Atlanta's (Racially) Confusing Rise to the Top

by Spencer Suk & Jordan Lee

The Atlanta Hawks are in a very odd situation.  Despite sitting atop the Eastern Conference with a 29-8 record, the franchise finds itself up for sale.  It all started in September when majority owner Bruce Levenson “self-reported” a bigoted e-mail he sent out regarding the Hawks’ predominantly African-American fanbase.  Amidst the backlash from the Donald Sterling disaster, Levenson tried to save face and immediately declared that he would sell the team.

However, Levenson wasn’t the only one on the hot seat.  Danny Ferry, the Hawks GM, was roasted and has taken a leave of absence due to insensitive comments made regarding Luol Deng: “He has a little African in him, not in a bad way, but he’s a guy who would have a nice store out front, but sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”

It’s unnecessary to dive into all of the reasons why everything Ferry had to say was wrong and ignorant, but it’s worth noting that Luol Deng had just won the 2013-14 Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his efforts to create peace, growth and opportunities in his native country, South Sudan.  There are plenty of players with questionable character and habits, but this is certainly not one of them.

Ferry’s image will forever be tainted.  To most fans, this will always be the first thing that will come to mind when the name Danny Ferry is mentioned, which is unfortunate because he was doing everything right from a basketball perspective up to this point.

The Hawks hired Ferry on June 25, 2012, just three days before the NBA Draft, and he wasted no time before making key transactions.  Though the Hawks had just reached the postseason for the fifth consecutive time, Ferry was willing to overhaul the roster in an effort to take the Hawks to the next level.

Traded Marvin Williams to Jazz for Devin Harris (July 11, 2012)

With the 23rd pick, Ferry whiffed on John Jenkins (thus far at least), but found great second round value in Mike Scott with the 43rd pick.  While he doesn’t have the talent to win you games, Scott has proven to be a valuable role player off the bench for the Hawks.  He would be the first of many floor-spacing, sharpshooting big men Ferry would bring on board such as Pero Antic, Paul Millsap, and Adreian Payne.

Two weeks later, Ferry would begin the process of dismantling the Hawks’ core roster in order to bring in new talent.  The Hawks had just failed to get past the second round for the fifth straight time, and it was time to hit the reset button.  Ferry’s first order of action was to ship Marvin Williams off, ending his disappointing seven year stint in Atlanta.  Williams, who was taken with the 2nd selection in the 2005 Draft ahead of players like Deron Williams and Chris Paul, had worn out his welcome and was traded to the Jazz for Devin Harris’ expiring contract.  While the trade seems inconsequential, it set the tone for the franchise: shed bad contracts.  By sending Williams to Utah, Ferry also got rid of the final two years of his contract, in which he was owed $16 million.

That same day, Ferry would follow this trade up with an even bigger salary dump...

Traded Joe Johnson to Nets for Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams, 2013 1st Round Pick (Shane Larkin) & 2017 2nd Round Pick (July 11, 2012)

At first, the decision to trade Joe Johnson, Atlanta’s best player, to the Brooklyn Nets for five insignificant expiring contracts and a couple draft picks was perplexing.  But as we just mentioned, it became very apparent that Ferry was clearing cap space in order to create future financial flexibility.  The biggest roadblock on the way to a clean salary sheet was definitely Joe Johnson’s enormous contract.  In 2010, Johnson’s agent, Arn Tellem, really cashed in by negotiating a six-year, $119 million deal.  

With another four years left on the contract and Johnson on the decline (30 years old at the time), Ferry decided he would trade his star player at all costs.  Even if that meant that he wouldn’t receive a single player of real value in return (none of the five players received by the Hawks would play for the team beyond the next season).  

While this move would definitely hinder the team in the upcoming season, it opened up a lot of opportunities for the Hawks to improve their team going forward, and they did just that a week later.

Traded Cash & Trade Exception to Bulls for Kyle Korver (July 16, 2012)

A financially strapped Bulls team was attempting to shed salary any way they could, and Kyle Korver was the odd man out.  He never really found his niche in Coach Thibodeau’s system, and the Bulls’ front office deemed Korver unworthy of the $5 million owed in the final year of his contract.  

With added flexibility from the Johnson deal, the Hawks happily added Korver to the roster in exchange for cash and a trade exception.  In Atlanta, Korver has been able to revive his career and is playing the best basketball of his life at the age of 33.  

He has posted outrageous shooting splits of 47.3% / 47.5% / 90.8% in his two and a half years with the Hawks and has morphed into one of the best shooters the league has ever seen.  Last year, Korver smashed Dana Barros’ previous record for most consecutive games with a three-pointer made.  After failing to hit a three in his first game as a Hawk, Korver went on to make at least one in his next 127 games (Barros' former record stood at 89 games).  He also led the league in three-point field goal percentage last season despite a high volume of shots beyond the arc (6th in makes per game).  This year is no different, as Korver finds himself shooting an absurd 51.7% from downtown, which is a league best once again.  

Ferry locked up Korver on a four-year, $24 million extension in the 2013 offseason.  This looks like one of the better bargains out there, especially considering the demand for shooters these days.

Hired Mike Budenholzer as Head Coach (May 28, 2013)

This is arguably the best move in Danny Ferry’s short stint as Hawks President and General Manager.  Ferry somehow convinced Mike Budenholzer to part ways with Gregg Popovich after coaching under him for 17 seasons.  Ferry, who played his final four seasons with the Spurs, was clearly able to sell Budenholzer on the current roster, as well as the future direction of the franchise.

