We know that, come July, the Hawks can buy any two free agents available. What nobody except Dwight Howard and Chris Paul knows is if either of the two biggest free agents will look twice at the Hawks.
It has long been speculated that Howard might be intrigued by the notion of playing in his hometown. It also has been whispered that Howard, who has been booed heavily in Phillips Arena and who knows that his old AAU teammate Josh Smith has heard similar noises even as a Hawk, wants no part of Atlanta.
It’s also thought that Paul, who’s from North Carolina, might like to move closer to home. (It was believed that the Hawks were Paul’s destination of choice when he left Wake Forest in 2005, but they drafted Marvin Williams.) ESPN’s Chris Broussard has reported that Paul is angry over the Clippers-fueled intimation that he forced coach Vinny Del Negro’s firing, which could drive the free agent elsewhere.
The point being: Every summer we hear much about free agents and their presumed wishes, and then we see where they land and realize everyone was just guessing. In the summer of 2010, the belief was that LeBron James would stay in Cleveland or sign with Chicago. He wound up taking his talents … well, you know.
The website Pregame.com, which aggregates Las Vegas sports books, lists the Hawks as 12-to-1 to land Howard, which puts them sixth — behind the Lakers, the Rockets, the Mavericks, the Nets and the Warriors. (It also puts them behind “any other team,” for which the odds are 6-to-1.) But a betting line is more a reflection of public perception than a prediction, which brings us to the crux of this matter.
The public perception is that the Hawks are a team that can get nothing right. The reality is that that Hawks have made the playoffs six years running, which neither the Bulls nor the Heat can say. The reality is that the Hawks have a bright general manager who has muzzled ownership and who just hired a bright new coach. The reality is that the Hawks’ money will spend just as well as any other team’s, and they have a lot to spend.
From the day he hit town, Danny Ferry has taken pains to emphasize that this franchise didn’t reside on Desolation Row. On Wednesday, just after he introduced Mike Budenholzer as coach, the general manager said it again: “This team has done a lot of good things over the past few years.”
The NBA image of Atlanta is of an arena that’s full only when the Heat or the Lakers visit and where those famous visitors are cheered by 40 percent of the assembled multitude. If you’re Howard or Paul, do you really want to sign with a franchise that ranks fifth — behind the Braves and the Falcons, but also behind Georgia and Georgia Tech football — in local interest?
But what if the Hawks landed Howard and/or Paul? Wouldn’t their profile zoom to a height not reached since the summer of 1988, when they traded for Reggie Theus and signed Moses Malone? Yes, that mismatched roster fizzled, but anyone who was around back then can attest that the Hawks, for one bright shining moment, were the talk of their trendy town.
Surely any Ferry pitch to Howard and/or Paul will be couched in the form of a challenge: You can stay in Los Angeles and be comfortable, or you can come to Atlanta and give rise to a glorious rebirth — and maybe win a championship.
How this might work: Ferry makes his case, and it catches the fancy of Howard or Paul, and one free agent turns lobbyist and implores the other to join him in the A-T-L.
Don’t say such a thing couldn’t happen. The Heat are proof than it can. And now you’re snorting, “Yeah, but Miami already had an NBA title and had Pat Riley pulling the strings; what does Atlanta have?”
Atlanta has Ferry and now Budenholzer, fruits of the bountiful San Antonio tree, and Al Horford, who’s as respected as any non-superstar in the league. Atlanta also has Atlanta, long a desirable place of residence for professional athletes.
Do the Hawks have a great chance at Howard and/or Paul? No. NBA insiders believe both will wind up re-signing with their respective L.A. teams. Do the Hawks have any chance at all? Yes. They can offer big-if-not-quite-maximum contracts to both, which makes them the one team that could effect a Heat-like clustering of stars.
Nobody should be surprised if July 15 arrives and neither Howard nor Paul is a Hawk. To grab either would be a stretch. To grab both would be a long shot. But sometimes long shots do win.