As we know, the Atlanta Hawks hold more picks in this week’s NBA draft (four) than they do players under contract for next season (three). As we also know, the big news — one way or another — of this Hawks summer won’t be made in Rounds 1 and 2 on Thursday but in free agency, which commences July 1. So we ask: How do you conduct a draft when you don’t know what kind of team you’re apt to be?
We probably shouldn’t get too excited over this draft. Of the Hawks’ four picks, none are of the lottery variety. They hold the 17th, 18th, 47th and 50th selections in a 60-pick process. The useful website NBAdraft.net has the Hawks taking Kelly Olynyk, a Gonzaga center; Sergey Karasev, a wing from Russia; Myck Kabongo, a point guard from Texas; and Dewayne Dedmon, a center from Southern Cal.
There’s almost no chance the Hawks will wind up with that exact foursome, but the names give us an idea of what caliber of player figures to be available. Neither is there a guarantee the Hawks will exercise their four slotted picks, general manager Danny Ferry having said his team might trade up or down or stay where it is. (I believe that covers it.) But the greater point is that this wouldn’t be the ideal draft even to be holding Picks No. 1, 2, 3 and 4.
There aren’t many, if any, difference-makers available. Nerlens Noel, who played half a season at Kentucky, is projected by many as the No. 1 pick and he’s not nearly the prospect that Anthony Davis, who played a whole season at Kentucky and was taken first overall last June, was and is. (Noel is also rehabbing from a torn ACL.) Alex Len, a Maryland center some see as a possible alternative to Noel, was so dominant that he didn’t finish among the ACC’s top 25 scorers.
The flimsiness of this draft notwithstanding, the Hawks do have to flesh out a roster. (Even if they land Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, NBA rules require that a team include more than five players.) It’s not clear what positions will need filling. The three under contract are Al Horford, who’s a center of sorts, and Lou Williams and John Jenkins, who are shooters. They could also extend the contracts of Jeff Teague, who’s a point guard, and Ivan Johnson, who’s a mean man.
Should Howard and/or Paul sign here, the dynamics would change. The Hawks might have to trade one or two of those existing contracts to fit the Big Names under the cap; Teague wouldn’t be required if Paul comes aboard. But if Paul and Howard, as the raging consensus has it, re-up with their current clubs, do the Hawks seek to close the talent gap by making a push to re-sign Josh Smith? If so, how would that constitute a new beginning?
(Rick Sund, who was Ferry’s predecessor as GM and who remains a Hawks consultant, is fond of offering a rather convincing 10-minute lecture on why the NBA has it backward: Free agency should precede the draft so teams could better address needs. Sund having not yet become commissioner, that isn’t how it works.)
The Hawks have as close to a blank slate as you can come without being an expansion team, and expansion teams at least get to draft from other NBA clubs. If you’re a GM, this is exciting — build your own roster! — but scary, too. What happens if none of those Big Names agree to take your money?
For his part, Ferry is treating this draft as just another part of (buzzword upcoming) the process. He might not know exactly what he needs, but he has a clear idea of what he wants.
“We will look for players that can be a part of how we want our organization to continue to evolve — guys who are competitive, guys who can play well in a team setting, guys who are talented,” he said. “The goal is to build a team where the sum is greater than the parts.”
Words, even such high-minded ones, are cheap. Still, anyone seeking reason to believe in Ferry should refer to last season. Having dumped Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams and imported a slew of players on expiring contracts, the Hawks could have fallen to pieces. They wound up making the playoffs and, more important, finishing second in the league — behind San Antonio, Ferry’s former home and current model — in assists.
Even while hiring a team of temps, this GM found guys who could implement his design. Given time and resources, he should be able to construct a roster capable of doing much better for a much longer time. As he embarks on Year 2, Ferry has four draft picks and $30 million to spend. In the grand scheme, that $30 million matters more.