Can the Hawks win a title without their Tim Duncan?

There are four basic ways for an NBA team to improve – via the draft, a trade or free agency, and also through player development. The Atlanta Hawks under Danny Ferry have used trades as a mechanism for shedding salary, which has enabled them to land Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll and the just-departed Lou Williams as free agents. The two drafts prior to last week’s yielded two useful rotational players, a couple of down-the-road prospects and Lucas Nogueira, shipped to Toronto in the Williams deal.

Given the payroll-slashing that had to happen before anything else could, Ferry has proved himself an able acquisitor. The best thing the Hawks have done these past two seasons, however, is to maximize what they’ve had. Korver, Millsap and Carroll have done their finest professional work here. Jeff Teague has become one of the league’s better point guards. The arrival of Mike Budenholzer as coach – and, not coincidentally, the departure of Josh Smith as a free agent – made last season’s Hawks a team, as opposed to a collection.

Even as we concede that this organization appears headed for better days, we continue to wonder: How much better? NBA free agency commences Tuesday. We know from history that Ferry will sign somebody of worth. Still, the mild disappointment of last summer serves as both sobering memory and object lesson.

A year ago, the Hawks had a meeting with Dwight Howard, who seemed to hit it off with the just-hired Budenholzer. The Hawks left the room feeling things had gone well. Howard signed with Houston. Ferry landed Millsap – pound-for-pound the best buy made by any team last summer and surely the best in team annals – in a neat display of catch-up ball, but the point remained: The biggest free agent of 2013 went elsewhere, and not to New York or L.A. or even South Beach. Howard, who’s from Atlanta, went to Houston, which is Atlanta with a second airport and worse humidity.

The biggest free agents of 2014 are LeBron James, the best player in the world, and Carmelo Anthony, who’s becoming the game’s most polarizing figure. (Is he a great player still in search of the right team, or is he a ball-stopper whose thirst to shoot will keep any team from becoming great?) The Hawks want to speak with both. The odds of either signing with the local franchise are infinitesimal. (LeBron’s not going anywhere but Miami, FYI.) Again, the Hawks will surely have to settle for someone who’s good-but-not-quite-great.

According to the AJC’s Chris Vivlamore, the Hawks No. 1 target, realistically speaking, is Luol Deng, lately of Cleveland. He’s a 10-year-pro and twice an All-Star. He’s not the league’s best small forward – that’d be LeBron – but he’d be an upgrade over Carroll, who’s best suited as an off-the-bench energy guy. A frontcourt of Al Horford, Millsap and Deng would be imposing. A starting lineup of those three plus Teague and Korver would constitute one of the NBA’s 10 best – but not one of the five best.

And that brings us, not for the first time, to the limits inherent in building without a superstar. The San Antonio Spurs, who serve as the Hawks’ model, just won their fifth NBA title since 1999. All five of those came with Tim Duncan, who’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The past four have come with Tony Parker, who will be, too. The Spurs find the proper complementary parts – from Robert Horry to Stephen Jackson to Bruce Bowen to Kawhi Leonard – but there wouldn’t much to complement without Duncan and Parker. (And don’t forget Manu Ginobli, who has over time stood a half-step below those two.)

Assuming they don’t land LeBron or Carmelo, the template the Hawks will be following, personnel-wise, won’t be San Antonio’s. It will be that of the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons, who had no great player but five very good ones. (Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince.) Rick Sund, Ferry’s predecessor as Hawks GM and still a team consultant, once believed it possible to win a Pistons-like title, but Detroit’s triumph remains the exception that proves the rule. Of the NBA champions since 1990, only those Pistons lacked a man who had won or would win the NBA’s most valuable player award.

The Pistons’ way worked once. The Spurs’ way has worked five times. Stylistically the Hawks are right to pattern themselves after the best. But again we ask: Can they really hope to be a champion without finding their Tim Duncan? And if the answer is no, where/when/how might they land him?

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