Hawks enter off-season of change


ATLANTA — One day after the Atlanta Hawks were bounced from the NBA playoffs, Larry Drew remained their coach.


Whether he sticks around much longer is the most pressing issue for a team that expects a radical transformation this summer.

General manager Danny Ferry, who will get to put his imprint on the franchise heading into his second year, said Saturday it was too soon to make a call on the future of a coach he inherited.

Ferry said the disappointment of a six-game loss to the Indiana Pacers needed to wear off a bit before he decides whether Drew should get another contract.

“We’re going to take some time, give it some distance, give it some space from the season, from the playoffs, from the emotions of that,” Ferry said. “Then we’ll make decisions that we feel are best in the short-term and long-term interests of the team.”

Ferry was hired as GM last summer and pulled off two major trades that were designed to take the team in a different direction. All-Star Joe Johnson (along with his huge contract) was dealt to the Brooklyn Nets, while underachieving Marvin Williams was shipped to the Utah Jazz. In both deals, the Hawks insisted on getting players heading into the final year of their contracts.

Center Al Horford is the lone starter with a guaranteed contract for next season, and his only teammates with that status are sixth man Lou Williams and rookie guard John Jenkins. Point guard Jeff Teague can become a restricted free agent July 1, while longtime Atlanta stalwart Josh Smith is the most notable of seven unrestricted free agents.

Despite all the uncertainty, the Hawks defied their skeptics by going 44-38 and taking the sixth seed in the East.

“As an organization, it was a significant year for us, taking the initial steps for building a championship program, but with more work to do,” Ferry said. “I like the flexibility we have going forward.”

If the Hawks bring back only three players from this team, they’ll have somewhere near $40 million under the cap to spend in free agency – potentially making them a major player this summer if stars such as Atlanta native Dwight Howard and Chris Paul test the market.

But Ferry can’t just dangle a lot of money at big names. He must persuade them the Hawks can be a contender, a huge challenge given the team’s long-standing attendance woes (Atlanta ranked 26th out of 30 teams this season) and lack of sustained playoff success (the team has never won more than a single series in a year since moving from St. Louis in 1968).

Ferry is confident the Hawks can change that perception, noting the large number of NBA players who live in Atlanta even if they don’t play for the locals. He also made it clear that his goal is to build a championship team, not one that can just win a few more games in the playoffs.

“Atlanta is a great city. Guys like being here, guys like living here,” he said. “I’m confident that with the continued commitment we’re getting from ownership, with hard work from our group, good things will continue to happen here. We’ve been in the playoffs six straight years. I think more good things can very much be on the horizon in Atlanta.”

It appears Smith won’t be around for this team’s next step. He brushed off questions about his future after Friday night’s game and was among just a handful of players who didn’t make themselves available to the media after exit interviews Saturday.

An Atlanta native, Smith was drafted right out of high school by his hometown team nine years ago and contributed heavily to the Hawks’ success as they steadily improved from a dismal 13-69 record his rookie season. But he became a convenient target of the fans anytime the Hawks faltered, criticized unmercifully for taking ill-advised shots and spending too much time griping when he didn’t get a call.

His myriad skills – rebounding, passing, defense – often went unappreciated.

“We need to remember, and I know a lot of people talk about his shot selection, but Josh brings a lot of other things to the table,” Drew said. “He’s a very versatile guy.”

But there’s no denying that Smith has yet to develop into the sort of marquee player a team needs to be a serious championship contender.

Even if he’s not around to reap the benefits, Drew knows the Hawks must land a true superstar with all this money they have to spend.

“We’ve put ourselves in this situation to go out and bring in good players to take us to the next level,” he said. “Talent wins. You’ve got to have it.”