It was New Year’s Day and the Atlanta Hawks were riding high. After defeating the New Orleans Hornets on the road, the Hawks stood 10 games over .500 and in 3rd place in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks’ only losses to teams out of playoff position were to the Cavaliers and 76ers.
After the off-season trades of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, few dared imagine that the Hawks could be this good this soon. However, there was one person whose opinion matters — A LOT — who thought the Hawks were heading in the right direction in the wake of those trades. That person, according to Hoopsworld’s Alex Kennedy, was Josh Smith.
Fast forward to now and oh how things have changed. The Hawks lost six of the next seven games, including defeats to the Pistons, Timberwolves, Cavaliers and Wizards among teams on pace to miss the playoffs. The streak culminated with the Hawks setting multiple franchise records for scoring futility in a humiliating 97-58 loss at Chicago. And then the Hawks hit rock-bottom the next day when Smith was kicked out of practice and suspended for a game for conduct detrimental to the team.
Since then the Josh Smith Trade Rumor Mill (TM), utterly silent since Kennedy’s July piece, has erupted with volcanic ferocity. Hawks GM Danny Ferry’s decision to back coach Larry Drew by disciplining Smith is interesting but unsurprising. It’s interesting because Ferry is the one who gets to deal with all the fallout of his decision. If Smith resumes the familiar role of malcontent, it could hurt his value while Ferry is forced to consider trade options.
However, the move by Ferry is unsurprising as it is completely in character. Ferry’s displeasure with the scapegoating of Mike Brown in Cleveland reportedly factored into his decision to leave the Cavs front office. After Cleveland’s unsuccessful bid to placate LeBron James, Ferry may be trying to set a different precedent in Atlanta with an ownership group that has his back. The Hawks’ recent swoon provided an obvious pretext if Ferry was looking to replace Drew. That Ferry risked alienating Smith by providing a unified message may be the greatest outward sign thus far of Ferry’s efforts at culture change.
So… back to that guy whose opinion matters — A LOT. Just as it did in 1994, the Hawks organization must make a decision regarding a franchise player on an expiring contract. The Dominique Wilkins trade, in retrospect, was essentially a salary dump, since it netted only another expiring contract attached to a player (Danny Manning) who opted not to re-sign with the team. Should Ferry allow Smith to depart without obtaining tangible assets in return, history will have repeated itself.
My opinion is that everybody needs to sit back and take a deep breath. Is the situation really that dire? The Hawks are presently even in the loss column and only a game back of 3rd-place Indiana in the Eastern Conference. Had the Hawks won the four games it lost to sub-.500 competition recently, the team would be 26-12 and tied with Miami for 1st in the conference. Panic button time? Methinks not.
Who knows, maybe Smith will ultimately respect the Hawks organization more for standing behind Drew than James did the Cavaliers for hanging Brown out to dry. Whether Drew will live up to expectations he himself raised and prove worthy of a contract extension remains to be seen. For now, a win tonight in Brooklyn would allow the Hawks to climb over one of the teams ahead of it in the standings. A solid team performance with Smith back in the lineup might also signal a turning point in the season rather than the doom of a franchise.