Sunday, February 26, 2006

A rare NBA post

Bill Simmons' column last week on the NBA's atrocious GMs was probably the best thing he's written in a year. Of course, it wasn't without flaws, but in some ways writing from the perspective of other people (even if they wouldn't say the things they said) is better than his own opinioneering. I mean, at least he didn't have Kevin McHale comparing first round draft picks to Arctic Monkeys while Joe Smith was like The Bravery, or Rob Babcock talking about how Vince Carter's last days in Toronto were more of a slip than Johnny on The OC (send royalties, Bill!).

A few things got me thinking from the column. Simmons sort of proposes that there are some things that can save a bad GM from getting the boot too soon, things that conceal how bad a GM really is. Things like decent draft picks, getting name players in return for bad trades (which actually put budgets in terrible shape). So I started wondering if Billy Knight might be biding his time due to some of these concealing factors. And isn't it a good time to start considering Knight's work with the Hawks from a long-term point of view? He's been here almost 4 years, during most of which the team (Knight especially) has been feeding the "fans" the same line about how they have a plan in place and we just need to trust them.

So let's look at Knight's moves in Atlanta and the results.

2002-03 season:
Traded rights to Efthimios Rentzias (???) to Sixers for 2004 (Royal Ivey) and 2006 (ended up going back to Sixers) second round pick
Traded a future (2003 or 2004) first round pick for Dan Dickau. (unclear what that pick ended up being - it was traded to the Hawks from Houston for Terence Morris, and to Houston from Philadelphia, to Philadelphia from Detroit. Appears that the Kings and Pistons owed each other first rounders and this pick went back to the Pistons, so it could be Carlos Delfino (2003) or Tony Allen (Boston in 2004))
Drafted Australian David Andersen (not yet played in NBA, rights still held by Hawks) (missed on nobody too great, Darius Songaila?)
Traded Toni Kukoc, Leon Smith and a 2003 First Round Pick (#8 overall - T.J. Ford selected, and in any event a lottery pick in a draft that had LeBron, Wade, Carmelo and Bosh) for Glenn Robinson
Hired Terry Stotts as assistant.
Fired Lon Kruger, promoted Terry Stotts.

2003-04:
Re-sign Jason Terry (later traded)
Signs Jacque Vaughn (later waived)
Signs Stephen Jackson (later traded)
Signs Dion Glover (later waived)
Draft Boris Diaw (missed on Josh Howard) and Travis Hansen (missed on Kyle Korver, Zaza Pachulia)
Trades Glenn Robinson and Philly's 2006 second rounder for Terrell Brandon's contract (never played), Randy Holcomb (drafted in 2002, but played his first minutes this year... for the Bulls) and a 2007+ First Rounder (traded later to Dallas).
Trades Dickau, Abdur-Rahim and Ratliff to Portland for Rasheed Wallace (traded below) and Wesley Person (expired contract)
Trades Nazr Mohammed for Michael Doleac (immediately waived), Joel Pryzbilla (contract expired), and 2005 Second rounder from the Knicks (traded for Predrag Drobniak, eventually used by the Lakers to draft Ronny Turiaf).
Trades Rasheed Wallace for Bob Sura (expired contract), Zeljiko Rebraca (expired contract) and a 2004 First Round Pick (Josh Smith)

