2012-2013 W-L: 44-38
New Faces: Pero Antic, Gustavo Ayon, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Cunningham, Paul Millsap, Mike Budenholzer (Head Coach, San Antonio Spurs)
New Places: Devin Harris (Dallas), Zaza Pachulia (Milwaukee), Josh Smith (Detroit), Deshawn Stevenson (unsigned)
Draft: Lucas Nogueira (16), Dennis Schroeder (17), Mike Muscala (44)
Danny Ferry did it again.
Just one year removed from ridding Atlanta of Joe Johnson’s contractual albatross and parting seas for the future, the Hawks were set to rebuild. Josh Smith was leaving, Dwight Howard never coming and this franchise’s run of five consecutive playoff appearances seemingly over. But Ferry had other plans, and in a fell swoop of prudent offseason moves improved Atlanta’s present and future trajectory by leaps and bounds.
This is what it’s like to have competent leadership, Hawks fans. And though it might not pay immediate dividends on the court this season, Ferry’s ideal combination of patience and foresight surely will in ones to come.
It’s only fitting that Smith departs Atlanta the same way he arrived and endured for the past nine seasons – as a divisive lightning rod. The market fought over Smith’s consensus value this summer before ever agreeing on it, and given his play for the Hawks it made sense. For all his unique versatility and vastly underrated defensive impact, Smith’s aggregate influence has always been less than his talent suggests it should be. The Hawks knew that first-hand, and seemed reluctant to retain him even before Smith made it clear he wanted a fresh start elsewhere.
But the question remained: was letting Smith walk the right decision for Atlanta? There was never a clear answer either way until both sides finally played their hand. Smith agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract with Detroit on July 6th. He won. The Hawks came to terms with Paul Millsap on a two-year, $19 million deal on July 7th. They won, too.
That swap in a vacuum is a boon for Atlanta; having to replace a cog like Smith is almost always a negative proposition. But Millsap is a very good player in his own right, and savvy enough to know the extent of his game’s limitations. If he’s not at or above Smith’s level, he’s just below it at the very least. And considering the parameters of their respective contracts, Millsap could even be an overall upgrade – certainly with respect to the cap and possibly on the floor, too.
The salary ramifications of exchanging Smith for Millsap are important, because Atlanta suddenly has the assets to make a major splash at the trade deadline or through free agency in coming seasons. The Hawks drafted 19 year-old point guard Dennis Schroeder with the 17th pick in June’s draft. Two weeks later, the precocious German maestro was everyone’s Summer League darling and had some suggesting Atlanta part ways with Jeff Teague this offseason. While that talk was premature, Schroeder’s potential and Teague’s new, extremely reasonable contract – four years, $32 million – give the Hawks options at point guard. Anywhere they go from here – trading Schroeder, trading Teague, playing it out – is a luxury of which teams always take advantage.
Schroeder’s summer play was was aided by his innate chemistry with Nogueira, a seven-foot bundle of arms, hair and energy. The 21 year-old Brazilian needs weight and far more experience against elite competition, but he’s a very intriguing prospect. Nogueira will eventually make his mark in the NBA; the question now is the scope of its extent and when it will actually come. Ferry announced last week that “Bebe” will spend this season in Spain playing for Asefa Estudiantes Madrid. Regardless, he’s another piece that makes Atlanta feel good about its future.
Even without Nogueira, the Hawks won’t lack for serviceable big men behind Millsap and Al Horford. Atlanta signed Elton Brand in free agency and claimed Gustavo Ayon off waivers from the Bucks; each has deficiencies, obviously, but no doubt provide the Hawks with adequate post depth. That both of them have enough size to play center – allowing Horford to play power forward on occasion – should not be overlooked, either.
Atlanta mostly elected to stay put on the wing. The Hawks traded for seldom-used Jared Cunningham on draft day and signed versatile free agent DeMarre Carroll, but will mostly rely on those already on the roster to flank Teague and Schroeder. Good thing for them, then, that Lou Williams is set to return after missing the second-half of last season due to a torn ACL. He’s no star, but certainly offers scoring and playmaking punch from the perimeter that Atlanta sorely missed in his absence. Sophomore sharpshooter John Jenkins is coming off a strong summer league and is primed for a bigger role, and Kyle Korver re-signed, too.
The Hawks don’t have a true impact player at shooting guard or small forward, but instead have a litany of established players that know their specific role. That’s hardly ideal, but not every team can have a Kevin Durant, Paul George or even Gordon Hayward. Atlanta’s counting on its whole to be greater than the sum of its parts on the wing, which is a microcosm for how the Hawks will have to win this season in general.
Horford’s a genuine two-way star, Millsap an underrated offensive crutch and Teague a solid lead guard, but they won’t push Atlanta to the playoffs alone. Longtime Spurs assistant and new head coach Mike Budenholzer is known for his defensive mindset, but will likely implement San Antonio-esque offensive principles, too. Basically, it’s safe to assume that what the Hawks lack in top-end talent will be somewhat supplanted by team-wide discipline on both ends of the floor.
There’s a ceiling to Atlanta’s success in 2013-2014. They won’t win the East and are unlikely to gain home-court playoff advantage, either. But another season of approximately 45 or so wins and a familiar first round exit won’t mean what it has the past several years. So though this season might seem status quo on the surface, it’s really anything but; there are steps on the road to real contention, and the Hawks have finally begun to climb them.