Last Saturday, December 17, Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal Constitution sat down with Michael Gearon, one of the Atlanta Hawks' two primary owners from the Atlanta Spirit Group (ASG), to be interviewed about the past and future of the Hawks, along with the state of the franchise itself.
Gearon touches on a wide array of issues regarding the Hawks, and AJC scribe Tim Tucker helped Cunningham gather all of the information. Cunningham and Tucker remind the readers some of the quotes have been edited for "clarity and flow," but the overall meaning is still entirely prevalent:
Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. sat down Friday for a long interview with myself and fellow AJC scribe Tim Tucker. Here are some excerpts from the wide-ranging discussion, edited for clarity and flow. It includes my interrogatives and/or explanations of what Gearon was talking about:
Here, I will take several of Gearon's words and analyze them in terms of reality and truthfulness, based off of prior decisions and comments made by him and the ASG.
What’s frustrating, from a fan perspective, is that you would look at Atlanta in this market. . . . Tim, you understand the risk we took to get Joe and the reward we got. Unfortunately, I think some of that message got lost publicly and how we’ve been viewed [negatively], regardless of the success we had.
And I look at things where people say, ‘Oh, well, the Hawks owners are cheap.’ That’s something I hear constantly whether it’s written or radio guys.
Yet when you look at the facts . . . This year we will probably have one of the top 5 payrolls in the NBA. It will be right around $70 [million], I will tell you if we are at the trade deadline and we feel like we are missing that piece, that we will think will take us over the top, [we will pay the tax]. . . .
Few NBA or Atlanta Hawks fans actually think the Hawks are cheap. That isn't the issue. Gearon has the entire perception of the team wrong.
The issue most religious Hawks fans have with him and the ASG is that they spend money, but not wisely. Almost everyone knows, Gearon, that you and your ownership group threw the bank at Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. They know you're willing to spend; they just have an issue with how you do it.
After inking Joe Johnson to one of the NBA's most lucrative contracts and making Marvin Williams one of the highest-paid busts of the generation, you went out and hired a coach that was from within the coaching tree that the players had a major issue with.
Regardless of Larry Drew's success, there is no reason a perennial playoff team should have the NBA's lowest-paid coach. On top of that, Gearon, you hired a general manager that has never amounted to anything in this league.
In over 30 years of being an active general manager, Rick Sund has never won a ring or made a major move that changed the league for the betterment of his team. If the end goal is a championship, how is that sort of complacency going to get you there?
Maybe that isn't the end goal after all. We'll find out if it is soon enough.
You look at the Hawks, if you look at our payroll vs. the Falcons—I don’t want to crap on the Falcons in the paper but everybody acts like Falcons do whatever it takes to win—their payroll the last three, four years as been in the lower third in the league. They were 25th in 08-09, 26th in 09-10, 26th in 2010-11.
Now let’s contrast that with us. 2010-11 we were ninth; 2009-10 we were 21st. This year we will probably be fifth. What I struggle with is when the facts don’t support the [negative] view. . . . You and I, we need the Hawks to have the same energy and perception in the public the Falcons do in order to have more bloggers, more viewers.
I look at the Falcons, they’ve got 1,500 people [commenting on AJC blogs]. The image of that team has been shaped as, they will do whatever it takes to be successful.
Now contrast their success to ours. The last playoff game they won was in’04. That’s just a fact. Michael Vick was still on the team then. We’ve won in the playoffs three years in a row. I hope the Falcons make the playoffs this year and I hope they win the Super Bowl because I’m in Atlantan and I’m a huge fan of every team here.
They’ve never made the playoffs three years in a row. You would think every decision they make is just a bright decision based on how it’s portrayed. We get criticized because the bar is the tax instead of the cap. I don’t think our fans understand, we do spend money and we are one of the highest payrolls.
Well, regardless of if crapping on the Falcons in the paper was your goal, you did just that, Gearon. What do the Falcons have to do with the Hawks' success? Nothing. If you're an NBA owner that has most of the fanbase annoyed with you, why on earth would you trash talk the city's most beloved team?
For starters, this is the south, and there is a hierarchy to sports below the Mason-Dixon line. Football comes first in most Southern communities, so before you whine about the level of love the Falcons receive, it's important to understand the culture of the entire section of the country you live in.
Also, while the Falcons haven't won a playoff game since 2004, they've made it just as far as the Hawks did last season: the second round. The Falcons had a 13-3 record and were the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC with an incredible young nucleus of pieces that fit together. What isn't optimistic sounding about that?
