Atlanta Hawks One Loss Away From Major Decisions

Cliffhangers.

I tweeted Sunday night about the prospects for this Atlanta Hawks team as they pulled their annual one game no-show in the playoffs, a reprehensible 101-79 "effort" where the scoreboard looks more kind that the game actually was. This, despite the fact that they were risking further injury to one player (Josh Smith) while rushing back another (Al Horford).

Now, poised one game away from a first round elimination (sorry, Tracy McGrady), the Hawks are closer than ever to facing a scenario that has been discussed ever since the Hawks playoff ceiling became obvious to Bird Watchers everywhere.

That scenario would be the systemic taking apart of the players that have made up the core of this now five season playoff run. But upon further review, it seems the prospects of a Billy Knight-like dismantling of the team and subsequent rebuilding is far off until the team's ownership situation settles.

Whatever the ownership status, there are some issues that will have to be dealt with as soon as the season is officially over.

Let's look at the major decisions the team has to face, bullet-point style:

  • Will Ownership again try to sell?
The Atlanta Spirit Group sold the hockey franchise last year and then tried to unload the Hawks, though the buyer was heavily leveraged. After falling through, the group put on a brave face, assumed all costs and kept all the decisions regarding the franchise status quo for the most part, and short term success based.

If they are trying to sell, there is little chance for much change until that happens, given that drastic changes to what is a stable product could mean an even-more cautious buying market for the team.

This predicament affects the next area of decision making the franchise must face in the offseason.
  • Is Rick Sund going to be the GM moving forward and for how long?
The rumors suggested a little while ago that the team was willing to have Rick stay on, but that he wasn't sure whether he wanted the grind of being the team's GM.

Reports and more rumors swirl around every decision this position has to make, especially regarding final say in making signings, extension, coaching hires and the like. Given that and the above issue, it's no wonder that even Sund, who has had modest successes during his career as a GM, is hesitant about wanting more.

If Sund does decide to stay on in full capacity, it's clear this isn't a long term thing and, therefore, how would that affect the approach to roster building, draft and other items that the GM is responsible for.

Sund is, by all accounts, a good corporate citizen to the ASG and would do, if asked, anything in terms of roster building that ownership wanted to pursue, meaning that the recent short team deals that have tried to maximize the current core of players and their chances to win are at the owner's bequest and that, should they ever decide to rebuild, Sund is ready and willing to go that route.

Let's say Sund only wants a consultant's role with the team and ownership hasn't changed -- there is little chance an up and coming GM or an established franchise builder would see the Hawks and their tenuous situation as a good fit, unless there were long term assurances that they could build as he sees fit, just as Billy Knight was given midway through the last decade preceding this current run.

Obviously, what is decided here has a dramatic effect on the next item on the list.
  • Are the Hawks going to bring in another coach and, if so, what level with that coach come from?
This is Larry Drew's last contracted season as the Atlanta Hawks coach. It's safe to say that we have seen a guy who has learned while being on the bench as the head guy as it's safe to say there are almost as many questions about his long term viability to move this group forward as when he was named coach two offseasons ago.

A new GM will surely want to make a move here, as the team, despite a ton of injuries this season, will end their season earlier than the last three, if Atlanta fails to come back against the Celtics.

If Sund stays, though, is Drew staying as well? One would think that Drew could make the case that he should not be on a low rent, short term deal given that he has guided this team well through two regular seasons, especially one as unusual as this season. Through all of the setbacks, there the Hawks were with home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs, exceeding almost all expectations and surviving a season-long injury to Al Horford.

Let's say Sund stays but ownership doesn't want to re-sign Drew, with or without a long term demand -- what could they target this time around? Remember, when the Hawks elected not to re-sign Mike Woodson, they eschewed the more expensive options of Avery Johnson or even Dwane Casey for the long time assistant Drew. I don't believe they can or will go that route again.

And there is little doubt a new GM will want to bring in a coach that right-sizes with his own philosophy and brand and would want to make a splash such like Cavaliers GM Chris Grant did with his first hire, bringing in Byron Scott.

But without a long term ownership or GM plan, the Hawks talons are tied, and if the short term life preserver is tossed out there, there is less hope of a grand change on the coach's bench.

Finally,
  • Who will be coming back for the 2012-2013 Atlanta Hawks?

They are famously capped-out, even with the expiring contract of Kirk Hinrich coming off the books this summer, making this a referendum on whether the Hawks double-down again on this core (or is it quadrupling-down at this point) or make some serious changes.

As hashed out above, without a clear management/GM picture, there is little clarity on whether making any major moves are even possible, since making radical changes to a roster before a sale of the team or a long term contract for a GM/coach could prohibit and eliminate suitors for all those positions.

Rather, it seems that if the current keep-the-lights-on approach is held, then we'll be seeing the same guys doing the same things next season. That means that Marvin Williams, Joe Johnson and Al Horford will likely be wearing the ATL across their jerseys for another season, if that approach is maintained.

One interesting wrinkle, however, is the Josh Smith situation.

He will be entering the last season of his deal -- a deal signed after he was told to go find your own deal as a restricted free agent. This was an approach, mind you, that the team did not take with Al Horford.

Smith is more than interested in looking at a change of scenery, but I believe would be just as interested in remaining in Atlanta if the team showed more than the minimum level of effort in wanting him here as well.

This offseason, the Hawks can talk about an extension for Smith, but without a long term plan in place, would the Hawks be willing to address the situation before he becomes a free agent? Joe Johnson had to wait it out before he got his fortune -- would the Hawks do the same with Smith?

If ownership hasn't changed and they are still wanting to sell, can they risk adding another huge deal to the payroll, especially when they don't have to until after next season? On the other hand, can they risk not tying him up to protect the integrity of the roster and their relative success to this point.

If they don't re-sign him, that means that Josh Smith, the team's most productive player this season and who fills a ton of roles and responsibilities with the team, will be able to walk away for nothing. And if that happens, the value of the team drops significantly.

If they don't, they would have to figure to want to shop Smith, but for what? If they don't have a long term plan in place other than protecting stability and assets, then what could they possibly attempt to bring back for Smith that accomplishes the charter of holding the team's value, in their point of view?

This -- is a huge decision the team has to face in the offseason. One of many as now noted, none of them certain due to the tenuous nature of the current ownership situation and their recent attempt to sell the team.

Of course the Hawks could make a huge comeback against Boston, beat the Celtics and make a magical run through the postseason that would render much of this moot. But the path to making that happen is as murky as understanding the path that ownership will take this offseason -- one which presents a major crossroads for the future.

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