Clutch Jeans: A HawksHoop Conversation, Pt. 1

Bo Churney —  March 28, 2013

Chris Barnewall and I have teamed up to bring you a series of conversations about the Hawks, the NBA, and basketball in general. The name is a reference to an old blog that Chris and I used to write for last year.

Today, we’re going to tackle and important issue that will be facing the Hawks at the end of the season. If Josh Smith leaves in free agency, should the Hawks tank in hopes of getting superior draft position for the 2014 draft class?


CHURNEY: Let’s be honest here: tanking sucks. Nobody wants to watch their team lose 60 games in a year (or several years), even if the ultimate goal of it is to turn the team into a contender. Sure, it’s something that can be endured, but it isn’t exactly pretty.

Of course, most teams that resort to tanking do it for two reasons: either they are a borderline .500 team at best as currently configured, or their superstar leaves the team, or gets injured for the season. (Portland, Phoenix, Charlotte, Golden State, Cleveland, and Orlando all went through one of these two)

However, what do you get when you are the Hawks and you’ve been a playoff team for six consecutive seasons? Sure, Josh Smith might leave the team after the season, but how many people would even consider him as the best player on the Hawks anymore? To me, that title belongs to Al Horford, who is signed on under a very manageable contract over the next few seasons. A few nifty maneuvers could very well make them a better team over the offseason.

Chris, as a blogger who is essentially covering two teams that are tanking (Orlando and Charlotte), just layout the positives and negatives that you have seen from tanking this season?

BARNEWALL: Tanking is an iffy subject with fans, general managers, coaches, everybody really, because the way most people see tanking is that you are supposed to lose on purpose. While in a way this is true, that is not the way most teams are supposed to tank. You don’t start throwing games away and not giving full effort out there, because “Hey, we want a lottery pick” alienates the players and fans who want to win more than anybody. At the same time, you can’t always be making the playoffs or sitting there as an above average to average team and expect to go anywhere. It’s iffy and it bothers people.

As you mentioned, I’ve seen a lot of tanking with the Bobcats and Magic, who both have taken the this route in the correct, positive way to do so. The key to tanking is not to lose on purpose (many would say last year’s Warriors did this) or to sign a bunch of bad players on purpose. (this seasons’ Blazers) In order to tank correctly, you need three things: cap space, draft picks, and a lot of young players. Every decision made at the moment is based on if it will help future cap, get a draft pick, or bring in a young guy. Young players are really important, because you get the effect of losing and getting closer to a lottery pick and you also get to develop young players and hope one ends up being a diamond in the rough.

Tanking isn’t fun because you lose a lot of games and it can be really frustrating to see. Sometimes the team is almost unbearable to watch but there’s usually that one thing that keeps you watching and that’s the young players.

CHURNEY: The “unbearable to watch” part brings us back to the Hawks: could they even afford to tank?

People love to make fun of the Hawks’ attendance, which is somewhat fair; for a good team, they don’t draw as many fans as they should. Because of this, we’ve seen the owners try many different ways to maximize revenue and cut costs. The hallmark of this was the team re-signing Joe Johnson after the 2010 season, just to make sure the team could continue to make revenue in the playoffs.

Here’s the conundrum for the Hawks: Miami is essentially unbeatable to them. There is no way the Hawks are going to beat LeBron James in a seven-game series. Since the entire makeup in the NBA could completely change during the 2014 free agency period, would throwing away a year, tanking for Andrew Wiggins, and leaving cap space for 2014 be the best risk for the Hawks to take, both in terms of money and basketball?

BARNEWALL: I’m not sure the team should tank for Andrew Wiggins, mainly because in order to be bad enough to do so, they’d have to give away Al Horford and Jeff Teague, who are both amazing assets for any future contender. I think the Hawks need to take the Houston Rockets strategy rather than tank. The Rockets post T-Mac/Yao have never been a high lottery team. Their course of action was to open up as much cap space as possible, enough to sign a big name or two, and float around. The Hawks post Josh Smith should do this. They will gain a lot of cap space by 2014 and, with the assets they have, will just need that one big name guy to push them over the edge. How they get that guy, whether it be through free agency or trade, will be up to the Hawks front office, but there is nothing wrong with hanging around the middle of the table when you have assets as good as the Hawks have and the cap to sign a big time player.

In the case of money, this strategy works out here as well. The Hawks, as you said, do not have the greatest attendance. You know we’ve talked about this before and have come to the conclusion that other factors are the cause of this, but that discussion is for a different day. If the Hawks decide to float around and wait for that big name guy to come to them, then they will still remain relevant enough to get decent attendance and cash flow. The Hawks will also need to maximize profits wherever they can to make up for the lost playoff revenue.

The key to this strategy will be to keep that cap space and not hold onto the hopes of getting a big name for too long. The Hawks, in my opinion, should re-sign Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver if they can (at reasonable prices of course) and ride out Al Horford’s contract. If it becomes apparent the team is not going to be good enough or nobody is interested in coming to the Hawks in three years, then blow up the team.

What do you think they should do Bo?

CHURNEY: I tend to agree with you. The Atlanta Hawks have been terrible before and they’ve won exactly zero draft lotteries from it. And as you point out, even getting to the point where they would be that terrible would likely mean they would have to give up Horford; he’s too good for a team around him to be bad enough to win the lottery, unless Danny Ferry manages to sign 11 Etan Thomases to put around him.

Now, if Smith does walk, I think the Hawks can still improve on their position in the East; remember, they were third in the East before the injury bug really started to hit them. Jeff Teague is only going to continue to improve, so I see no reason to not bring him back. As long as you can find a suitable replacement for Josh (David West is a free agent), then I don’t know why this team wouldn’t be able to come back next year as a better team. Who knows, maybe they could benefit from another team’s injury and go very far in the playoffs.

And while the Hawks still won’t have a superstar, I wouldn’t underestimate the power of consistent success. Prove you can keep winning, and the names will start to come at some point.

BARNEWALL: I’m glad we agree on this. Consistent success is really what the team needs the most. The key thing will be to always have cap space to make more moves. If Ferry goes out and fills up the cap this summer and expects Horford and Teague to be the futures of the franchise, they’ll either end up being the Denver Nuggets or a disaster. Horford and Teague are great assets but they strike me more as the 2nd and 3rd best players on a team. Not the top two.

This summer should be a very interesting one for the Hawks.

Bo Churney

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