The Atlanta Hawks didn’t just swap out power forwards. They essentially traded ideologies. Josh Smith, the greater talent, was allowed to leave as a free agent without a counter-offer. Paul Millsap, the harder worker, was imported at 67.8 percent of what Smith will earn in Detroit the next two seasons.
Speaking Wednesday, Hawks general manager Danny Ferry said: “We want to do this with value and do it with values. Paul is an asset both ways.”
Introducing the newest Hawk to the Atlanta media, Ferry described Millsap as “talented,” but that seemed an afterthought. The greater message was that he fits this GM’s vision.
(As for Smith: He met the press in Detroit on Wednesday and, noting the Pistons’ two NBA titles and Atlanta’s none, said: “It’s hard to look around and nobody has won anything.”)
Ferry on Millsap: “The energy he brings to practice and to games will make our whole program better – the tenacity he plays with, the energy he plays with and the intelligence he plays with. He’s a smart basketball player. He’s unselfish. We want to have that be a big part of who we are going forward, and he can really help us establish that.”
Knowing what you want to be is never a bad thing. In hiring longtime Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer as coach, Ferry made it clear he views San Antonio as his North Star. Indeed, he praised Millsap’s Jazz background by saying, “If you ask Pop (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) and R.C. (Buford, the general manager) who they decided to model themselves after, they’d say Utah.”
But we’re compelled to note: This is the NBA, not the Patriot League. In the NBA, to borrow a phrase from Budenholzer’s predecessor Larry Drew, talent wins. Would anyone be modeling themselves after San Antonio if the Ping Pong balls had fallen differently in 1997 and the Spurs had wound up with Keith Van Horn and not Tim Duncan?
Everything Ferry says about constructing an ethos is worth doing. If the Hawks do happen upon their Tim Duncan, the foundation will have been laid. Ferry is trying to control what’s controllable, which is all any of us can do.
“We still have a lot of work in front of us,” Ferry said. “We have to fill out the roster, but we want to do it in a way where we can take some calculated risks when it’s appropriate – and also add to the identity and the culture we’re trying to bring. We want to continue to maintain a level of flexibility that we can continue to build our team. There are a lot of paths.”
The short path would have been to persuade Dwight Howard and Chris Paul to sign here. The short path, alas, was also a long shot. Mollified by the arrival of Doc Rivers as coach, Paul chose to stay with the Clippers, and the rumored partnership never took wing.
(The Hawks actually felt their audience with Howard, who appeared to hit it off with Budenholzer, went well. He just didn’t seem to want to play in his hometown, which is kind of unusual. Then again, he’s Dwight Howard.)
At this moment, the Hawks are less talented than they were last season, when they were the No. 6 seed in the NBA East. That doesn’t mean they’ll be a worse team. Budenholzer could turn out to be the sport’s next great coach, and Ferry isn’t done shopping.
Still, those who believed the Hawks could transform themselves over one summer have been forced to scale back expectations. This will be a longer slog. As shrewd a navigator as Ferry seems, a smidgen of serendipity wouldn’t be unwelcome.
Provided Ferry doesn’t overspend this summer, the Hawks would be in position to try again next July, when the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony can opt out of their contracts. The trouble with relying on free agents, however, is that free agents are unreliable. You can’t be sure the right one will take your money until he says, “I’ll take your money.”
By signing Millsap and DeMarre Carroll and re-upping Kyle Korver for $24 million over four seasons, the Hawks apparently have no intent to tank their way into the 2014 lottery. (That’s a reasonable position. Lotteries likewise carry no guarantee.) For now, they’re hoping a smart new coach can construct a smart newish team and that this will become the kind of organization a superstar will want to join.
To a question about tanking, Ferry’s response was: “Our minds are on building a strong program by bringing in people who can help us do that. Our focus is really on building the culture.”
Yes, that’s a strategy. It’s not as sexy as the thought of seeing Chris Paul and Dwight Howard play 41 times at the Highlight Factory, but it is a strategy.