His career as an insufferable college player aside, Danny Ferry’s lasting contribution to the basketball world is represented with the photo on this blog post. In 2005, in his first season as Cleveland Cavaliers GM, Ferry was tasked with building a champion around LeBron James. Donyell Marshall, who had shot 42 percent on 3s the previous year, was supposed to be the type of outside threat needed on a team with the play-making James. Larry Hughes was supposed to be James’s Pippen — a long wing defender who could supplement LeBron’s offense when called upon. We all know the rest. It ends with LeBron rapping at a Miami club in his own animal-face T-shirt and Dan Gilbert crying somewhere in all caps.
Whether it’s fair or not, to this point Ferry’s legacy in management is tied to James, and that makes the timing of Monday’s news all the more interesting. Four days after LeBron lifted his championship trophy in Miami, the Atlanta Hawks announced Ferry would be taking over as the team’s GM, his first stint at the helm of an organization since being fired by Cleveland two years ago. Ferry spent those two seasons back in San Antonio, where he’d started his personnel career after retiring as a player with the Spurs in 2003. That the league’s best-run team would be so willing to welcome him back is as good an endorsement as any, and when the Hawks parted ways with Rick Sund earlier this month, Ferry was their first and only call.
When Ferry took over in Cleveland, the instruction manual came with the office. As long as James was there, winning the lottery in 2003 would be the biggest personnel move the Cavs would ever have to make. Decisions that are considered failures now still led to 60-win seasons. This time around, Ferry is looking at some new problems (well, at least three):
The Dreaded Middle
It’s common knowledge that the middle of the pack is the last place any NBA team wants to be, and no team is more representative of this problem than the Hawks. Atlanta has made the playoffs each of the past five seasons, never finishing any higher than the third seed in the East.
The middling finishes have come with the typical middling problems. The last time the Hawks were in the lottery, it ended up with Al Horford. Since then, the Hawks have either traded their first-round pick or been left picking in the bottom half of the first round with differing results (Jeff Teague — good; Damion James — bad).
The real problem with a consistent 50-win team? Heading into free agency on Sunday, the Hawks only have six players under contract, but those six are set to make a combined $61 million next season. Other than Kirk Hinrich’s $8 million, all Atlanta loses this summer is a slew of minimum deals. This year’s class, while lacking stars, has plenty of valuable pieces to be had at a decent prize, but with such little flexibility, Ferry isn’t looking at much to work with. In large part due to
Joe Johnson, Cap Killer
A quick reaction to Ferry’s hiring was that one of his first tasks would be finding a way to get Joe Johnson out of Atlanta. There’s just one small issue with that plan, and that’s conceiving of any possible world in which someone else would want him.
When the summer of 2010 rolled around, it was clear that Johnson's deal with Atlanta would eventually put the Hawks in a precarious spot. The problem with living in the middle is that teams can’t let a “star” walk without alienating its fan base, but it also can’t pay that same “star” max money without destroying its cap. The result is Johnson, the 10th-highest paid player in the league and a guy who would’ve (possibly) been the third-best player on either of the teams still playing last week.
With four years and almost $90 million left on his deal, the truth is that Johnson is virtually untradeable. Any team looking to turn him into Joe Johnson’s Expiring Contract would be one that can afford to wait three years while completely destroying its financial flexibility in the long term. No, the real choice lies with a different member of the Hawks roster, and that brings us to
The Future of Josh Smith
Josh Smith is entering the final year of his contract and coming off his best season as a pro. It’s likely that he’ll never shed his tag as one of the most maddening players in the league and that for the rest of time opposing coaches will cheer wildly as he clanks 20-footers at inopportune moments. Still, there are only a handful of guys in the league with the sort of diverse skill set that Smith has, and it was on display more than ever in this year’s playoffs.
The Hawks have Horford locked in at $12 million per year for the next four, and with the dearth of quality post play around the league and the rising price tags for the guys who prove capable, that deal is looking better and better. The flexibility comes with Smith, whose name bounced around in trade rumors last season and remains an attractive piece for any team looking for a 6-foot-9 point forward who can score, rebound, and facilitate offense for others (read: all of them). And that’s the problem. The Hawks are one of those teams, and though moving Smith seems attractive, that seems like it might be change for change’s sake. That’s where Ferry’s biggest challenge lies. The Hawks are on a treadmill of mediocrity, and it’s not as simple as just hopping off.