The Atlanta Hawks of the late 2000s and early 2010s were the laughing stock of the NBA. Entrenched in the dark confines of mediocrity, General Manager Rick Sund made one ill-timed move after another to maintain his big-name, slightly-above-average core for the sake of perennial playoff berths, (all of which ended in first- and second-round exits).
It wasn’t matching Memphis’ five-year, $58 million offer sheet to Josh Smith that killed them; that was an understandable move in principle, despite its repercussions: they wanted to keep a 23 year-old hybrid forward oozing potential on both sides of the floor and touting a PER above 19. What killed them in the long run, were the moves which followed, the ones that reeked of desperation in an attempt to keep a middling roster in a small market heading to the playoffs every year. Then came Danny Ferry and everything changed.
Sund’s harebrained moves could fill up another piece entirely, but some of the worst include the five-year $37.5 million deal for a defensively unaware Marvin Williams; three years, $18 million for a washed up Mike Bibby; and, of course, the six-year, $119 million deal to retain a nearly 30-year-old Joe Johnson, who was, at best, a second option on a good team in his prime. No flexibility, no lottery picks, annual early playoff exits, limited young pieces.
For whatever reason, Danny Ferry left San Antonio’s basketball operations department to inherit that mess in June of 2012. But, for the sake of the Hawks’ fan base, thank goodness he did.
Within eight days of taking the job, he took up janitorial duty and shipped the Joe Johnson financial albatross for veterans on short deals, expirings and a pick. (Pro Tip: All you have to do these days to dump a hefty contract is call up Brooklyn or Sacramento.) He shed Marvin Williams’ deal that year as well for Devin Harris’ expiring, and added young but effective veterans on manageable contracts via trade and free agency signings.
The subsequent summer of 2013 then saw Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia walk, as was intended. But what stunned most around the league was when Paul Millsap took his talents to North Georgia on a two-year, $19.5 million deal, which was simultaneously the greatest coup and least-talked about signing of the offseason.
Important to note: If Ferry was Sam Hinkie, he would’ve signed young no-names on the minimum to fill out his roster, but he took the Morey-inspired competitive rebuilding route instead. Some markets can afford to forfeit three or four years of attendance and public interest to bottom out and grab top picks. Atlanta, per Forbes, is not one of those markets. Plus, judging by Sund’s reckless moves to stay in the playoffs, owner Bruce Levenson probably wouldn’t approve a full-fledged bottoming out.
Nevertheless, most of the Hawks’ cap sheet is composed of short-term contracts like Millsap’s now. And that’s not to say they don’t intend to retain these players in the future – just that their options are open, a luxury they never enjoyed under previous management.
How much flexibility do they have? Well, quite a bit.
In 2011, the Hawks’ 2015 cap sheet had two players on the payroll for a guaranteed total of $36,894,863. Now, in 2014, they’re set to allocate $30,693,755 to five players in 2015, with well over $30 million to spend, per ShamSports. And, behold, the magic of the whole situation: Despite the gaps in payroll, they’re equally as effective in comparison to three years ago. This coming season they’re expected to be a playoff team, and they’ve barely even reached the salary floor .
In 2015, Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge become free agents. Both fit Mike Budenholzer’s five-out offensive scheme perfectly. Accordingly, Paul Millsap’s deal runs out that summer, when their payroll will be under $35 million, giving Ferry max cap room and then some. He has the ability to throw a steep offer, maybe even a max offer, at one of the two bigs, and if that player signs, he can use Millsap’s Early Bird rights to go over the cap and sign him for up to 175 percent of his previous season’s salary (in this case, Millsap’s maximum salary would be $16,625,000). Similarly, Al Horford comes off the books in 2016 when Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah and others are eligible to become unrestricted free agents. They could use cap space to sign one of those stars or another high-profile player, and use Horford’s full Bird Rights to go over the cap to sign him to up to five years.
The trade market is another game they could have a head start on. Star players rarely hit the trade market, but as was evidenced by the Harden and Love situations, it happens. The ideal situation for an executive dumping his star player is one that includes long-term flexibility to rebuild, which can be appeased by short-term contracts, prospects and picks. The Hawks have an instant leg up since they have all of those assets.
Atlanta owns all of its first-round picks, and additionally has the right to swap with Brooklyn in 2015. In ATL’s prospect treasure chest are rookie Adreian Payne, the pleasantly surprising Pero Antic, and intriguing German guard Dennis Schroeder. That’s forgetting to mention they have easily moveable veterans to use as filler such as Thabo Sefolosha (3 years, $12 million), DeMarre Carroll ($2.4 million expiring) and even Jeff Teague (3 years, $24 million remaining), who could be a valuable piece to someone moving forward.
Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, picks, and the room to absorb other players and grant OKC cap relief  got Houston James Harden. If Atlanta continues to stockpile players through the draft and manages their assets properly, they could put together at the very least an equally valuable package for a star, if not a more interesting package. That is, if and when the opportunity arises.
A perfect storm of free agency and trade madness has yet to come for the Hawks. In the present day, they’re pretty much the embodiment of the pre-Harden Rockets, winning respectably, maintaining a positive reputation that could be attractive to free agents, and keeping their options open. Competitive rebuilding can be a long process and it’s impossible to estimate a timetable. Until a star becomes available, it’s a waiting game.
It worked for Houston when Tracy McGrady declined and Yao Ming’s foot turned to dust, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work for Atlanta, but there’s obviously some luck involved. As long as they sustain their current efficient trajectory under Ferry and stay patient, they’ll be okay. Contrary to popular belief, like there was in Houston a few years back, there’s an endgame in mind here . That’s not something Hawks fans have been able to say about their franchise for a very long time. It’s a huge understatement, but Danny Ferry deserves more credit.
 In the event they don’t pass the salary floor, the only repercussion is that they distribute the difference to the players on the roster evenly. Hovering around the salary floor is, more than anything, just an incredibly impressive feat while managing a playoff team.
 It bears reiterating that flexibility is not just having the long-term room to sign players; it’s also having the long-term room to take on players from other teams in return for a coveted asset.
 That begins with adding a star. Unless the team in question is the 2004 Detroit Pistons, it’s not winning a championship without multiple stars.
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