Budenholzer helped Ferry fill out the roster with players that fit in his system.  We all know the Spurs don’t like players who can’t play both sides of the ball, and Budenholzer held true to that by grabbing Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll.  

The new-look Hawks got off to a decent start last year, but lost Horford for the season after just 29 games (Horford suffered his second pectoral muscle tear in a two-year span).  However, the short-handed Hawks still pushed the first-seeded Pacers to seven games in the first round.  So far this season, with a healthy Horford, the Hawks have surpassed everyone’s expectations, as Budenholzer has the Hawks looking like the Spurs of the East.

Like San Antonio, Budenholzer and Ferry did an amazing job of finding players that fit their system and culture. The Hawks don’t have a true “superstar” per se, but Millsap and Teague are having All-Star caliber years while Horford returns to full form from injury.  Budenholzer has also found ways to get Korver and Carroll good looks on the offensive end, especially Korver.  Atlanta is playing team ball and looks dangerous at every position.

The Spurs and the Hawks are both top six in the league in touches per game, assists, field goal %, and three-point %, with the Hawks leading three of the four categories.  I think it’s fair to say Budenholzer has stolen a few pages out of San Antonio’s playbook and taken them east to Atlanta.  Steve Kerr has the Golden State Warriors running away with the best record in the league, but there’s no doubt (in our minds) that Budenholzer has been the Coach of the Year thus far.

Signed Paul Millsap for $19 Million Over Two Years (July 10, 2013)

Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer were able to score Paul Millsap on a massive bargain. This was one of the biggest steals in recent memory, as Millsap had already proven he was a do-it-all big man in Utah.  On offense, he has tremendous scoring and passing abilities for the power forward position.  On the other end, he is a bit undersized, but more than makes up for it with his savviness and 7’1” wingspan.  

Millsap’s ability to play the face-up four is a necessity in the Hawks’ system, which is predicated upon constant ball movement.  The Hawks have a starting five that meshes well, but Millsap is the most important piece to the puzzle, as his versatility makes his teammates’ jobs that much easier.  Last year, Millsap earned his first All-Star appearance with averages of 17.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks.

If there is one downside to the Millsap deal, it lies in the fact that Ferry only signed Millsap to a two-year deal. After shedding the hefty contracts of Johnson and Smith, Atlanta should have tried to lock him in for as long as possible considering how cold the market was for him.  If Ferry could have signed him to a three or four-year deal, he wouldn’t have to worry about Millsap in free agency this summer.

Let Josh Smith Sign with Pistons for $54 Million Over Four Years (July 11, 2013)

J-Smoove is a player that could have thrived in Budenholzer’s system if he was able to mature and play within himself.  But for $13.5 million per year, the antics of Josh Smith were clearly not worth the risk when Millsap was available for just $9.5 million annually.

Signed DeMarre Carroll for $5 Million Over Two Years (August 3, 2013)

DeMarre Carroll bounced around in his first four years in the league, playing for four different teams.  He’s always been known as a solid defender who has a great motor, but his offensive deficiencies always held him back from getting his opportunity.  Carroll had really focused on becoming a better three-point shooter in 2012, and that was enough for the Hawks to offer him a two-year, $5 million contract.  

At the time, this signing didn’t seem like a game changer, but Carroll has quickly become a very valuable role player.  There’s no doubt he has made the most of his opportunity in Atlanta, and it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of money Carroll demands this offseason.

Carroll has definitely put in a lot of hard work to improve his game, but a lot of his transformation should be credited to Coach Budenholzer as well.  He has refined Carroll from an energy guy to an all-around player who is a threat on both ends of the floor.

DeMarre Carroll won’t shy away from giving Budenholzer credit either. He raves not only about Budenholzer’s knowledge of the game, but also about his demeanor as a coach.  Carroll explains how Budenholzer is very approachable and always makes him feel just as important as Teague, Millsap or Horford.  Budenholzer has been able to teach DeMarre about all the little things that you don’t practice in the offseason.  Carroll goes as far as saying he feels like a rookie again because he is still learning about fundamentals like footwork, floor spacing, when to cut, etc.

Going Forward

The Hawks are in a great position going forward.  It’s amazing that the Hawks have climbed to the top of the East with the fifth lowest team salary.  This is bound to change after the season, as Millsap and Carroll are going to demand much bigger contracts, but the Hawks should still have the means to resign both players.

However, resigning Millsap to a reasonable deal is going to be tricky.  He is in the midst of another All-Star caliber season, and it’s unlikely he will be taking any pay cuts in next year’s free agency.  If Millsap is demanding a ridiculous sum of money, the Hawks will face the same situation they did when Ferry took over as GM: overpay a 30-year old superstar (Joe Johnson/Paul Millsap) or lose him for essentially nothing.

As for Danny Ferry himself, it’ll be interesting to see what future ownership decides to do with him.  We truly believe he doesn't deserve his job back, no matter how good or bad he has been as a GM for the Hawks. His comments about Luol Deng were simply unacceptable and to follow up the Donald Sterling case without punishing Ferry is simply unacceptable.  Either way, his fate shouldn’t affect the Hawks in the long run.  Ferry did a great job of retooling the team, but Budenholzer is the only reason the team sits atop the East.  There’s a reason why DeMarre Carroll has reinvented himself, and it’s not Ferry, it’s Budenholzer.