Danny Ferry wasted absolutely no time in making an incredible mark on the Atlanta Hawks franchise. Just a week after being officially hired as the Hawks' new general manager, Ferry traded away Atlanta's headlining player, letting go of the star that Rick Sund mistakenly overcommitted to in the summer of 2010.
The Hawks were likely filled with buyer's remorse even before inking Joe Johnson to a six-year, $123.7 million deal, but faced with the possibility of losing Johnson and falling from their respectable place in the Eastern Conference's second tier, they reluctantly—and foolishly—locked up the Hawks' cap outlook.
Ferry managed to undo all of that damage in one fell swoop, as he liquidated Johnson for a pile of expiring contracts and a future first-round pick. It was a gutsy move, but a completely necessary one; if Atlanta is going to make the most of the tenures of Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague, then Ferry needed to dispose of a contract so imposing that it undermined team-building efforts in every capacity.
Having a deal like Johnson's on the books has a far more profound impact than payout alone. As a result of having some $20 million in cap space sopped up by a single player every season, the Hawks would have signed away the conceivable opportunity to create enough cap space to add multiple core players in a single offseason.
It would have made it that much more difficult to complete deals, as Atlanta couldn't afford to trade multiple useful players for another star or invest in any other talent on a slightly inflated pay scale. It bumped the Hawks significantly closer to the luxury tax line, and in the current collective bargaining agreement, taxpayers face stiffer dollar-for-dollar penalties and have access to fewer salary cap exceptions to go about improving their team.
Johnson is a fine player, but his cost to the Hawks had outweighed his benefit since re-signing in 2010.
Ferry was wise to identify that from the get-go, and take advantage of a trade partner desperate enough to clear the Hawks' books while tossing them a first-round pick for their trouble. Coupled with another deal that sent Marvin Williams to Utah for a single year of Devin Harris, Ferry has improbably created some roster flexibility where there was thought to be none.
The Hawks looked to be jammed in their current form for the next several seasons, but clearing Johnson and Williams off the books allows the team's two best players and a talented point guard prospect to create a refreshingly new team around a familiar core.
The Hawks have just $18.5 million in guaranteed salary committed for next season, and $21.6 million if we assume (as we should) that Atlanta extends the qualifying offer to Jeff Teague.
The two unknowns at this point are what Atlanta plans to do with Smith (who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, but could conceivably be dealt in the meantime) and Teague; both players could be re-signed for relatively reasonable amounts, but Ferry will almost certainly have to balance that possibility with the big fish Atlanta will be in the market for by summertime.
Dwight Howard isn't locked up yet. Chris Paul may not be as secure in Los Angeles as some think. Andrew Bynum will surely test the waters. The Hawks will have some huge players to make a pitch for in just a year's time—an idea that seemed inconceivable when Johnson was still listed on Atlanta's roster.
Johnson could have easily put the Hawks right back where they've always been, but Ferry—through creativity, opportunism and willingness to accept turnover—has given the Atlanta Hawks a shot at a future beyond stagnation.
There are no guarantees and all kinds of uncertainties, but a franchise this consistently sub-elite deserved a chance to roll the dice.