Ferry’s mission: Find the right coach, then the right players

The Atlanta Hawks have a coach under contract through June 30. Larry Drew has not been told he won’t be asked back. He has been told the Hawks will interview others for the position he holds. Take away the part about Drew knowing what’s afoot and this is akin to Auburn’s Tuberville/Petrino Jetgate, minus the jet.

Were this any other Hawks offseason, we’d add this to the list — Jon Contract! J.R. Rider! Marvin Williams! Shelden Williams! Steve Belkin! — of epic snafus. This is not any other Hawks offseason. This is 2013. Danny Ferry is in charge.

This general manager has, as the agrarians at Auburn might say, two rows to hoe. He has to find the right coach and the right players. This being the NBA, players tend to matter more. This isn’t, however, to suggest that who coaches the Hawks next season is irrelevant.

The guess is that Ferry will have picked his coach by July 1, the day free agency commences. His selection will send a message. Surely Ferry would like for that message to be, “We’re so serious about getting the basketball part of our operation right that we just hired (fill in blank), a coach of obvious substance.”

Yahoo Sports reported last week that the Hawks are “aggressively pursuing” Stan Van Gundy, who once coached Dwight Howard. This report was widely interpreted as the Hawks viewing Van Gundy as a lure for Howard. But think about that. It was Van Gundy who accused Howard of trying to have him fired, a post-shootaround revelation that spawned the most awkward scene in the history of basketball: En route to the locker room, Howard put his arm around Van Gundy without knowing what the coach had just told the assembled media, still dutifully assembled.

It’s said that Howard and Van Gundy have mended fences, so maybe the latter’s presence would exert some pull. But what if Howard flirts with the Hawks but chooses to stay with the Lakers? A lot of folks in Orlando spent years of their professional lives trying to guess what Howard really wanted. Many of them, Van Gundy included, are out of work. In Orlando, those years are known as the “Dwightmare.”

A serious basketball operation cannot hire a coach on the off-chance he’ll bring a free agent with him. That doesn’t mean the Hawks shouldn’t consider Van Gundy. He’s a good coach, among the best available. He can, however, grate on players. His nickname in NBA writers’ circles is Stan Van Grumpy.

That’s the tricky part of this triangulation. There aren’t many coaches Ferry can hire who would be universally respected. Doc Rivers? He’s under contract with Boston. Phil Jackson? He’s not going anywhere unless he can be his own GM. Perhaps Jerry Sloan?

The second part of Ferry’s agenda is more treacherous. With $33 million to spend, he has to try and hook a superstar or two. Meaning: Howard and Chris Paul. (Makes no sense to clear that much cap space if you aim no higher than Brandon Jennings and Paul Millsap.) Trouble is, there’s no guarantee Howard and/or Paul will leave L.A. Will the summer of 2013 be a bust if the Hawks don’t grab at least one of the above?

A disappointment, yes. A bust, no. Having cap space is never a bad thing. The free agent class of 2014 figures to include Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki, the youngest of whom will be 35. But think back to what Ferry said the day after the Hawks were eliminated. Under the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, even the best teams will be forced to cut payroll.

LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade have the option of terminating their contracts next summer. The Hawks could well become an inviting trade partner for a club looking to offload a pricey star. Forget LeBron. But Wade, maybe? Or Anthony?

That’s down the road. At hand are two major choices. It’s possible Ferry could retain both Drew and the free-agent-to-be Josh Smith, although re-upping two men who’ve worked here nearly a decade wouldn’t exactly send a message of New & Improved. Far better to try something else. Far better to aim high and see what happens.

Never underestimate what a canny GM can do. The Atlanta Braves had never reached the World Series before hiring John Schuerholz from Kansas City in 1990; they graced the Fall Classic five times before the decade was out. The Atlanta Falcons had never had consecutive winning seasons before hiring Thomas Dimitroff via webcam in 2008; they’ve since had nothing but. If Danny Ferry can make people take the Hawks seriously, he’ll merit a place in that pantheon.

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