Bad Decisions: Atlanta Hawks Edition

Don’t worry guys, I’ll tie this back to our Cali teams somehow.  But first, I need to work some things out.

I wrote last week about why the Hawks should have resigned Al Horford.  I stand by everything I wrote.  In addition to being a great teammate and leader, Al is a perfect fit in the modern NBA: a versatile player and defender who can score in multiple ways while defending different positions.  Unlike the Kings, the Hawks clearly aren’t listening to me.  Instead they gave Dwight Howard 3 years and $70 million, then quibbled with Al over $6 million (while trying to convince him to play next to Dwight).  Horford is now a Celtic.  That sentence hurts me to type.

For the record, it is possible that Dwight works well in ATL.  For all his faults, Dwight works well in 1-5 pick n rolls, and if he’s willing to work on the glass, and kick to shooters then Dwight could morph his game into a very productive player.  With his size and ability, Dwight could be a stopper in the middle, which can help open up space for Bazemore cuts, or Dennis cuts.  Defensively, he can still protect the rim, grab rebounds and challenge people in the paint.  If he’s willing to do the dirty work on the glass, and if he’s willing to not post up all the time and become more of a pick n roll player, then Dwight could have a productive 3 years in the Atlanta.

But there’s 2 ways in which this doesn’t work.  First, let’s say Dwight tries to do all that stuff I just said, and realizes he doesn’t like it.  Or if the team struggles, and Dwight decides he needs the ball in the post on every play.  Or if he stops trying on defense.  Or his free throw shooting doesn’t improve.  Dwight then morphs back into the player he was in Houston.  Grumpy, moody, and not willing to work hard.  Second, and perhaps more likely, is that Dwight simply gets injured (he’s had back and knee problems) and misses a prolonged stretch of playing time.  Then, the Hawks have to rely on Mike Muscala or Edy Tavares to save them.  Not to beat a dead horse, but it is worth noting that neither of those concerns exist if Al Horford is your center.

In my particular corner of twitter, there’s an ongoing joke about whether or not Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback.  It’s a question that you ask people as a non-sequitur.  It’s a question that has no answer and is openly ridiculous.  The point of the joke is that a) Joe Flacco is pretty good, but not the best and b) ‘elite’ is a meaningless word that is malleable enough to mean whatever you want it to mean.  You can debate the topic forever.  The NBA’s version of Joe Flacco is Al Horford.  Can Al “carry a team to a title”?  No one knows for sure but the answer is probably not.  However, outside of LeBron, Steph, KD, Wade, Tim Duncan in a time machine, and Dirk from 7 years ago, can you name me a player that definitely can?  Anthony Davis has made the playoffs once.  Chris Paul has never been to a Western Conference Finals.  Al took Atlanta to the playoffs every year of his 9 seasons here.  He’s a 4 time all-star and oh yeah, he helped take Atlanta (freaking Atlanta!) to the Eastern Conference Finals.  Paul George, Hassan Whiteside, DeMar Derozen, Andre Drummond, Jimmie Butler, Carmelo Anthony, and John Wall have never been further in the playoffs than Al.  (This is your yearly reminder that Kyrie never got above 500 without LeBron, and Kevin Love never got to the playoffs without him)  Al is really good. [pauses to watch Horford highlights on youtube.  Cries for 20 minutes]

Al has been overlooked for most of his career.  He was overlooked on the Joe Johnson/Josh Smith teams.  He was overlooked by the NBA when Bud took over and he became the centerpiece.  There is almost no list of top centers that includes Al Horford.  Part of that is due to his low key personality.  Part of that is due to the market in which he has played for 9 seasons.  Now that he’s in Boston, I expect that to change [cries hysterically, starts drinking heavily].  People keep talking about what Al can’t do, but they fail to think about who could actually do better.

‘Max player’ is a totally meaningless designation.  People get really hung up on this, all it really means is that a player hit free agency at the right time and had enough leverage to get the biggest contract they could.  Is Al Horford a max player?  Of course: he hit free agency at the right time and was able to leverage that into a big contract.  It is important for teams to be fiscally responsible, but remember Dallas?  They’ve had cap space and flexibility for years, and they’re getting worse.  Teams love to have flexibility, but productive players are better.  The Hawks are more flexible with Dwight on a 3 year deal, they would be better with Al on a 5 year deal.  The lie (currently being pedaled by most Atlanta radio personalities) is that the team would have no flexibility with Al.  The reality is that they could have kept Horford, and looked to trade Milsap or Korver (or both) in order to bring in more youth and athleticism.  The goal would be something like OKC, a team full of versatile, 7 foot wingspans that would be a defensive nightmare for other teams.  That can still happen, but it will happen with an immobile, injury prone center at it’s core.  My dream Hawks would be closer to position-less basketball, now it’s 4 position-less players and a guy who needs to be 2 feet from the basket.  It could still work, but it won’t be as good.

So now here we are.  The Hawks are a much worse basketball team than they were at the end of the year.  Coupling the loss of Horford with the (more well thought out) loss of Jeff Teague, the Hawks are now a fringe playoff team.  They got two nice wing players in the draft, and the Dennis Schroeder experiment can now officially begin, but the last 2 days have been a disaster for this franchise.  They had the simple choice between two players, and they chose a worse player on a shorter contract.  Dwight gives the team more flexibility in the long term, but gives them less flexibility on the court.  And on the court is where it matters.

So there’s the lesson for all of our California teams (told you I’d get there).  It’s easy to get caught up in the “can he bring us a title?” problem.  But that’s a crazy way to look at the world.  When building your team, a better question is “Are we better with this player?  And is that in the long term or in the short term?”  But you need to be careful that you don’t over-prioritize flexibility.  Because the Kings are less flexible long team with Boogie.  And the Clippers would have a lot more cap space without Chris Paul.  Think of all the free agents Golden State could sign without Klay Thompson.  And those are all guys who “can’t bring you a title.”  Be careful out there.  You could end up like the Hawks. [turns off lights, sits in the dark listening emo and drinking Evan Williams to numb the pain]

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programing.

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