We've all heard new General Managers say it before, "I plan to get to know the roster first before making any rash moves." It's a reasonable position. Cautious. Calculating. However sometimes fast decisive action is needed or opportunity is lost. While there may be disagreement as to what Danny Ferry has accomplished as Hawks GM so far, that he acted quick and decisively is unquestionable. Evidently, Mr. Ferry studied the Hawks while negotiating because he was ready for action and that fast action has saved us from potential mistakes looming on the horizon and created opportunities. Let's look at these mistakes that were waiting to happen.
Case 1 - Ferry saves Hawks from people like me
The Hawks had a good season. Many players stepped up to carry the team over huge injuries. When the playoffs came and the Hawks lost you could reasonably argue that if healthy we would have advanced. Not sure how far, but the Celtics had injuries as well and were beatable. These thoughts helped shape my idea of the off-season plan. I posted many a comment that the team core had one year left on its window. I theorized that Zaza had proven enough to start at center allowing Al to play at the 4 and Josh move to the 3 with a Joe Johnson/Jeff Teague back court. I had my reasoning lined up for why this would work. Defenses would have to use bigs on Al and Zaza. Their SF would then have to take Josh who could post them up. Joe would now be faced with the SG on him likely given him a size advantage to shoot over his defender. Previously Joe would get matched up against the strongest perimeter defender with the weaker defender taking Marvin Williams. You know what? My strategy was wrong. It may have improved some things but it didn't truly fix any of the Hawks problems. Furthermore, the summer of 2013 would have been bloody on my watch as Josh probably would sign for the max elsewhere, Joe would be even harder to move as he would be another year further from his prime, and the cost of keeping Jeff Teague likely would have meant the departure of Zaza Pachulia.
Case 2 - Ferry saves Hawks from the plans of the media
Not all of the media plans are wrong of course, too many and too diverse, so they can't all be wrong. The general consensus? That can really be wrong. Going into this summer the general consensus on the Hawks was that it was time to give up on the core and shake it up. The logical way that was advocated was to deal Josh Smith. Josh and Al were seen as the two most in demand players on the team. They didn't have the bad contracts that dogged Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams so they were the only pieces that could fetch a nice return. Josh was normally chosen for trade because rumors had him likely to walk the following summer because of a combination of him being unhappy and the Hawks would have to go deep into luxury tax to keep him. You know what? They were wrong. Their strategy would have made the Hawks different and likely expensive, but still unlikely to compete for a title. If Josh was dealt for a more expensive player like Pau Gasol then you only gain by a small margin. If Josh was dealt for picks or prospects then by the time they are ready to compete at the highest level Joe probably would be well past the point he could do the same.
How can plans so different both be wrong at the same time?
It's simply really. Both plans ignored the real problem or assumed it was not correctable. Go back to the Celtics series. Josh Smith while not always the wisest was definitely the best player. Al Horford came back from being out for several months and immediately was 2nd best. 3rd best Hawk was probably a draw behind team alpha dog Joe Johnson and 3rd year PG Jeff Teague. If Teague played more consistently I believe he'd have taken 3rd. There was the problem: Joe Johnson who had spend 7 years as the team's top paid player and de facto best player wasn't playing like the best when it mattered. The Hawks had gone as far as Joe could carry them, but Joe wasn't willing to slide into a support role and let Smith, Horford, and Teague establish a new ceiling. Furthermore new salary cap rules made it hard to add any more pieces to the core given the increasing salary that was owed to Joe Johnson. Both myself and the media were wrong because we assumed that Joe Johnson couldn't be dealt or that the cost of dealing him would gut the team anyway. Danny Ferry didn't accept that assumption and saved us from the mistakes we were prepared to make. He dealt Joe Johnson without taking back bad contracts or giving up good assets for the absorption of his salary. In doing so opened the door to resigning the current best player on the team which most had assumed was financially unlikely. Also due to the trade the Hawks became a potential bidder for top tier free agents in 2013 instead of waiting until 2016 for cap space. That hope changed Josh Smith from wanting a trade to cautiously optimistic. Quite the accomplishment for 2 weeks on the job.
Most Important? 2012 Season vs 2013 Summer
Some argue that 2013 is the make or break summer because of the potential of landing franchise players in free agency. I'm not going to dispute that when given an opportunity to pursue such talent as Dwight Howard and Chris Paul you should. I also agree that we should not add long term salary this summer and prematurely end our courtship of superstars before it can even start. Just because I don't think we should add long term salary doesn't mean that I see 2012 as a throwaway year though. In some ways, I see 2012 as the most important season for the Hawks in some time because the removal of Joe Johnson gives the opportunity to find out where we really stand moving forward. Please understand that the same basic questions about the Hawks roster would have existed going into 2013 with or without Joe Johnson on the roster. The difference is that without him we are more likely to have the information to make good decisions. I say that not to imply Joe Johnson was an impediment but rather the opposite, he was a crutch that insured a certain amount of regular season success and insulated certain players from larger roles and the potential of failure.
The Questions of 2013
Question 1 - Is Josh Smith worth the max investment? It's been widely assumed that trading Joe means that Josh gets the big contract to stay. Not so fast. Josh is a top 20 talent in the league (based on All-NBA Team votes). It will take the max to resign Josh. Without Joe, we get a test drive to see if it is the right move. We've got the season to see Josh as the leader, as focal point of our offense and of the opposing defenses, as the most veteran, and as the highest paid. Not only do we get to see Josh in these roles potential free agent recruits do as well.
Question 2 - Is Jeff Teague a point guard you can build with? Jeff Teague will be a restricted free agent next summer and judging by this year's activity that could mean a big raise (see George Hill). As long as Joe Johnson was around, Teague would have deferred. Joe had a green light to do whatever he wanted which meant that the motion offense was sometimes (often) supplanted by isolation plays. In theory the freestyling should go down and Jeff's penetration abilities should get more usage even if he shares the back court with Devin Harris. The keys to Jeff's success will be if he can create for others or just himself and whether he can lead players like a real PG. If Teague doesn't step up, then Devin Harris or Louis Williams could end up stealing the show. While Jeff will not see the same level of responsibility that should fall on Josh, we get to see Jeff in a trial by fire before paying him serious dollars.
Question 3 - Is Al Horford capable of playing a bigger role in the NBA? Before he got injured last year there was a comment in a game thread that Al Horford was essentially a rich man's Chuck Hayes. Harsh, but a possible point of such criticism was we weren't using him to the fullest of his abilities. If you watched any Dominican Republic Olympic Qualifier games you have an idea of just how much Al is capable of doing on offense. With Joe in place, Al was far enough down the option list that he wouldn't get the chance to stretch his wings. Without Joe there is enough offensive plays to go around that Josh, Jeff, and Al all will seeing bigger roles. Much like Josh and Jeff we get to see if Al is someone to can handle the burden and should be a cornerstone or if he should be dealt so the organization can go another way.
The cap room created by Danny Ferry for the Summer of 2013 gives the opportunity to recruit elite free agents. That gives the fans hope of might become. Equally important is that Ferry made these moves now so that we have 2012 to see key players perform without the safety blanket of Joe Johnson before investing or making other moves. It's less sexy than the master plan, but avoiding the big mistakes keep hope alive.