Running with Zaza

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Panic time for Hawks' fans?

As the supposed “Greek Tragedy” of losing Josh Childress for next year quickly passes out of mind, Rick Sund, the Atlanta Hawks General Manager, faces his first challenge as the new Hawks man in charge. The fans have been told there is a "plan" for the 2008-2009 roster, but they have heard that many, many times before from management. The Hawks’ fan base has been burned so often in the past that panic set in after the Childress announcement. The fans are starved for something good to happen with this team. The danger for Sund is that the Celtics’ series has raised expectations, but the Hawk fans’ psyche is so fragile that their hopes can be easily dashed. What kind of moves can Sund make to bolster this scared, hysterical fan base?

1. Sund should sign Maurice Evans an unrestricted free agent that played in Orlando last year. He can fill the Josh Childress role off the bench. Evans started over 50 games for Orlando last year, and Orlando was better than the Hawks. The Contra Costa Times reported that Evans was offered a 3 year contract worth 6.4 million from Golden State. By signing Evans, the Hawks can get a solid NBA player for less years and much less money than resigning Childress.

2. As I previously stated, the Hawks should make a run a the Lakers’ Sasha Vujacic. In one report, the Lakers have offered Vujacic a 3 year contract worth $12 million. Supposedly, Vujacic wants more years and more money. The Hawks could get him for something like 4 years and $20 million dollars. That contact is much more palpable than a contract for J-Chill at over $30 million. Vujacic is a playoff tested, knock down three point shooter. His defense was exposed by Ray Allen, but he played very well in the Lakers’ other playoff series wins. Plus, Vujacic is bigger than some of the other restricted free agents out there like JR Smith and Lou Williams. He also can play the point guard spot in a tough spot if Bibby goes down with injury (a likely occurrence this year).

3. Speaking of JR Smith and Lou Williams, I like both of these guys better than Childress. Considering that Denver is making some moves to cut payroll and to deal Allen Iverson, they seem to want to resign JR Smith. But what if the Hawks offered Smith the money they just offered Childress? Surely, Smith would have to consider signing an offer sheet with Atlanta. Otherwise, offering Lou Williams an offer sheet makes sense for the Hawks. The danger is Philadelphia matching the offer, but they might not be able to if they are going to resign Andre Iguodala. Plus, the 76ers just signed former Hawks’ player Royal Ivey. Ivey and Williams play different positions, but Lou might be competing with the defensive-minded Ivey for playing time off the bench.

4. I have been promoting the signing and trading of Josh Smith for the past month or so. The Hawks have to resign Smith. They should then explore some trade options. Josh Smith is a potential All-Star, but the key word is potential. The Hawks should offer him a fair and reasonable offer like 4 years and $45 million. Some players out there that could be in a deal for Smith are Ron Artest with another player, Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, or Tayshaun Prince. All of these guys fit in with the Hawks roster.

5. Lastly, the Hawks need a big man or two to fill out the roster. Sund can try to sign Kwame Brown or possibly another Denver Nuggets outcast Francisco Elson. Do not sign Randolph Morris or Lorenzen Wright. According to the Hawks' website, Othello Hunter, a young power forward from Ohio State, has played well for the summer league in Utah. He can get signed for very cheap.

The danger is making moves just for the sake of making moves. The best move would be to do a sign and trade for a talented perimeter-oriented small forward. Let Josh Smith go, but bring in someone that can fit in better with the Hawks line-up. A blockbuster deal would go a long way to restoring the fans' confidence and earning Rick Sund credibility in this town.


Pass the Ouzo, Childress heads to Greece

The sky is not falling. Traffic is not backing up on the downtown connector. Okay maybe it is; but, Josh Childress going to Greece to play in the Euro League is not a crushing blow to the Atlanta Hawks. Childress is a bonafide NBA bench player with experience. He is a valuable player, but he is not irreplaceable. Chill’s move actually frees up Rick Sund to make other roster moves. The Hawks clearly wanted to resign Josh Childress. I believe the reports that the Hawks made him a fair contract offer. The problem is that what Josh Childress is worth in today’s NBA is less than what J-Chill thinks that he is worth.

Josh Childress is a smart guy. According to Wikipedia, he had a 3.5 grade point average in high school and an 1110 score on the SAT. Although that seems kind of low for the average Stanford student, there is no question Childress can hold his own in the game of life. Also, what many Hawks fans do not know is that Childress loves Souvlaki. His personal chef is noted for buying lots of feta cheese, for preparing dolmades, and serving J-Chill ouzo and metaxa. Because of this, his adjustment to playing international basketball and to living in Greece will be easier than it would be for most NBA players. However, Childress is going to find out that the transition from being a 6th man / role player to being the highest paid player on the team is much more daunting. When the Olympiakos fans are whistling at him, Childress will understand the difference between being asked to score 3 or 4 lay-ups a game and carrying a team to wins night after night. Childress is going to feel pressure unlike anything in his professional life. I see him coming back to the NBA next summer. Ask Joe Johnson. It has taken JJ a few years to become the unquestioned best player on the Hawks, and he is far more talented than J-Chill.

