent) budget. But let’s face it… is this the general manager you want in charge during the total rebuild that will likely ensue in the event the Hawks are unable to extend Josh Smith? AJC columnist Jeff Shultz pointed out during the last Hawks coaching search that Sund does not have a good record on coaching hires. And as good as the Teague and Jordan Crawford picks may have been, I just can’t see entrusting a rebuild to the man who drafted Robert Swift.

3. Hire Dennis Lindsey and hand him the keys

There’s no possible way an executive with the stature of Dennis Lindsey, the assistant GM of the San Antonio Spurs, would take the Hawks GM job without an understanding with ownership that he will have the autonomy to make his own decisions. If the Hawks owners were to somehow score this coup, it would signal to the rest of the league (and to fans) that Hawks ownership has finally decided to let basketball people make the team’s basketball decisions.

The last understudy of Spurs GM R.C. Buford to get a similar gig with another franchise was Sam Presti, the man who built the Oklahoma City Thunder into championship contenders with breathtaking swiftness. Dennis Lindsey is not Sam Presti (who famously convinced the Spurs to draft Tony Parker), but he nevertheless has been the protégé of two of the greatest executives in NBA history, Buford and the former Spurs GM who hired him, Greg Popovich. If the Hawks want to create a championship culture and convince the world that the franchise is serious about building a contender, hire the guy that was groomed by champions.

4. Hold a press conference and announce that the Hawks are NOT trading Josh Smith

Here, let me write the press release for you:

“The Atlanta Hawks organization would like to announce that we have no intention whatsoever of trading Josh Smith. Josh is the heart and soul of the Atlanta Hawks. He is our anchor on offense and defense and the organization would rather face the prospect of losing him to free agency than allow him to leave the organization one second before his contract expires. The Hawks will not be offering Josh for trade, but our general manager has been authorized to entertain calls regarding Josh, provided that the caller is offering an All-Star and additional considerations in return.”


johnpfeiffer said...

Hey- thanks for the article. It is difficult finding people who care enough about the Hawks to actually analyze their situation. years of the organization selling fans a Toyota Camry, while claiming its a Porsche, has left a disinterested group. They need to do something bold, and start over. Build around Josh and Jeff, build through the draft. FA's wouldn't come here right now even if we had the cap room-

Buddy Grizzard said...

John, my NBA fandom over the last few years turned into unhealthy, obsessive behavior and I needed an outlet beyond reading about it. Hoopinion has been great therapy!

Your comments about the disillusionment of Hawks fans are very telling. This is why I think getting a legit GM in here like Lindsey is the most important step. We need somebody the fans will trust to make good evaluation of draft picks and a good coaching hire.

Natural Neutral said...

I think that it's clear that Dwight has no interest in Atlanta, so I agree with you and advocate for the Joe Johnson trade, as he is losing value with every game it seems. I'm just sort of worried that we will face a situation where we will have 3 above average players (Josh, Al, and Teague), Zaza, who is emminently worthwhile and productive, and nothing else. We should be aiming to trade some other package (preferably including Marvin and possibly Josh if the right offer comes along) to get a quality young shooting guard.

I don't think I've seen the Hawks greatly improve their personnel through either free agency (Flip Murray being Sund's best signing probably) or through the draft (even with lottery picks, the Hawks usually don't get many useful players out of it, Josh Al, and Teague among all of the busts), so we likely need to make one trade. yes, to be rid of Joe, and then the other to add a future all star. Whatever we do, we should try to stay in contention as long as we have Josh and Al at affordable rates. But we're going to need several more pieces, and trades are the only way I see us getting them.

Chuckman said...

Can the Hawks just Amnesty Joe Johnson and move on? I find it hard to believe anyone would want his minimal production with that huge contract, so trading him is going to be tough.

Buddy Grizzard said...

N.N., Josh's rate isn't going to be affordable beyond his current contract. I can name two max contract players I don't feel are nearly as talented as Josh off the top of my head:

Joe Johnson

Rudy Gay

For this reason, I think Josh gets a max or very-near-max deal after next season. That's why I'm desperate to unload Joe.