2004-05:
Fires Terry Stotts.
Drafts Josh Childress (6th man; missed Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, Sebastian Telfair, Al Jefferson), Josh Smith (starter; probably best player available), Donta Smith (mostly inactive; nobody too great around there), Royal Ivey (backup; about the same as Chris Duhon), and Viktor Sanikidze (traded to Spurs for 2005 second rounder (Cenk Aykol - traded the 43rd pick for the 59th pick)missed Trevor Ariza).
Sign and Trades Stephen Jackson for Al Harrington (2 years of Harrington for the ability to sign Jackson over the limit).
Trades Jason Terry, Alan Henderson's contract and a 2007+ first round pick (Philadelphia's from the Glenn Robinson Trade) for Antoine Walker (later traded) and Tony Delk (backup)
Trade Second Round Pick (Knicks' pick from Nazr Mohammed deal - eventually Ronny Turiaf) to Charlotte for Predrag Drobnjak (free agent, left to play in Europe).
Signs Kevin Willis, Jon Barry and Kenny Anderson (seriously, did this happen?)
Trades Jon Barry for Tyronn Lue
Trades Antoine Walker for Gary Payton (waived unconditionally), Tom Gugliotta (expired contract, seems retired), Michael Stewart (expired contract, no longer in the NBA) and a 2005 First Round pick (traded to Phoenix in the package for Joe Johnson)

2005-06:
Draft Marvin Williams (7th man; missed Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Channing Frye, Charlie Villanueva, Danny Granger, Nate Robinson, etc.), Salim Stoudamire (backup; appears to be best player available), Cenk Aykol (unsigned, rights retained).
Trades Boris Diaw, Boston's worse (but lottery protected 2006 first round pick owed (probably rolled over from last year because Laker pick was lottery protected), and a future Atlanta first round pick (lottery protected in 2006, top 3 protected in 2007, unprotected in 2008) in exchange for the right to sign Joe Johnson over the max (5 years, $70M).
Signs Zaza Pachulia (4 years, $16M)
Re-signs Tyronn Lue (3 years, $11M)

Let's review: Drafting under Knight hasn't been great, and it could turn out to be his undoing if Childress never develops into more than a 7th man (and Luol Deng or someone else becomes a dependable starter) or if Marvin doesn't turn into an All Star (like Chris Paul). But it also hasn't been completely terrible, either. The Hawks didn't have high picks in his first two years, and in fact he's made the most of later picks. Diaw, it turns out, was a good pick, as only he and Josh Howard are worth a damn out of the second half of that year's first round. Royal Ivey and Salim Stoudamire were both second round hits (and nobody else around those picks is worth a damn). Josh Smith appears to be the best player available at that position, and in hindsight he could've gone higher. Childress and Marvin, however, are the high picks, and those are the picks by which Knight will be judged (and maybe the high pick this coming summer). If they don't pan out, Knight will be outed. If they do pan out, then we have to keep analyzing his moves to make sure his drafting (the most obvious point of discussion for wannabe GMs) won't cover up for other errors.

Knight's trades are kind of hard to analyze. For one thing, they're kind of convoluted. It's not as easy as to say we turned player X into player Z. There are actually a lot of trades too. Let's go one by one.

Dickau/Abdur-Rahim/Ratliff/Wallace/Sura: Gave up a first rounder for Dickau, with him and assets already in place, they ended up with cap space and Josh Smith. Analysis: not much of a win there, and considering the big names in a lot of the deals, it's a bit of a surprise they didn't end up with more.

Kukoc/Big Dog/Brandon: Gave up a 2003 first rounder and assets and ended up with a pick they ended up throwing in the next discussed trade. This is probably his worst deal. First off, the trade was made in anticipation of a good season (the "playoff guaranty season"). It's unfortunate that they had such high hopes, since they probably considered that 2003 pick to be worth not as much as it ended up being. The truth is that the 2003 draft is the best in the last decade. And giving up that pick without lottery protection is almost unforgivable. It turned into TJ Ford (who would be a good fit with the Hawks right now), but with a different bounce here or there, that pick could've been named LeBron, Dwyane, Carmelo or Chris. Again, it seems like the names moving in this deal are big, but the margins of profit (actual players received, draft picks, not including cap space) aren't very big. This seems a trend for Knight.

Nazr Mohammed: Basically, it turned into Mohammed for Predrag Drobnjak. An actual astute signing when they got Mohammed. But like Diaw, they didn't hang on long enough. Mohammed would play serious minutes for the Hawks now, but they gave him away too soon. Plus, the deal was with one of those weaker GMs in the Simmons article. Sure, Nazr isn't an all star, and this trade wasn't nearly as embarassingly bad as his move to San Antonio, but no matter what way you look at it, this wasn't a good deal for the Hawks.

