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.