And Chuckman, Amnestying Joe is absolutely in play under the right circumstances. Let's say Dwight Howard becomes a free agent this summer and has a change of heart... would the ASG eat Joe's salary and double it to pay Dwight? I've heard the ASG are actually worth quite a lot. Wouldn't it be great if they decided to make their vanity asset into something worth being vain about?

Real AtLien said...

Other than the Coaching similarities this has to be the dumbest statement I've every heard. Trade Josh For D12 Get him up out of here. Can't understand Why a fan would be so ready to trade a player that's 6× NBA All-Star,All-NBA Third Team ,NBA All-Rookie Second Team (2002), 2006 Team USA player, The only Hawks player to reach 10,000 points and 2500 Assists. But you all ready to trade the player that brought your team out of the dark. But your pleading the team to not trade a player that barely can give you a complete gm, immature, and shoots more long 2 pointers than anyone in the league at a embarrassing percent. Never mind getting your best player some real help, no that would be crazy lets trade him so that the player that everybody screams no!!! when he looks at taking a jump shot can be the star of the team and do what he always has, not live up to his potential. Trade Josh and Marvin for D12 so we can win a Ring and Get Josh Smith up outta here!

James Goeders said...

Real AtLien,

It's true, Joe has been the face of the franchise, but his production is falling off.

Looking at statistics per 36 minutes, Joe is scoring the least number of points since coming to Atlanta. He's also getting far less rebounds than at any time in his career. His overall field goal percentage and 3pt% are down too (though FT% is at an all-time high). None of this should be surprising for a 30 year old 2-guard in his 13th season.

E.J. 'Trey' Alverson said...

As a die-hard hawks fan, I saw what I would call the best case realistic deadline trade scenario yesterday on a hoopsworld chat: Hawks would trade disgruntled Josh, Marvin's poor contract, Hinrich's expiring deal and some picks to receive Pau Gasol, McBob, Goudelock and the rights to Fran Vasquez (Bynum, Smoove, Williams and picks to ORL; D12, Hinrich, Hedo, Ryan Anderson to LAL)... If the Clippers or whoever are not biting on Joe, it doesn't get much better than this. Plus, the trade seems plausible for all three teams.

maxxj3 said...

Are we really comparing this point in time to the Nique trading? It's like everyone believes trading Josh is essentially blowing the team up and that is far from the truth. When you have multiple guys on the court who need the ball to succeed the ball movement will stop. Right now Josh is the only ball stopper and it's working because of his natural position.

Bret LaGree said...

maxxj3 --

Not to speak for the author, but I think this is comparing, but not equating, the situations.

Barring the unlikely gift of an NBA GM taking on Joe Johnson's contract, trading Josh Smith would be the most significant sign of ASG soberly assessing the reality of this franchise and making a serious rebuilding move.

If the Hawks rebuild within the next four seasons, it almost has to mean that Josh Smith and Joe Johnson are not on the 2013-14 team.

Now, regular readers (hell, irregular readers given how much I repeat myself) know this is entirely down to Joe Johnson's contract. The Hawks had the opportunity in the Summer of 2008 and 2010 to build around Smith and Horford and they pissed those chances away.

Still, I think a Kirk Hinrich salary dump is the most likely deadline trade for the team. Not that part of me doesn't want to write the post about Erick Dampier being the right guy for the Hawks to go over the luxury tax.

Buddy Grizzard said...

Damp or another big body was necessary. Your post should be about how we went into the luxury tax for Jerry Stackhouse.

Nate ArchiBALL said...

Buzzy you must go back in history a little further.......Mike Fratello was an assistant coach on Hubie Brown's staff (the coach he replaced). Fratello had no previous head coaching experience. Fratello got the job because the players had stopped listening to Hubie.......sound familiar?

DW21 said...

Fratello didn't replace brown.