Doc Rivers wouldn’t be going to coach the Los Angeles Clippers unless he had reason to believe he’ll be coaching Chris Paul. If Paul, one of the two top free agents of the Class of 2013, is staying put, it’s unlikely the other will have any interest in the Atlanta Hawks. (Word held that only the possibility of partnering with Paul would have piqued Dwight Howard’s interest in the hometown team.)
So: If Paul and Howard are no longer realistic targets, how does a team with $30 million to spend and only three players under contract for next season stock its roster? Are there moves the Hawks can make that will generate the bump in both talent and sizzle that would have accrued from a Paul/Howard parlay?
To answer the second question first: No, there aren’t. The Hawks were the one team that could have afforded both Paul and Howard, the one team that could have landed an All-Pro point guard and an All-Pro center in one summer swoop. Assuming neither of those two wind up here, nothing the Hawks do — unless they pull the Ivan-Johnson-for-LeBron-James sign-and-trade — will elevate them from the NBA’s middle tier to its upper crust.
That isn’t to say the Hawks can’t improve themselves. They can. The first step would be to sign Al Jefferson, the scoring center from Utah, and nudge Al Horford to power forward. (For the record, I’ve never been convinced that Horford is any more effective at 4 than at 5. Still, this would be the way to find out.)
There have been whispers that the Hawks have interest in Andre Iguodala and Monta Ellis, shooting guards who are opting out of their contracts in Denver and Milwaukee, respectively. The Hawks would be able to accommodate Jefferson and one of the guards. If they extend Jeff Teague’s contract, they’d have this core six:
Jefferson, C; Horford, PF; Iguodala/Ellis and incumbents Lou Johnson and John Jenkins, SG; Teague, PG.
With the right augmentations, you could win 50 games with that bunch. But doubtless you’ve noted the hole: There’s no small forward. Which brings us, for the thousandth time over the past decade, to the matter of Josh Smith.
The Hawks haven’t said — haven’t even hinted — what they plan to do regarding Smith, who’s considered the third-best free agent in the Class of ’13. There’s a chance general manager Danny Ferry could say, “Forget signing another shooting guard. Give me Jefferson and Horford and let Josh play the 3 — we’d have the most gifted front line in the NBA.”
They would. They’d also have Smith at the 3 on a fulltime basis, which wouldn’t be ideal. They’d also have to spend a huge chunk of that $30 million to retain a player who has come to be viewed as all that’s right and wrong with the Atlanta Hawks. Smith is a great talent, yes, but he’s about to enter his 10th NBA season without having fully harnessed that talent. If he hasn’t by this late date, who’s to say he ever will?
Last week Ferry outlined his vision for this team: “We will look for … guys who are competitive, guys who can play well in a team setting, guys who are talented. The goal is to build a team where the sum is greater than the parts.”
To read those words is to wonder if Smith fits the profile. The talent part, yes. And he’s a willing passer who has a decent grasp of how basketball should be played, with one glaring exception — he takes too many lousy shots.
The sum of the roster this GM inherited never quite matched its many skilled parts. Having made the effort to dump Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams and allow his team a chance at a new start, does Ferry want one of the biggest outlays of this key offseason to be a new contract for J-Smoove?
The guess is that Smith won’t be asked back, at least not in any convincing way. (Surely even he has to sense his future lies elsewhere.) The Hawks will pursue other free agents. But what if nobody of consequence says yes? What then?
Rather than try to scrape into the playoffs with an unassuming roster, there’s the option of selling Horford and taking your chances in next year’s lottery. With the 2013 draft crop seeming so thin, last summer wasn’t the time for that. Next year’s class, which figures to include Andrew Wiggins of Kansas and Jabari Parker of Duke and a slew of Kentucky Wildcats, should be much stronger. If all else fails this summer, it wouldn’t be the worst moment to hit the reset button.
Not that I expect all else to fail. I expect a couple of good free agents to take the Hawks’ money. Ask Jon Koncak. It spends just like real money.