There might be a reunion of famous Atlanta Celtics after all — just not, apparently, in Atlanta. Sam Amick of USA Today reports that the Houston Rockets have asked Josh Smith how he would feel about playing alongside Dwight Howard, his old AAU mate. Given that the Rockets are seen as the favorite to land Howard, and given that Smith likewise is an unrestricted free agent, this could have major ramifications for the Hawks.
The Rockets have trimmed their roster to clear monetary space for Howard. They’ll have to gut it — doubtless they would keep James Harden, who’s great, and Chandler Parsons, who’s young and cheap — to afford a second big-ticket signee. Houston will have to work a sign-and-trade with the Hawks to acquire Smith, and here’s where the plot thickens to the consistency of Mississippi mud.
To make a Smith sign-and-trade work, the Hawks would have to take on hefty salaries. Ken Berger of CBS Sports earlier reported that the Rockets are looking to trade center Omer Asik and point guard Jeremy Lin. (General manager Daryl Morey denied as much.) Lo and behold, the contracts of Asik and Lin — each is set to earn $8.3 million next season — could become a match for the not-quite-maximum contract Smith would sign with the Hawks, who would then ship him to Houston.
(It used to be that sign-and-trades were a way for free agents to get maximum money and still relocate. Using its Larry Bird Rights, a team could re-up a player and then assign his lavish new contract elsewhere. The new CBA closed that loophole. The most Smith can make from a signed-and-traded contract is the most any other team can offer him.)
Even as we pause for breath, we must note the following: It’s still possible, though highly improbable, that Howard could sign with the Hawks. (He met with them in Los Angeles on Monday.) It’s entirely possible Howard could choose the Lakers — or the Mavericks, or the Warriors — over the Rockets. (He’s Dwight Howard, which means: Who the heck knows?) But just for fun, let’s stretch this scenario to its limit and ask:
Should the Hawks really want Asik and Jeremy? (Not to say that would be the exact package, but we’re pretending.)
On its face, those two would seem a strong return — better than the Hawks could have gotten for Smith at the February trade deadline — for a guy the Hawks don’t seem to have much interest in keeping. Asik is a good defender who would allow Al Horford to move to power forward. (Though wouldn’t it be something if Horford turns out to be less good at forward than at center?) Lin had a brief but dazzling run as a Knick two winters ago and was slightly disappointing, averaging 13.4 points and 6.1 assists, in his first season as a Rocket.
Still, asking what Asik and Lin would offer the 2013-14 Hawks misses the greater point, which is: Would they bring this franchise any closer to an NBA title?
The answer is no. They would make the Hawks essentially the same as they’ve been — a pretty good team. The Hawks would have Asik and Lin and Horford and Lou Williams and John Jenkins and Kyle Korver, who has agreed to re-up, and maybe Round 1 draftee Dennis Schroeder, if he’s not stashed in Europe for the season. (Can’t imagine they would re-sign Jeff Teague if they have Lin making $8.3 million.) That’s a team that could win 40 or 45 games. It’s not a team that could win 50 or 60.
As unsightly as it might be, it would be better for the Hawks to break bad than to stay pretty good. If Danny Ferry considered the status quo sustainable, he wouldn’t have dumped Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams and would be trying hard to keep Smith. By taking a run at Howard, this general manager is trying to change the dynamics. To keep tweaking a roster not of championship caliber is to change nothing.
ESPN’s Chad Ford has tweeted that he hears the Hawks, assuming they don’t get Howard, will join the list of NBA teams positioning themselves for the loaded 2014 draft lottery. By positioning themselves, we mean tanking. By tanking, we mean trying not to win. It’s hard to know what tanking might entail — would the Hawks be so brazen as to sell Horford? — but it’s not hard to see the reasoning behind it.
Ferry’s aim is to take this franchise where it has never been. The Hawks have been pretty good for a half-dozen years. If the choice is between staying that way or getting worse to try to get really good, that’s no choice at all. We don’t know that the latter course will ever work. We do know that this way hasn’t quite and won’t ever. If the Hawks can’t buy a superstar, the only recourse is to draft one.