It’s a clean start on the spreadsheet. It’s an exorcism everywhere else.
From a pure basketball and financial standpoint, Hawks general manager Danny Ferry has the freedom to do almost anything he wants. He has a roster with only three guaranteed contracts for next season. He has four draft picks. He’s looking at a potential free-agent class that includes Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. He has salary-cap space and, therefore, trade leverage to acquire solid players for below their relative market value.
“We have a rare opportunity this summer to do some things right that will help us in the long haul,” Ferry said.
It’s the perfect offseason soundbite. But this is sort of like that time when you were growing up and your family decided to rent a trailer and drive through seven states for vacation, but everybody fought and nobody slept, a bear stole your food, Dad lost his wallet, you lost a shoe in the river, the dog died and on the last day lightning hit a tree that fell on the trailer, which, of course, wasn’t covered by insurance.
God speed, Danny Ferry.
Building a winning and respected organization is difficult under any circumstances. Ferry’s biggest challenge, however, may not be finding the right players to align next to Al Horford, but distancing the organization from past missteps, a decades-long hangover and, to that end, getting wanted players to come here.
Atlanta long has been a desirable destination for NBA players as an offseason home. It hasn’t had the same attraction for those looking for a place to earn their living and pursue a championship.
Ferry won and competed for championships as a player and in the front office in San Antonio, and he reached the finals once as Cleveland’s GM. But convincing players, analysts and fans that he can successfully transform the Hawks, even after an admirable job in his first season, will be a major challenge.
On the court, the team has reached the playoffs six consecutive seasons (something only four other teams have accomplished). But the franchise never has celebrated a second-round playoff win since moving to Atlanta in 1968. In recent years, the Hawks more often than not have been viewed as a punch line or a headache, whether it was the overspending on Joe Johnson, the seeming ever-present drama around Josh Smith or the blur of botched draft picks (all together now: no to Paul, yes to Marvin Williams).
Since Ferry’s hiring, there has been an orchestrated effort by the Hawks to distant itself from past problems with ownership, including, but not limited to: mismanagement, courtroom drama, public hissy fits, dishonesty and attempts to sell the team as recently as a year ago.
Isolated setbacks and embarrassments can fade quickly when they involve respected organizations. Not so with the ones that don’t provide enough highlights on game day.
The Hawks were among teams fined for tampering three years ago when Atlanta Spirit partner Michael Gearon referenced impending free agent LeBron James in an interview. The bigger public embarrassment probably came in the 2012 playoffs when Gearon publicly criticized officials and Boston’s Kevin Garnett, which not only drew another fine but a verbal knockout blow from Garnett following a great playoff performance against the Hawks: “First off, I want to say thank you to the (Hawks) owner for giving me some extra gas tonight. My only advice to him is next time he opens his mouth, actually know what he’s talking about — X’s and O’s versus checkbooks and bottom lines.”
Ferry wants to get past that. He needs to get past that.
This is a credibility war — not for his own credibility but his employer’s. The fact is, we can punch holes in almost every NBA organization, save San Antonio. Nearly every team has significant issues involving players, ownership, management, coaching or finances, even Miami (any takers for Chris Bosh at $19 million next season?).
It didn’t help Ferry’s cause when it was learned last week that a season-ticket representative possibly put the team in position to be charged with tampering (and fined) again by referencing the Hawks’ possible pursuit of Paul and Howard in free agency in emails to potential ticket buyers.
The obvious gaffe was not committed by Ferry or anybody in basketball operations, rather the sales department (which possibly lacks much in the way of oversight). But it was another negative headline that feeds into perception, another shot to a franchise’s credibility at the worst possible time.
“Every little thing matters,” Ferry said. “Everything adds up, and we have to do a great job in every aspect of the organization. We are still in the mode where we have to build strong from the inside out and work our way up. But we’ve made positive strides.
“We have to show a commitment, from ownership to the front office to coaches to everyone involved, that we’re working to build a strong organization with highly competitive people who are going to win. We have to show that.”
Ferry is smart, earnest, hard-working. His hiring probably is the best decision this ownership group has ever made. But it’s far easier to strip down a team than it is to build it up. If a team falls off a cliff merely because one free agent never came or a draft pick blows up, then the structure probably was too fragile to begin with.
This is about changing a culture, Ferry said, “building an environment that’s competitive and an atmosphere that’s caring about big things, small things and the people in it.”
And just like any business, the question is what happens when you open the doors.