The Hawks have a group of players whose realistic ceiling is the second round, and the team is assembled of pieces that don't entirely fit together. What is optimistic sounding about that?
In the NFL, it's single elimination. There are no seven-game series, and when you catch the hottest team in the league in a best of one matchup, it isn't going to be easy to stop them. The Falcons lost to the Green Bay Packers, but they experienced just as much success as the Hawks last year, if not more.
Furthermore, Gearon, you say the Falcons don't spend as much as the Hawks. That's basically conceding to the fact that the Falcons know how to better manage their assets. They have formed a winning team with arguably the brightest future in the NFL by spending almost half of the money you've spent. They do what you do, but they do it better.
People love Arthur Blank and the Falcons entire management because if they see a hole in the team, they fill it up as quickly as possible. People don't love you and the rest of the Hawks management because we've had the same holes for the last four years and they haven't been addressed. Thomas Dmitrioff and Arthur Blank would never leave their team out to dry like this.
One is being sure our fan base, that the perception of the team is accurate with the success and the commitment we have made to the team. We are a group that cares as much as anybody.
I love the Atlanta Hawks. I was the biggest fan before I invested in the team and consider myself one of the biggest fans now. And I don’t think the fan base understands how much we really care. Part of it is changing the perception of us.
Are we willing to spend money? We’ve done that. The knowledgeable fan gets it, but the one you are trying to lure in, they don’t get it. The young kids get it. My son’s friends, they don’t read the paper. They go watch a playoff team.
But I will tell you I think, when you are building a team long-term . . . take the kids who were in high school four years ago and now are juniors and seniors in college and they are still following us. I was out in Colorado last year or the summer before and I was wearing a Hawks shirt, which I don’t do a lot of in front of people because I think it’s kind of a gimmick. I pass this guy he says, ‘You are a Hawks fan?’ He says, ‘Oh I love that team.’ He was watching us in the playoffs. I didn’t tell him I was part of the team but I was very curious to hear what he had to say as a fan. He said, ‘God, man, this team has been so exciting the last couple of years.’
How do you grow [revenue]? By getting to the fair-weather fan and [make him] realize, one, we care, two we are willing to spend money and three look at our success.
To be truthful, it is hard for most—not all—teams to grow revenue without a superstar. A superstar opens up the floodgates to everything: marketing, having a face of the league, fan enthusiasm, community enthusiasm. The Hawks don't have a superstar, and the person who they bill and pay as a superstar, Joe Johnson, is hardly marketed it at all.
The bottom line is that the Hawks don't do enough to get their name out there. Arthur Blank talks on a radio show every week in Atlanta, and it isn't unusual for some other Falcons to go on and chime in. Gearon and Levenson don't reach out to the public like Blank does, and they come across as people who don't put as much effort into their team as Blank does, yet they expect the same fan results.
You have to win people over, and you can't do that by complaining about fair-weather fans in the city. There are definitely a lot of them in Atlanta, but to win them over it takes some marketing, and the Hawks, quite frankly, have not been marketed well under the ASG.
It's great people in Colorado think the Hawks are exciting, and that isn't sarcasm. However, they aren't flying down to Atlanta to catch any Hawks games. Why don't you wear a Hawks shirt around Atlanta and ask how people feel about the team? I'm sure you'd get a lot of responses that differ from the Colorado guy's.
We haven’t seen enough to say this team is not capable of competing [for a title]. I say that because there are only three teams out of 30 that have gotten out of that first round three years [in a row]. And they are young. Josh Smith and Marvin are 26-years old, and Teague is 22 and Joe is 30, and Joe plays like Paul Pierce. He’ll play until he’s 36 because Joe is not dependent on his athleticism like a Kobe, like a Dominique, like a Jordan. He’s got a cagey game, he’s got size. I think he’s going to be a good player in his mid-30s.
When you blow something up, you want to do it [only] if you can get something better.
Gearon and the ASG might not have seen enough, but I have. Does anyone think even as this roster ages that they will be able to compete with Miami, Oklahoma City, either of the LA teams or what New York will have soon? This core isn't good enough and they won't be competing for a title; maybe an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, but that's it.
I'm not going to even comment on Johnson playing until he's 36. I'm sure he can sustain himself until then, but if he's still the focal point of the Hawks offense or even being paid like he is now by then, my brain will explode.
