The surprising part isn’t that the Atlanta Hawks have decided to redo their roster. The surprise came when they only half-redid it last summer. They traded Jeff Teague. They let Al Horford leave. Now they’ve shipped Kyle Korver to Cleveland. (The deal is not yet official.)
Remember the great starting five of two seasons backs, the quintet that powered the Hawks to 60 victories and was named, as a collective, the NBA East’s player (sic) of the month for January? Here’s how many are still Hawks.
One. Paul Millsap. And he’s surely outbound as well.
I’m not going to carp about this happening. The Hawks had gotten old before our eyes, and they’d proved they couldn’t get past Cleveland in the East. (In two postseasons, they were 0-8 against LeBron and Co.) My issue is that the Hawks should have done more sooner. They should have done as the Braves did — rip it up and start again. (Granted, that’s harder to do when you’re still a winning team.)
Instead they re-signed Kent Bazemore, who’s a pretty good player but nothing more, for $70 million over four seasons, and hired Dwight Howard, who’s on the down slope of a career, for $70.5 million over three years. This looked pretty good when they were 9-2, but pretty soon they were below .500 and thinking the dark thoughts that should have occurred long before.
I wouldn’t have traded Horford/Millsap/Korver/Teague at last season’s All-Star break. Coming off 60-22, there was no reason not to see if the old gang had a big finish left in it. Turned out it didn’t, which meant: Breakup time!
Teague needed to go to make room for Dennis Schroder, and re-upping Horford was always going to be a massive investment with no guarantee of a big reward. I didn’t hate those moves. I hated overspending for two guys (Bazemore and Howard) who weren’t going to move the “W” needle in the right direction.
Sentimentally, losing Korver is a big deal. On a pragmatic basis, it’s not. He turns 36 in March. He’s no longer a starter. The Cavaliers needed him because J.R. Smith broke his thumb. Korver was one of those shooters — actually, the best of those shooters — that Danny Ferry lovingly assembled and Mike Budenholzer molded into a beautifully functioning unit. The shelf life of that unit was, alas, brief. That happens when you’re working with older guys.
At issue now is whether, in Ferry’s conspicuous absence, Budenholzer knows how to rebuild. The Howard acquisition was clearly a Bud move: “I like him; I can coach him.” But here’s where having your coach as team czar isn’t the greatest of ideas. Coaches always think they can make something of a team — until they realize they can’t.
At this moment, the Hawks are fourth in the East and atop the Southeast Division. (They’ve won five in a row.) They’re nowhere near terrible, but they’re going nowhere. Millsap, who’ll turn 32 next month, is all but certain to leave as a free agent in July, and that would leave the Hawks with a core of Howard, Schroder, Bazemore and Tim Hardaway Jr., which is decidedly middle-tier.
The only way to get better is to get younger and hope for the best. The Hawks will receive a protected first-round pick from Cleveland, which is something. They can get more for Millsap. That trade needs to happen soon.