Apparently, Childress is not worth as much as he wanted from the NBA. In fact, he has underachieved according to his status as a lottery pick. No team extended him an offer sheet to sign. He is worth about what James Posey is worth: 4 years and $25 million. Posey is much bigger, can shoot the 3, and is a proven winner. In the NBA, you over pay for All-Stars not for bench players with intangibles. J-Chill has started fewer games every year since his rookie season. In his rookie season, 2004-2005 he started 44 games. Last year, he started 0 games, but had his best year by averaging 12 points and 57% from the fielding roughly 30 minutes per game. Instead of being grateful to Mike Woodson, Childress clearly does not like Woodson and does not want to play for him. As Childress minutes have gone down, his production has gone up and the Hawks have won more games. He probably should be thanking Woodson today for the dollars in the Olympiakos contract.

What can the Hawks do? In this column, I have been advocating for the Hawks to try to sign Andre Iguodala or to make a sign and trade for Ron Artest, Tayshaun Prince, and others. Trade scenarios are still out there. The Hawks still can sign Josh Smith. Smith might be able to log some minutes on the perimeter (That is not my first choice, but it could happen). The Hawks were right to wait and let other NBA teams set the market for Childress. Losing Childress hurts, but it is not a catastrophic, crushing loss. Childress will be back eventually, and the Hawks still will be better in 2008-2009.


Singing the Josh Smith Blues

J-Smooth no longer wants to play for Mike Woodson. Woodson is signed for two years as the Atlanta Hawks coach. Therefore, J-Smooth no longer wants to play for your Atlanta Hawks. The good feelings of the Celtics series are evaporating in the Atlanta summer heat. Clearly, Smith has lost any negotiating power, and this is an attempt by his entourage to grab some power back. The Hawks should work out a sign and trade for Smith and grant him his wish to get out of Atlanta.

I am starting to feel badly for Smith at this point. The 76ers wined and dined him, but signed Elton Brand. The Clippers flirted with the stat-stuffing NBA talent, but traded for Marcus Camby. The Camby deal was a steal for the Clippers. At roughly $10 million per year, Camby is one of the most underpaid guys in an NBA filled with players making ridiculous money. Then, Josh Smith gets to see Al Horford chosen as one of ten players for the USA select team. J-Smooth is like Belshazaar with the writing on the wall, but he does not need a Daniel to interpret the language. Horford is a better player in the eyes of NBA decision makers. At this point, Smith must be debating his decision last year not to sign the Hawks reported offer of 4 years and $45 million. Clearly, he is worth that type of investment by the Hawks, but not the max contract type dollars that Smith was looking to get this year in free agency.

What should Rick Sund and the Hawks do? Sign Smith and deal him. Atlanta needs a small forward with perimeter skills to go along side Joe Johnson. They can then move Horford to power forward. Zaza can start at center. Sign Kwame Brown (he is a much better athlete than Randolph Morris, Lorenzen Wright, etc. whose names have been mentioned for Atlanta) as a cheap big body for the paint. If Speedy Claxton plays well this week with the Hawks’ summer league team, Sund could trade Josh Smith and Claxton for Ron Artest and Kenny Thomas. The salaries are close to matching up depending on the extension for Smith. Sund can talk to Bibby and get the scoop on Artest. Claxton’s contract is expiring and he can back up the point spot for Sacramento. Thomas’ contract still comes off the books in 2010 and gives the Hawks a chance to go after Chris Bosh in free agency. The Hawks get tougher on defense, scoring, and intensity with Artest. Artest gets a place to make some music. I would take Joe Johnson and Artest over Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Then, the Hawks can sign Eddie House, Jannero Pargo, or Keyon Dooling to bring some scoring off the bench. Think about this Hawks’ starters and bench contributors:

Bibby, Joe Johnson, Ron Artest, Horford, Zaza, AC Law, Josh Childress, Kenny Thomas, Kwame Brown, Eddie House

Josh Smith could take back his comments and sign with Atlanta. That would still work for the Hawks, but to sign now would take maturity and humility. Not likely. All he and his agent need to look at, as a cautionary tale, is Luol Deng and Ben Gordon from the Bulls. Both guys turned down extensions last year with visions of having great seasons, but they have dropped precipitously in the eyes of many. The Bulls could not even make the playoffs after being picked by many to win the Eastern Conference. That decision cost Deng and Gordon millions of dollars. J-Smooth and his agent need to read the writing on the wall and sign, while he still can.