Yes, when you blow something up, you want to get something better, but even more importantly, you want to get something that fits. This team doesn't fit enough to compete for a championship yet. If you traded Horford and Williams for Bogut and say Larry Sanders, you'd have a team that fits better and would do better even though Horford is better than Bogut and Williams is better than Sanders. The pieces would match, and the pieces don't match now.
Even then, that team wouldn't compete with Miami or any of the other aforementioned teams.
It’s real hard to build a competitive team. It’s real easy when you are lucky enough to have the draft pick and get one of [top] five guys in the NBA right now. You can surround those five guys with just about anybody and still compete.
Case in point is Cleveland. With LeBron they went to the Eastern Conference finals at least two times, never lost in the first round. He’s a difference-maker with the team. . . .
Is it that easy, Mr. Gearon?
I mean, you had a high lottery pick quite a few times early on. Let's see how those were spent:
In 2005, the ASG's first year with the franchise, the Hawks had the second-overall pick. They selected Marvin Williams over Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and the Hawks were in desperate need of a point guard.
In 2006, the Hawks picked Shelden Williams over Brandon Roy, Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo.
In 2007, the Hawks made the best pick available at No. 3, selecting Al Horford. They also had the No. 11 pick, and they drafted Acie Law over Rodney Stuckey, Wilson Chandler and Aaron Brooks. While none of those three are world beaters, they all would have been better than Law. Law looked like a solid pick at the time, but never turned out.
So, if it was so easy, why did the Hawks miss out on, let's say, four superstars (Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy and Rajon Rondo) and a superstar in the making (Rudy Gay) in two picks? The Hawks were given opportunities to have one of "those five guys" that Gearon talked about, but they squandered every chance.
I look at us, and you measure a team on its results: How are we doing vs. the league? There are three teams the last three years that have advanced past the first round. The Lakers—who everybody loves the Lakers—the Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks. It’s not the Dallas Mavericks, it’s not the Miami Heat, it’s not the New York Knicks, it’s not the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s not the Orlando Magic. It’s just those three.
Have we been able to win a championship? No. But our goal is to be as competitive and entertaining as possible and it’s unrealistic to every year have the only measure of your success as winning a championship because one in 30 do it. So you keep getting better and competing each year in order to try to compete for that championship.
I'm happy that the Hawks have been competitive recently, especially after years of being terrible, but making it to the second round three years in a row isn't something to throw a party over. Making the second round means absolutely nothing. The Mavericks didn't make the second round for three consecutive years, but they're hoisting a banner on Christmas Day.
Are the Hawks raising any banners? Unless there is a new banner that goes up for consecutive second round appearances, I'm relatively sure the rafters will remain quite barren.
The worst part of the entire interview is Gearon saying that the goal is to be "competitive and entertaining."
I don't care how bad a team was the season before, every professional sports team should go into the season with a championship as the main goal. There should be nothing else to be striving for. The fact that a championship isn't the main goal of the Hawks every year disgusts me.
Gearon seems to think that because the Hawks and their fans endured some years of atrocious basketball that they should all love him for making the Hawks the symbol of mediocrity in the league, a second-round ceiling team who won't make moves to improve. Until he understands that a championship is the only thing worth striving for in this league, the Hawks aren't going anywhere.
Also, why would Gearon say "So you keep getting better..." ?
The Hawks haven't gotten better. The Hawks have made zero positive moves since the trading for Jamal Crawford (who just left via free agency because the Hawks were not willing to go into the luxury tax) that has enhanced this teams chance at a championship.
Gearon talks about "trying to compete for that championship," but he isn't trying. He's hoping Al Horford turns into Tim Duncan and Josh Smith turns into Dominique Wilkins. That isn't happening, and no team has ever won a championship by creating a good but not great roster and keeping it as is.
But hey, at least they'll be entertaining and competitive, right?
I've been pretty harsh on Michael Gearon and the ASG. I'm one of their biggest critics, but I'd love nothing more than for them to prove me wrong. If they traded for Dwight Howard, if they courted him in free agency, if they made a move to make this team truly better, if they started spending money in the right places, I'd be the first person to turn around and say I spoke too soon.
From what I've seen, though, they won't. The Hawks are stuck with Gearon and the ASG for a while longer, as they said they no longer plan on selling the team (I still think if the right offer comes, they will in fact sell the Hawks).
Sooner or later, Atlanta will have no choice but to blow this team up, whether that is next year or five years from now. Lets just hope when that day comes, the Hawks do a better job of drafting than they did in 2005 and 2006, whether the ASG is still there or not.