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Joe Johnson Trade: Cap Space Doesn't Necessarily Equal Championships

Danny Ferry's hiring in Atlanta has met with near-universal acclaim. However, the fact that LeBron James just won his first title in Miami rather than Cleveland should cause Hawks fans some concern about the team's new GM.

Not Cleveland. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
Not Cleveland. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

In case you have been living under a rock for the past several weeks, the Miami Heat finally won the NBA Championship, ending an interminable six-year wait for the die-hard fans of Miami. [/sarcasm] The Heat's title was the first for LeBron James, although LeBron's achievement was not celebrated by a large percentage of NBA fans. The reason for the cool reaction to LeBron by many is The Decision, an event that caused public opinion to swing against an NBA superstar overnight. Many fans were put off by LeBron announcing on national television that he was "taking [his] talents to South Beach," before he had ever told anyone in the Cavaliers organization. The move was seen as a stab in the back for Cleveland, an unforgivable sin against people who had supported LeBron for years. The masturbatory introduction of LeBron and Chris Bosh a few days later only added fuel to the fire.

Personally, I thought that the reaction to LeBron's move to Miami was excessive. James certainly looked bad in the manner of his decision, but he would hardly be the only public figure to engage in a public course of action clumsily. The substance was more important than the form and his decision to play in Miami was eminently defensible. James was friends with Bosh and Wade and he had a chance to play with his friends in a warm climate with no state income tax. Was he really supposed to go to New York to play for a talent-less team owned by Tom Dolan? Or go to Chicago so he would be compared to Michael Jordan on a daily basis? James made the same decision that thousands of Northeasterners and Midwesterners have made: I would rather not freeze for three months per year.

LeBron's decision was also motivated by the fact that the Cavaliers had utterly failed to assemble a good supporting cast for him. When the Cavs had the good fortune to win the 2003 Lottery, the organization had one simple task: acquire players who will complement LeBron. That role fell to Danny Ferry. Ferry became Cleveland's General Manager in June 2005. When Ferry took the job in Cleveland, the hardest part of building an NBA champion - acquiring a bona fide superstar - was already done. If Ferry built a quality team around LeBron, then James would win championships for a city whose pro teams had not won one since 1964. More importantly, James would stay in Ohio. If Ferry failed, then James would almost certainly fly the coop. In a world where individual players are (irrationally) held responsible for the success or failure of their teams, LeBron would not want to suffer for the sins of his teammates and the general manager who acquired them.

As evidenced by the fact that LeBron won his first title after fleeing to Miami, Ferry failed in that task. Ferry did assemble a team that won a pair of division titles (the first for the franchise in 33 years) and was the #1 seed in the East in consecutive seasons. As someone who favors the big sample size over the small, I cannot ignore those accomplishments.

However, the lesson of the Cavs' playoff exits in those seasons was that Ferry had not assembled much of a supporting cast for LeBron. Every NBA star megastar of recent vintage has had at least one all-star caliber sidekick. Larry Bird had Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Dennis Johnson. Magic Johnson had Kareem Abdul Jabbar and James Worthy. Isiah Thomas had Joe Dumars. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant/Dennis Rodman. Shaq had Kobe, then Kobe had Pau Gasol. Tim Duncan first had David Robinson and then had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Kevin Garnett had Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo. LeBron now has Dwyane Wade (who had Shaq for his first title) and Chris Bosh.

In Cleveland, LeBron had Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao (who was acquired prior to Ferry joining the Cavs). One of these things is not like the other. Let's leave aside the Cavs' collapses against Orlando in 2009 and the Celtics in 2010 and look at those rosters. A team that won 127 regular season games over the course of two seasons had exactly one non-LeBron all-star appearance: Mo Williams in 2009. The 2008-09 Cavs had two players with PERs over 15: Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who was acquired prior to Ferry becoming the GM). (PER is set for league average to be 15.) In the playoffs, the Cavs did not have a single player record with a league average PER, while LeBron recorded a preposterous 37.4 PER. The 2009-10 Cavs had better balance, with five players other than LeBron having PERs over 15, but in the playoffs, that number shrunk to two: Shaq and Jamario Moon (who only played ten minutes per game). Look at the numbers from the playoff series against the Celtics and tell me that LeBron got anything close to decent support from his teammates. In retrospect, LeBron had to be looking at the players surrounding Kevin Garnett and saying to himself "I want that."

And as a final illustration of the fact that LeBron was surrounded by a bad supporting cast in Cleveland, the roster that Ferry assembled around the best player in the NBA went 19-63 in the year after James decamped to Miami. Without their leader, it turned out that Mo Williams, J.J. Hickson, Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison, Boobie Gibson, and Jamario Moon were not especially good without the King. Compare what happened to the Cavs without LeBron to what happened to the Bulls when Michael Jordan took his baseball sabbatical: 55-27 and a narrow loss to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

I may be a voice in the wilderness here, but I look at Ferry's record in Cleveland and it does not fill me with optimism. I see a GM who was blessed with the best player in the NBA and failed to build a supporting cast befitting of that player. I also see an instance of profiling, where Ferry's background makes him seem like a more qualified candidate than he actually is. He's a basketball lifer and the son of a GM, says Mark Bradley. He played for Coach K (as if that is a positive for a coach or GM). Maybe Ferry was just unlucky with his moves in Cleveland. Maybe he had to deal with interference from his owner and star player. Nevertheless, his record in Cleveland is, at a minimum, not strong evidence that Ferry is an above-average GM.

I hope that I am wrong in this assessment because Ferry is going to have a chance to reconstruct the Hawks. He is in the process of offloading the two worst contracts on the team, those of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. Those are important moves, but they are also the easy part of constructing a team that will surpass the second round plateau that the Johnson-Smith-Horford nucleus reached. The hard part is drafting, signing, and trading for players who can elevate the team beyond where it has gone before. Let's hope that Ferry does a better job in that respect in Atlanta than he did in Cleveland.

For more on the Atlanta Hawks stay tuned to Peachtree Hoops and SB Nation Atlanta.

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