The Atlanta Hawks are currently in a precarious position right now. They have essentially maxed out what they can do with the roster, and I do not feel it is because of the talent that is on the roster. The Atlanta Hawks ownership group has not made sound decisions with the money they have spent, and this has in turn created the cap that is currently on this team. I'm not going to focus on any one particular player on the Hawks in this post, but I want to bring about the model the Hawks should be using, IMO.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the team the Atlanta Hawks should model themselves after. They are a small market team that is owned by an ownership group headed by Clayton Bennett called The Professional Basketball Club, LLC. This is an ownership group that understands the market they are in and have done a great job of optimizing the money they have spent on their basketball team. As a result, the Oklahoma City Thunder have shown steady improvement since they moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City, and they current have the best record in the NBA. How have they done this despite going up against giants that have bottomless pockets such as the Lakers?
I believe the key is that they have embraced basketball analytical methods that go beyond your typical box scores and also player prototypes. When this ownership group hired a young Sam Presti, they hired a guy who is one of the young pups in the leage that is on the cutting edge of using advanced statistics as a tool to make informed decisions. Sam Presti then installed a philosophy using analytics to help field an efficient team considering that he knew his team, in their small market, could not consistently afford the top players and most talented guys in the NBA. Here is a good paper on Presti's effect with the Thunder.
Many Hawks fans think that you have to go into luxury tax territory to be a successful team, and I feel the Oklahoma City Thunder model debunks that theory.
Considering that the chances are slim to none that the Hawks will be getting a new ownership group anytime soon, what the current group needs to do is realize the limitations they currently have as far as their ability to spend money and adopt the philosophy I listed above as a means of optimizing their money while also building a championship caliber team. To do this, they have to do a couple of things. First, they need to go out and find them a young Sam Presti type of GM. Someone that understands basketball analytics and understands how to maximize the money they spend. A couple of great candidates I have mind are Houston Rockets Assistant GM Sam Hinkie and former Portland Trailblazers Assistant GM Tom Penn. The second thing they need to do is once they hire this guy, fade into the background and let this guy do his job without interference. For example, if they can hire Sam Hinkie and he decides that the best course of action is to get rid of Joe Johnson's contract, either through trade or amnesty, then don't overrule him. The ASG has a nasty habit of overruling their front office, whether it was Billy Knight's desire to fire Mike Woodson earlier or Rick Sund's desire to hire Dwane Casey instead of Larry Drew. Hire the guy, get out of the way, and let him do his job.
Things the OKC Thunder currently do that the Hawks do not:
1. They value draft picks. You don't see them selling draft picks for cash. You see them buying draft picks.
2. They realize the value of having players who are on their rookie contracts as a way of curbing costs and optimizing their money.
3. They put more emphasis on efficiency stats and less emphasis on volume stats.
The Hawks ownership group could also learn a thing or two from the OKC Thunder in how they treat their young stars. Russell Westbrook's situation in OKC is similar to Josh Smith's in Atlanta. He's a dynamic talent that didn't always make the best decisions and isn't your prototype for the position they play. However, OKC understands his all around effect on the game through their ability to use advanced analytical methods and they know they are better with him than they are without him. So, as a result, they gave him a 5 year, $80 million extension earlier this year and showed their faith in him. The Hawks, on the other hand, do not understand what they have in Josh Smith at this point. He's a dynamic player who doesn't always make the best decisions on the court, but he's also the only guy on the team that can dominate the court on both ends of the floor. When his contract came up, they didn't take care of him. Instead, he had to shop himself around the league to get the Hawks to make an offer. I think that was the first strike against the Hawks with him. He knew then that the ownership group and front office did not respect what he does for this team. Now, he has seen Marvin Williams and Al Horford get extensions, and he has seen this team give a foolish contract to Joe Johnson. These are decisions, with the exception of Horford, that I feel a team who embraces basketball analytics would not have made.