Jason Terry/Antoine Walker/Payton/Delk: Basically the Hawks gave up Jason Terry in order to unload Alan Henderson's contract (which, by the end of the string of deals involved here, was nearly expired anyway) and ended up with cap space and a small part of the Joe Johnson deal. That's nothing at all, basically. Another big name deal, but not much to show for it. I'm really surprised they didn't get more for Terry (and they even gave up a first rounder in the deal, which could end up making this deal even worse). A bad deal. Just shows how much fiscal limitations (resposibility isn't the right word here) controlled Knight, possibly.

Jackson/Harrington: Basically receives 2 years of Harrington in exchange for the ability of Indiana to sign nutcase Steve over the max. This is a good deal by any analysis. Al has been solid for the Hawks these two years, and he may end up giving the Hawks something in the offseason via trade. Knight's best deal.

Johnson/Diaw: This is the flip side of the Jackson/Harrington trade. The Hawks probably gave up way too much in order to be able to sign Joe over the max. First off, Joe Johnson has been very good for the Hawks and he's definitely a player to build around. But Diaw's emergence in Phoenix makes you wonder a) why the Hawks (with a shallower team than the Suns) couldn't find minutes for him and b) why the Hawks had to toss in two first rounders as well. Those two picks could end up seriously valuable too. The Boston/Laker pick isn't all that great a pick (outside the lottery), but it'll probably roll over to that 2007 talent-loaded draft. The Hawks' own pick won't be this year (lottery protected in 2006), but it might be better to give it to them in this year's weak draft than in next year's loaded draft (when the pick is only protected in the top-3). Would you rather have the 5th pick in a weak 2006 draft or the 7th pick in a loaded 2007 draft? Basically, the Hawks have to make a giant leap next season (or tank big and end up in the top 3) in order for giving that pick to Phoenix not to be a huge loss. Johnson's been good, and everything still needs to shake out, but there's a serious chance that this deal could be really bad.

Free Agent signings: So many of those deals discussed above were engineered in order to maximize cap space and be able to sign better players. In a good way, the Hawks wouldn't have been able to sign Jackson or Johnson or take on Harrington's contract if not for the cap-cutting moves. But in a bad way, cutting cap space only matters if you can land top players. The Hawks' salary has been around 27th-30th in the league for the last few years. That shows that the Hawks aren't spending cash they have room (but maybe not the stomach) to spend. The Zaza Pachulia signing looks like a good one right now, as he's not a total stiff and he's affordable anyway. Lue's number is OK for a guy who stays in the rotation. I guess the strategy is OK if you assume the Hawks are going to suck (may as well suck on the cheap) and you're just waiting out the young guys' inexperienced days. The Hawks have cap space, and for the foreseeable future there's a ton of room to make moves. But they need to make the moves. And the free agent classes for the next couple of years don't look too promising (and other teams do have more flexibility). So salary management now isn't cornered, and it's OK for the time being. But the Hawks have to start spending more money if they want to make a serious run for the playoffs in the next few years.

So what does this mean for Knight? Well, his drafting reputation for the Hawks I feel is still up in the air, but the picks he's made will define him. None of his trades should be considered franchise-crippling, but none have proven to be particularly franchise-changing either. Most of them seem underwhelming, and it really appears like the quest for cap-space flexibility has left most of these deals with an empty feeling, especially considering how the Hawks really haven't done much in terms of free agent signing. So Knight probably doesn't deserve a title of "Atrocious GM" just yet. But he needs to start reaping benefits from the moves. Flexibility is good, but you need to use it. And he needs to have his draft picks pan out. If they fail to, and Chris Paul ends up an annual All Star, then Knight will have serious problems.

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