As Hawks wait, the East blows by

As the Hawks and their fans wait for the two Joshes to resign with the team, other Eastern Conference teams are getting better and passing by the Hawks. Last Monday, the Hawks were a marginal playoff contender for 2008-2009. Today, they are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in as other teams make solid roster and coaching moves.

In the NBA Eastern Conference, there are 15 teams in 3 divisions. 8 of those teams make the playoffs. In 2008, the Atlanta Hawks earned a playoff berth with solid play down the stretch, but they still finished under .500 for the regular season. A healthy and productive full season from Mike Bibby will help, but this off season the Eastern landscape is rapidly changing. At least three teams are going to challenge Atlanta for that last playoff spot. The Heat and Bulls are better than the Hawks, and Charlotte will challenge for a playoff berth.

Charlotte definitely will resign Emeka Okafor. They added DJ Augustin who seems to playing very well in the Orlando Summer League. Possibly, the crazy mustache of Adam Morrison could make an appearance this year after losing last year to injury. The Bobcats’ roster is better, but the big improvement will come from Larry Brown. It usually takes a year for Brown to turn around a team, but look for him to get the Bobcats very close to .500 next year. Coach Brown travels around like a virus, but no one can argue that he does not make his team much better. The Bobcats will play harder and smarter next year.

Chicago drafted Derrick Rose and hired a new head coach Vinny Del Negro. Adding Derrick Rose gives the Bulls a bigger point guard with scary athleticism. Sure, Rose will have to learn on-the-job, but his quickness, size, and ability to penetrate into the lane are better than Kirk Heinrich. Playing off the ball could give Heinrich the chance to find his shooting stroke from the 2007 season. What style of play Del Negro and his coaches employ will be important for the Bulls. He has the players to run up and down like Phoenix and if Del Negro can mix in some defense the Bulls will be much improved. The Bulls still lack a proven inside scorer, but if they play a wide open style and try to out score teams in the East, the post game becomes less of a factor. The scary part for Atlanta fans is that the Bulls probably are not done making moves. They have tradable assets in Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni.

The most improved team in the East next year will be the Miami Heat. The Heat are about to add Tyronn Lue to upgrade the point guard position. Michael Beasley is in the mix for a starting spot. They signed James Jones, a solid three point shooter to stretch the defense. It is possible that Alonzo Mourning could come back to give them some depth and energy off the bench. Dwayne Wade is back and healthy. If Wade attacks the basket like he did before the injury, he is clearly a top 5 player in the Eastern Conference. He is better than any player on the Hawks. The Heat have a new unproven coach in Eric Spoelstra, but he is not unknown to the players. Clearly, he must have a great relationship with Wade and in the NBA that is 80% of the battle. Spoelstra will bring passion and energy, but he probably is not a difference maker. The key is that Pat Riley hand-picked him and Riley will make every effort to make this Heat roster good enough for Spoelstra to succeed.

Resigning the Joshes seems like a fore gone conclusion for the Hawks. Still there is a conflict between Horford and Josh Smith playing the same position. No matter what anyone says J-Smooth is not a small forward. He cannot guard the ball or consistently make perimeter shots. If Rick Sund keeps the Joshes, there still are moves that can be made to improve the roster. Let’s hope that the waiting this month is not the hardest part, and the Hawks stay competitive in 2008-2009.


Next 48 hours huge for Hawks' fans

Well, in 48 hours, fans of the Atlanta Hawks will know what the Hawks need to do to improve and solidify their roster for 2008-2009. Tonight, everyone finds out what the salary cap is for next year and that determines how much money teams can offer the remaining NBA free agents. Rick Sund is doing the right thing and waiting to see what happens with the two Joshes. Childress needs to be in a Hawks uniform next year, but the rumors of other teams interest in him have to be exaggerated. Nobody thinks that he is a starter in the NBA. He brings great intangibles to the game, but he cannot stretch the court or create his own shot. Yes, he has a great shooting percentage, but nearly all of his shots are layups and dunks. Josh Smith would be a big loss, but not a catastrophic loss for this team. Losing J-Smooth frees up money for Sund to go after other players that are a better fit for the Hawks roster and better for the team financially. The next two years’ crop of free agents are much better than this years’ group. By losing Josh Smith, the Hawks actually are in a better situation to land a true superstar in 2009 or 2010.

