Few NBA general managers preside over swift, impactful changes in their first days on the job. The Orlando Magic's recently hired Rob Hennigan basically fired everyone with a contract, but that's pedestrian compared to what the Atlanta Hawks' recently hired Danny Ferry has done.
On Monday, Ferry reached agreement on two trades. The more notable sent the last $90 million of Joe Johnson's contract to the Brooklyn Nets for a draft pick, Anthony Morrow and pretty much nothing else. Later, he agreed to send Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz for Devin Harris. None of the players acquired by Atlanta in the two deals has salary on the books beyond the 2012-13 season. (Morrow is due $4 million next season. Harris is due $8.5 million.)
The Hawks now have just over $13 million in salary on the books for the 2013-14 season for two players (Al Horford and rookie John Jenkins), meaning that as of now Atlanta projects to have nearly $50 million in cap space in the 2013 offseason. It's possible that Atlanta native Dwight Howard will be a free agent in 2013, if he doesn't get his trade to the Brooklyn Nets in the next couple of weeks or at the trade deadline. South native Chris Paul will be a free agent in 2013. Any number of other solid players will be reaching free agency, too. After losing J.J. and Marvin, the Hawks are well-placed to capitalize on signings or trades, much as the Nets are this offseason.
The natural characterization of Ferry's moves is that he is working hard to get Atlanta off the so-called Treadmill of Mediocrity. Atlanta isn't exactly mediocre, but they are stuck: with J.J., they weren't good enough to legitimately contend for the East crown but were far too good to rebuild through the draft. They were stuck. Ferry's moves are meant to unstick the Hawks. Of course, since the Hawks are stuck at good, the inclination is to believe they'll unstick themselves toward bad.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Consider the Utah Jazz, who were stuck at good with Deron Willams, Paul Millsap and first Carlos Boozer, then Al Jefferson. The Jazz traded Williams midseason in 2010-11. The team did get bad ... for the remainder of that season, though also losing Jerry Sloan likely had something to do with it. Last year, Utah bounced back despite no major talent upgrades. Utah unstuck itself by adding youth (Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors from the Williams trade) and opening up cap space. And the sun still rose.
If the Magic unstick themselves by agreeing to the rumored Dwight Howard trade that would send Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries and MarShon Brooks to Orlando, they will be unsticking themselves in the more traditional way: by bottoming out. They'll have picks galore from the Nets to help, but they won't be floating around in playoff contention with that line-up. They will be torching it all and laying a new foundation.
There are different ways to go about it. Ferry could decide to torch it all too, but he doesn't have to. Al Horford remains one of the best young big men in the NBA, and he's under contract long-term. Josh Smith is there for the 2012-13 season, and could be trade bait for a player on a longer deal, if Ferry sees something that he likes. (Smith for Pau Gasol has been a pervasive if unconvincing rumor.) Devin Harris is not a bad player as a rental. Jeff Teague is solid, Jenkins is a promising prospect and ... well, I mentioned how great Horford has become, right?
It'll take work, no doubt. But a rebuild that leaves the Hawks stronger in the near term as well as over the long haul is possible. Unsticking the Hawks doesn't have to mean a freefall to the depths of the standings. If Ferry continues to play this right, Atlanta can remain good on their way to great.
Either way, it's got to be loads more exciting to watch that the perpetual mid-rung club had become. That's not worth nothing.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.
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