A bit of perspective: This isn’t a kick in the gut on the order of LeBron James bolting Cleveland. The Hawks knew that landing Dwight Howard would be a long shot. (Privately, they believed he would stay with the Lakers.) They went into the summer with a Plan B and presumably Plans C through H. That said, no workable plan — and this includes the importing of Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll, the Utah forwards whom the Hawks snagged late Friday — stands to make them much better than they were last season.
Not that last season was much of a template. It was a stopgap campaign conducted mostly with short-timers. Danny Ferry, the general manager for a year, has bigger fish to fry. He doesn’t want the Hawks to be pretty good, which is what they’ve been for a half-dozen seasons. He wants them contending for championships, which they haven’t done since they were based in St. Louis and Bob Pettit was their bell cow.
There were two free agents who would have enabled the Hawks to step up in class, but Chris Paul stuck with the Clippers, and Howard is bound for Houston. Among second-tier types, Al Jefferson is headed for Charlotte, Andre Iguodala for Golden State and Tyreke Evans for New Orleans. Millsap would have been near the bottom of the second tier: He’s a good player but not nearly a great one. He’s not a franchise-changer.
There’s still a way for the Hawks to make a meaningful roster addition, and that’s by working a sign-and-trade with Houston for Josh Smith. (Here we assume that Smith won’t re-up with the Hawks; we also assume that the Rockets will seek to placate Howard by reuniting him with his AAU mate.) Having become superfluous, center Omer Asik surely would be included in any such package, and point guard Jeremy Lin might be, too.
That combination would give the Hawks the workings of a real roster: Asik at center; Al Horford and Millsap as power fowards; Kyle Korver and Carroll on the wing; Williams and Jenkins at shooting guard and Lin at the point. (There’d be no room for unrestricted free agent Jeff Teague, though.) That would be a decent team, certainly a playoff team.
But Asik and Lin are both scheduled to make $8.3 million in each of the next two seasons, and the Hawks have already spent roughly $16 million for next season to keep Korver and hire Millsap and Carroll and … well, there goes the cap space Ferry worked to clear by shedding Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. And to build what? A team that still figures to be looking up at the Heat and the Pacers and probably the Bulls and maybe the Knicks and the Nets?
Even as we concede that Ferry probably isn’t done dealing, we must note that this was always the knot in his design: What happens if the Big Tickets don’t take your money? If the above roster would be no worse than the 44-38 team of last season, it wouldn’t be as good as the 53-win Hawks of 2009-10. And even if we hold out hope that Mike Budenholzer is another Tom Thibodeau — a career assistant who hits the ground running in Year 1 as a head coach — we must also note that Thibodeau had Derrick Rose, that season’s MVP, in his Year 1.
And now we come to the possibility that no organization wants to confront — that short-term losing might be the quickest way to win big. The Hawks play in the NBA, where championships are won by teams powered by superstars. (Let’s acknowledge that the 2004 Pistons were the exception that proved the rule.) Superstars are very rarely traded; they’re either signed as free agents or drafted. The Hawks had $30 million to spend and couldn’t land one. The next-best place to look, as repellent as it sounds, is in the lottery.
You don’t land in the lottery by being decent. You have to be lousy. Just this once, it might have behooved the Hawks to get lousy. But it’s looking as if they’ll be back to being pretty good, which is sometimes a bad place to be.