Here are a couple of scenarios that could play out for the Hawks in the next 24 to 48 hours:

1. Philadelphia offers Josh Smith a five year contract worth $66 million. The Hawks have seven days to match. That also means the Hawks have seven days to pursue other free agents. The three guys that could replace Josh Smith are Corey Magette, Andre Iguodala, and Monta Ellis. Ellis and Iguodala are restricted free agents. Their respective teams can match any offers. Iguodala makes so much sense. The 76ers probably do not want to pay both Josh Smith and Iguodala for the next 5 years. The Hawks can get Iguodala. He gives the Hawks a perimeter slasher that can create for other teammates. He averaged more points, minutes, and steals than J-Smooth. Plus, down the stretch of clutch games, Iguodala is better. He was the 76ers go to player. Maggette is a great fit for Atlanta. He is in a precarious position of signing for one year for under $7 million. He could get hurt next year and be in real limbo. Offer Maggette a 2 year deal worth 16 million. That gives him some security and freedom. That offer also positions the Hawks for financial flexibility in 2010.

2. Josh Childress signs with Golden State or some other Western Conference team to be a 6th to 8th man. The market for Childress cannot be that strong. Hawks should match the offer, but they should not over pay. Some possible replacements for Childress are James Posey, Mickael Pietrus, Jarvis Hayes, and Sasha Vujacic. All of these guys are available for less money than Childress. Pietrus is intriguing because he shoots the 3 point shot very well, he has great size, and he is a good defender. James Posey would be perfect, but he can determine where he wants to go. Posey might listen to a 3 year deal worth $15 million. Vujcacic is a young guy with lots of potential as a shooter and scorer. He would come off the bench for Atlanta on the perimeter. The Hawks would have a four guard rotation of Joe Johnson, Mike Bibby, Sasha, and Marvin Williams. Keep Marvin happy with a starting role, but you could motivate him with more bench time if he does not play defense.

3. Josh Smith and Josh Childress receive no major offers from other teams. The Hawks negotiate extensions with both players. Treat the Joshes fairly. Look for another offer to Josh Smith like his October offer. Maybe, add another year to Childress’ contract with a percentage raise. If you look at what has happened to Ben Gordon and Luol Deng in the year since they turned down long term extensions, you might convince Josh Smith to sign.

What happens with the Joshes determines what the Hawks and Rick Sund can do to get better for next year. There are a couple of other guys that the Hawks should be looking at over the next week. Kurt Thomas is a player that could start and be a nice complement to Al Horford. He can guard a bigger player and he can make the perimeter jump shot. Thomas can keep the big double team in the post off Horford. This might sound crazy, but the Hawks should take a long look at Kwame Brown. He is an unrestricted free agent. The Hawks might be able to get him for cheap to play along Horford. Kwame might be willing to come to Atlanta, because of a chance to start. Here are some possible starting line-ups to think about for 2008-2009:

Hawks – Bibby, Johnson, Magette, Horford, Kwame
Hawks – Bibby, Johnson, Iguodala, Horford, Kurt Thomas


What Can Brett Brown do for you?

Rick Sund and the Atlanta Hawks need to hire another assistant coach. I would have argued last week that keeping both Larry Drew and Bob Bender is a mistake, but Rick Sund already has crossed that bridge. David Fizdale probably should have been kept and let one of the other guys go. Now, the Hawks need a coach to replace Fizdale. I had some other coaches--older guys with lots of NBA experience that could have helped Coach Woodson with strategy, X’s and O’s, maybe end of game situations--in mind to replace Drew and Bender. That column now is in the trash. Maybe later this year, I will look back and wish I would have posted that before Sund announced the decision. To replace Coach Fizdale, the Hawks need a younger guy with a proven track record of developing young talent. I combed the NBA coaching staffs of the most successful teams of this young century and found the perfect replacement on the San Antonio staff: Brett Brown.

You cannot underestimate what being on the Spurs staff means in terms of learning, experience, and understanding what it takes to win. Understanding the commitment needed to win in the NBA sounds like an old coaches’ cliché, but that statement is true and meaningful. What are the positives for hiring Brett Brown? He has spent seven seasons with the Spurs. Five seasons working in the critical player development area. Players who have developed during that time include Tony Parker and Manu Gnobili. Additionally, Brown has head coaching experience at the professional level. He coached with great success at the highest level in Australia and he is used to being apart of winning organizations. He also played for Rick Pitino in college, so he has a long pedigree of being around winning coaches.

The problem for the Hawks is that Brown probably will not leave San Antonio. However, he is a recently promoted assistant that might want to get away from Popovich in order to spread his wings a little. Winning with Atlanta is a way to improve his stock, so that he can return to the Spurs as the top assistant when Mike Budenholzer gets an NBA head coaching position in the next couple of seasons. Budenholzer clearly will succeed Popovich when he moves permanently to the front office like Pat Riley. That move seems likely in the next couple of years as Tim Duncan gets older. Brown could also position himself for the Hawks head coaching position in a couple of seasons, especially if Erik Spoelstra does well in Miami. That would open the door for some young, up and coming coaches to get opportunities. Rick Sund has to bring out his salesman skills and sell Brett Brown on this move. Upgrading the coaching staff is very important for 2008-2009 and Sund only has one chance to make the right hire.