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NBA Trade Deadline 2011: Tax Man Makes Blockbuster Hawks Deal Difficult

It's hard to believe that in just over 15 days this whole Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Lakers or wherever the next Melo-to wild rumor is will be over.  The NBA's trade deadline will come and go at 3:00 p.m. on Feb. 24.

With rumors flying all over the tabloids from New York to L.A., there has been little attention paid to that basketball team that plays in Georgia.  Aside from a few stray rumblings here and there, conventional wisdom is that the Atlanta Hawks will not make a major move by the deadline.

And the main reason why a move is not anticipated is that Atlanta's basketball owners are fearing someone that many of us face on our own April 15 deadline -- the taxman, who can cometh with a vengeance in the NBA if you go over the luxury tax threshold.

However, after Atlanta's most recent home debacle -- a 117-83 throttling by the Philadelphia 76ers -- coach Larry Drew was almost openly muttering that other "T" word: trade.

"I don't feel comfortable, totally comfortable with where we are after 52 games," Drew told the AJC's Michael Cunningham on Wednesday. "We have had some bad losses here at home. That may be a sign (a trade is needed), I don't know."

But how likely is an Atlanta reshuffling?

As things stand right now, Atlanta has just under $70 million committed to its roster.  Once you surpass $70.3 million, you go into the luxury tax, at which time teams pay one dollar to the league for every dollar they are over this amount in salary. Joe Johnson's max deal and Jamal Crawford's $10 million salary push the Hawks close to the limit.

The Hawks are over the cap and may make a trade approximating 125% of any players they ship away, however, a slight $300,000,000 bump in payroll and they start paying the Stern-man .  Atlanta also holds a significant trade exemption from the Josh Childress deal with the Phoenix Suns, but will go over the luxury tax if they use it.

Atlanta's ownership has stated that they are willing to go over the limit if the team is one that could legitimately compete for a championship. However, as things stand right now, the Hawks are a very, very good team, but they are not amongst the likes of the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat in the elite class of the East.

So why not blow up the team?

It's simply not that easy.

Scenario 1: Trade Away Jamal Crawford

The natural assumption is to think that Atlanta could trade away Crawford's expiring contract for a longer-term contract that could improve the club in upcoming seasons.  Perhaps you could find a taker looking to be more nimble in this year's free agent class to take on his contract and add a few pieces for the future.

The problem with that is should Atlanta make a move for a longer-term deal, they would likely be in the luxury tax next season.

Al Horford's five-year, $60 million contract extension kicks in next season. As a result, Atlanta has $63.6 million dedicated to eight NBA players next season according to  

Under the best of circumstances, Atlanta would be left with $7 million under the luxury tax threshold.  NBA Commissioner David Stern thinks that the luxury tax threshold could actually fall by a million or two next season.  If that's the case, you're looking at about $5 million of wiggle room. Add your first round pick into the fold and that number dwindles to $4 to $6 million (add another million or so if both second round picks stick), then spread over your last three or four roster spots.  Atlanta clearly does not have a lot of room to do much of anything -- certainly not enough to resign Crawford.

Let's put it this way: if Atlanta wasn't worried about the luxury tax, Crawford -- the reigning Sixth Man of the Year -- would have been resigned a long time ago. Ownership is obviously unwilling to go into the tax with this group as it is presently constituted. 

Scenario 2: Say Goodbye to Starvin Marvin Williams

Williams is a perfect fourth or fifth option for the Hawks, but simply commands too big of a long-term contract to be palatable for most NBA teams.  Unless it's a straight swap of overpriced contract for overpriced contract, moving Williams, who has two years and over $15 million left on his deal won't come easy. It becomes even more difficult because there's a player option for a third year at $7.5 million looming for whomever would trade for the Atlanta small forward.

Scenario 3: Move Smoove

Josh Smith has a reasonable contract commiserate with his talent (2 years, $25.6 million left after this season). He has considerable talent (he deserves to be on the All-Star Team) and is one of the best young players in the game.

Smith would be attractive to an NBA team like the Golden State Warriors, who are seemingly always in rebuilding mode. A package could conceivably be put together to move Smith to get the big man along with a serviceable point guard (to replace Mike Bibby -- who would presumably be shipped away in any such deal) that the Hawks need.

But does Atlanta really want to give up on a kid who grew up in Atlanta and is one of the more electric players in the game?  Yes, Smoove has his issues -- he passes up driving the lane for jumpers at times.  However, is it time to give up on him?  My guess would be that ownership and GM Rick Sund is not ready to pull the plug on Smith just yet.


It's entirely possible that the Hawks will make a move before the trade deadline and perhaps a minor deal for bench depth could happen.  

But despite Drew's rumblings after a disappointing Hawks loss, the economics of the game will likely stop the Hawks from making any sort of Orlando Magic-like blockbuster blow 'em up deal at the deadline.

Of course, anything can happen in the NBA, it's the place were amazing happens, isn't it?

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