Thursday, July 05, 2012

Once More, With Feeling: Reviewing Marvin Williams' Years in Atlanta

Previously: Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Larry Drew, Rick Sund

In retrospect, Marvin Williams' time with the Atlanta Hawks never made more sense than the night he was drafted. Oh, in hindsight it was a mistake to take Marvin ahead of Chris Paul or, to a significantly lesser* extent, Deron Williams, but it was a mistake 28 other teams likely would have made. It's only in pairing hindsight with selective memory, forgetting Deron Williams' college playing weight, forgetting how bad Wake Forest was defensively, forgetting the final two weeks of Chris Paul's college career were lowlighted by both his punch to Julius Hodge's groin and a second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament as a 2-seed, that drafting Marvin Williams becomes a singular, spectacular act of incompetence.

(I understand you may disagree. For me to take you seriously, you'll need to cite your work. An unsupported "I knew back then" is not convincing. Here's mine. There is much wrong within.)

There were questions about Paul and Williams. Marvin Williams was potential. He didn't fulfill much that potential as an Atlanta Hawk. It's unclear how much of that was due to his limitations, unrecognized during the 22 minutes a game he played during his lone season at North Carolina, and how much was due to organizational dysfunction.

*In hindsight, Utah made a pretty sizable mistake in taking Williams ahead of Paul, too, though that generally goes unmentioned.

On his rookie deal, Williams often played ahead of the superior Josh Childress. Once the Hawks, quite reasonably, chose the younger Williams over Childress and signed Marvin to a sizable extension, the team, quite inexplicably, became disillusioned with him almost immediately. Despite the sizable extension and Williams being the only legit small forward on the roster, he found himself in a reduced role that never gave him a chance to justify the contract. Not that he would have justified it, given the chance. His almost tragically poor playoff performances added to the impression that Williams was not one to seize the moment.

Williams took grief for being an okay player drafted two spots ahead of an all-time great. For being offered a long, large extension despite being, in his brighter stretches, no more than a useful player. For his usefulness coming in ways likely to be unappreciated. In Atlanta, Marvin Willliams came to tick many of the boxes on the list of ways to be an underrated player: an efficient, low-volume scorer who didn't turn the ball over, a slightly above average defender, and a fine rebounder who played only 30 minutes a game.

Much like Joe Johnson, but at a lesser cost, Marvin Williams couldn't hope to match the organization's over-investment in his talents, especially given how he was utilized. Exactly like Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams is not his contract, nor is he what might have been had the Atlanta Hawks never acquired him. Marvin Williams is an adequate player who, in fresh circumstances, could, in his age-26 and age-27 seasons, justify the final two years of his contract. For his sake, I hope he gets that chance in Utah.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Future

Through two trades announced within a couple of hours of each other on Monday, Danny Ferry transformed the Atlanta Hawks from one of the most capped-out teams in the league to one that will have $30-40 million in cap space next Summer when Chris Paul and Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum and James Harden and Serge Ibaka will all be free agents. And cap space isn't just for signing free agents. It gives an organization the flexibility to take advantage of other teams' dysfunction to add quality players and assets. A numbingly cautious and predictable organization became bold and opened itself up to countless possibilities.

The Hawks are going to be far more interesting now that their ambitions extend beyond hosting a couple of second-round playoff games but greater ambitions and smart management provides no guarantee of greater success. Kevin Pritchard couldn't turn and Daryl Morey hasn't turned sound methodology into a championship contending team. Sam Presti runs a model franchise but it's got to be better than even money the Thunder don't win an NBA title on his watch. Danny Ferry was there as the Spurs saw what might be their last hurrah turn from two months of glorious basketball into playoff elimination in the course of a week. For all the ambition, talent, and hubris collected in Miami, Pat Riley and the Heat felt both accomplishment and relief in winning the NBA title. It's terribly difficult to win a championship.

Here's the thing: reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history won't be all that satisfying if the Hawks lose that series. That's the nature of fandom. Team success breeds desire for more success. For now, for the first time in a very long time*, the desires of the Atlanta Hawks and the desires of Atlanta Hawks fans are in sync. I think we have to enjoy that, embrace the possibilities or the playoff losses and the injuries (in various degrees, both will come) will won't make it feel like a better place. For Hawks fans, it is.

*I don't count the Joe Johnson sign-and-trade. That was a move made out of desperation and insecurity, one that diverted resources which could have been used for rebuilding into the acquisition of an above average player. It laid the foundation for an era of competency despite mismanagement, realized only through moving up in the 2007 lottery and drafting Al Horford to pair with Josh Smith. The Hawks didn't have a winning record until you could honestly argue that one of those two, rather than Johnson, was the best player on the team.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Great Trade. Who'd We Get?

So ends an era. One wherein terrible management turned a good player into a profound organizational handicap. Michael Cunningham reports:
The Hawks and Nets have agreed to terms on a trade that will send All-Star guard Joe Johnson to Brooklyn for expiring contracts and a first-round pick, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.
Let's hear it for Danny Ferry, who performed a miracle. And let's hear it for Billy King, who saw the post-prime years of (presently) an above average score and passer who doesn't rebound, whose defense can best be described as "won't kill you if you put him on the other team's second-most dangerous wing" and thought to himself, "That's worth $90 million and a first-round draft pick."

The cost of the Joe Johnson era was only, it turned out, $105 million, one first-round pick, and one league average player. Danny Ferry turned a potential disaster into something that didn't work out as planned.

The Hawks have moved on. This trade doesn't improve them in the short-term, it only makes improvement possible in the future. Ferry will have to make several good decisions (and have them work) to get the Hawks to win two playoff series in a season for the first time since they moved to Atlanta.

Tonight, though raise a glass to Ferry, to Joe Johnson, to Billy King, and to the future.