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Do Not Let The Atlanta Spirit Group Do Your Taxes

Examining the Hawks' poor displays of money management.

When the Atlanta Hawks quickly offered Joe Johnson the maximum deal (worth about $120 million over six years) it raised a lot of eyebrows. It was thought, following a very disappointing playoff appearance and a big summer of free agency looming, that Johnson would take a max offer elsewhere and attempt to join one of the other big superstars hitting free agency this offseason. Rather than risk losing him, the Hawks barely waited until free agency started to put their max offer on the table, even prior to learning what the cap is and exactly how the maximum will be defined.

Once again, this is just a an example of poor money management. When NBA executives are strapped with cash, they shouldn't operate with the conditions of keeping the current talent on hand at any cost. But that seems to have been the major Modus Operandi over the past two offseasons. Last year, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, and Mike Bibby all signed deals keeping them around for at least three seasons. None of those moves are, by themselves, bad moves. Each of those players are solid, and likely would have gotten those contracts or close to them playing elsewhere. The mentality is to keep a young core of players together; Rick Sund's big issue is that he still thinks that this group of players is young.

"I think we need more veterans," he said. "We are one of the youngest teams in the league still. I think we need to fill out the rest of the roster with veterans."

Oklahoma City is a young team. Memphis is a young team. The Hawks' projected starting five next season averages seven NBA seasons of experience. The top three bench contributors for next year have 10 (Jamal Crawford), seven (Zaza Pachulia) and seven (Mo Evans) years of experience under them. This is not a particularly young team. In fact, it's looking somewhat similar in age to the last core of Hawks' playoff teams, which was blown up because they were aging. Go check it out. And keep in mind, that group accomplished more than the current crop, since they actually won games in the second round and made the semifinals three different times.

We're left wondering about the Hawks decision to sign one of the cheapest possible head coaching candidates, and their very curious decision to sell off their second round draft pick, as well as the refusal to draft second round players who could conceivably occupy a roster spot. That $3 million they gained in compensation for it looks like a paltry amount compared to the $120 they turned around to offer to Joe Johnson. This decision still seems completely absent logic. A smart team, knowing that it is strapped for cash, should be looking for possible values both now and down the line, and would be wise to stockpile low draft picks rather than selling them away, hoping they can turn into Anderson Varejao or Andrei Kirilenko. The draft is nothing except a mechanism for teams to acquire assets essentially for free. Of course, then you might see this piece by David Aldridge where he suggests, among other things, that the Hawks believe Joe Johnson could be traded in two years. Forgive me for wondering who exactly is eager to acquire 31-year-old players owed approximately $85 million. Aldridge ends his breakdown of the deal with this nugget:

(It no doubt also came up that it's highly unlikely that the current Atlanta Spirit ownership group will still be in charge of the Hawks in six years. Johnson's due bill will be someone else's problem by then.)

That's exactly the kind of money management that will get you elected Mayor of Atlanta!  Afterwards, you can just share a cell with Bill Campbell for awhile. It's irresponsible since it still leaves the fans and the next front office strapped to an albatross of a signing, which will pay a 34-year-old over $23 million. The possibility of a new CBA which may include a hard salary cap seems pretty daunting.

The ASG, naturally, reject this reasoning (even if it's true, would you expect them to confirm it?). It seems it's been their plan all along to resign Joe and build up around him. It's been pointed out that Bibby and Marvin received front-loaded deals in order to leave cap-space for this year in order to sign Joe Johnson under the luxury tax. Of course, in that same post from Michael Cunningham, Rick Sund lets us know that the ASG is not opposed to exceeding the luxury tax, and are willing to sign the players they want in order to make this team a contender. Which they almost certainly will have to, having show a lack of willingness to build through the draft, and lacking a team that's a true contender right now.

There's some more curious reasoning here-why was Jordan Crawford the player they wanted, and claim to have been targeting all along, when the plan was to offer Joe Johnson the max deal? It was speculated that he was there in case Joe left, but if the Hawks were willing all along the offer $30 million more for Joe's services than any other NBA team, it's not a deal he could refuse. And here we are, now, with four shooting guards on the roster. In terms of roster construction, the Damion James selection looks a lot more fruitful since he fills a need. Maurice Evans is simply not capable of defending at the small forward, where he played the majority of his minutes last year. When he WAS playing at the SF position, his opposing counterpart put up a PER of 20.3. While Marvin was at the three, it was a 15.7 PER. That's despite Marvin Williams playing more often against starters, since he was one himself. It's not that he is an elite defender; he's above average, but there are certainly better defensive threes. Mo Evans is just not that good, and his weaknesses are emphasized by playing him out of position.

Now, not only do the Hawks have four shooting guards on the roster, but they also have two international players who likely profile as shooting guards in Sergiy Gladyr and Pape Sy. Those two selections seem beyond useless, except for the money saved by drafting players ownership isn't required to compensate. Did I mention that they really don't seem willing to build through the draft?  Before you tell me that playoff teams don't build through the draft, remember that the San Antonio Spurs drafted Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili during an uninterrupted streak of winning seasons. Any excitement over adding a very solid college player like Jordan Crawford is tempered with a big spoonful of "When is he going to get to play?"  This following a season that saw disappointingly little playing time for Jeff Teague in a less crowded Hawks' back court.

To be fair, it's difficult for the Atlanta Spirit Group to win in this situation. If Joe Johnson walks, they're a cheap ownership group who won't spend money. They sign him to this deal, which might have been what was necessary to retain him, and they're once again blasted by a large segment of the fanbase. It's just difficult to see what their grand strategy for team operation is from an outside standpoint, beyond keeping around all the same players which which they are familiar. But are they losing a ton of money on the Hawks, or are they willing to spend? Until earlier this week, they had a track record of being frugal. They've never used the mid level exception. They refused to keep Othello Hunter last year after his contract was guaranteed. They refused to fill out their roster by adding young players to assign to the D-League. It's like living off of Ramen noodles for a month because you claim to have no money, and then going out to purchase a Ferrari. How could possibly have gotten credit?

One of the biggest issues that comes as a result of signing this deal will become apparent next offseason. Al Horford becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2011, after having just made his first all-star appearance. He should be due a fairly significant raise. As soon as next year, we could see the the big deal that Joe Johnson just signed as a reason for the Hawks failing to keep their talent in town. In fact, it's difficult to see how the Hawks are going to pay Horford, and over the next six years, you can probably expect to see Horford become much more valuable than Joe Johnson. It's not that the Hawks have clear-cut conscious decision to keep Johnson over Horford, but keeping both almost certainly requires cutting payroll off the roster elsewhere.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.