The Atlanta Hawks are caught between a rock and a hard place.
GM Danny Ferry must decide by the upcoming offseason whether he blows up the foundation of the team to start from scratch, or whether the current core of Hawks can evolve into something more than just a middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference pretender.
Joe Johnson’s trade to the Brooklyn Nets this offseason seemed to be the beginning of a slow, painful restructuring process. The Hawks were for years the “almost there” team, the one that could never get past the stubborn second round of the playoffs.
However, what if Johnson wasn’t a true superstar to begin with?
What if him leaving for Brooklyn was addition by subtraction for head coach Larry Drew and a Hawks team that seems to be more of a team now than the collection of individual pieces that it used to be?
Rebuilding is tricky.
Some teams (the Miami Heat) are lucky and have to do so only for a couple of years before they are NBA champions once again. Others, like the Golden State Warriors, have been rebuilding seemingly since short shorts were fashionable in the NBA.
When a superstar leaves one team for another, common sense and history dictate that the team that was left by said player must pick up the pieces and start over again.
Then something different happened.
Atlanta found an identity as an up-tempo, fun-to-watch team that shares the ball. Maybe they are the Eastern Conference version of the Denver Nuggets, but they just don’t wear these kinds of uniforms.
The Hawks are also doing something that nobody thought they could or would do before the season started: They are playing excellent defense.
Larry Drew has managed to mesh his up-tempo offense with the fourth-best defense in the NBA, allowing just 92.1 points per game. That has translated to an 8-4 record after 12 games, fourth best in the East.
Let’s examine the pros and cons of keeping the current team as it is versus starting from scratch, shall we?
Keep 'Em Around
Josh Smith and Al Horford are the cornerstones that bring hope to a fanbase that saw the Hawks push the Boston Celtics to the limit in last year’s playoffs.
Horford is under contract until 2016. He is a quality big man when he is healthy and truly seems to enjoy dominating the paint with Smith as his teammate.
So renew Smith as well, convince him to stay, forget about Pau Gasol and capitalize on what you already have.
There aren’t many versatile players that can rebound and score like J-Smoove can.
The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
Couple them with a Jeff Teague who is growing as a point guard every day in front of our eyes, leading the team in assists (7.3) and steals per game (1.5), and you have a worthwhile trio in your hands.
Teague is a restricted free agent next year, but the Hawks should offer him a long-term deal if he keeps showing improvement and proves he is Atlanta's point guard of the future.
Keep in mind that this isn’t about building a contender right now. The Miami Heat are currently one above everyone else in the East.
But what about 2014?
The Hawks could be contenders with this core by then, since who knows if Miami’s ¨Big Three¨ will exercise their respective player options.
Smith and Horford will still be in their primes, being just 28 years old. Teague could bloom as a 26-year-old veteran ready to make the leap from very good to elite.
Devin Harris and Lou Williams should hang around to add a veteran presence as the Hawks groom promising young shooters like John Jenkins.
Boom, the Southeast Division is wide open.
Then you look at the rest of the East.
The Sixers are a question mark hinging on the health of Andrew Bynum, and the Pacers are uncertain of what they have. All of a sudden the NBA Finals aren’t such a pipe dream anymore for the rest of this decade.
Rebuilding Is the Way to Go
Face it, Josh Smith is as good as gone, so trade him before the deadline for Pau Gasol, who would be much happier in Drew’s scheme than he is with D’Antoni's.
Jeff Teague may be improving, but some team is going to overpay him like the Houston Rockets did with Jeremy Lin. The Hawks would be wise not to compromise their salary cap by matching an offer for a player whose ceiling may not be that high.
Do you, Atlanta Hawks fans, truly want to see the Hawks be the Eastern Conference version of the Nuggets or Rockets for the next decade? I’ll tell you what that translates to: utter and sheer irrelevance.
In today’s NBA you need to be really bad in order to become really good.
Bottom out and rebuild from the ground up. Being an eternal fifth seed is the perfect recipe for indifference.
Keep Jenkins and Horford, stockpile draft picks and try to rebuild through a youth movement.
Atlanta isn’t exactly a hot free-agent destination.
Bottom line, Joe Johnson’s exit should be the beginning of a massive exodus and a new era of Hawks basketball.
Which side do you lean on? Let them stay or rebuild? Leave your take in the comments below.
(All stats are accurate as of Wednesday, November 28, 2012.)