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.”