Basketball Notes

For now, Sund’s Hawks look good to the core

By Gary Washburn
January 3, 2010

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The Atlanta Hawks hired general manager Rick Sund for the express purpose of helping the organization emerge as an upper-echelon team in the Eastern Conference - on a limited budget.

Sund has massaged payrolls in his previous two stops, Seattle and Detroit, and produced successful teams, and the same is occurring in Atlanta. The Hawks are among the top teams in the East - although consecutive losses to Cleveland knocked them down a notch - with the 19th-highest payroll in the league.

With an ownership group that has been in upheaval, Sund was hired to replace the embattled Billy Knight and told to continue the team’s development without taking on much additional payroll.

So far, his moves have paid off: the acquisition of Jamal Crawford, the bargain-basement signings of Joe Smith and Jason Collins, the drafting of Jeff Teague, and the re-signing of Mike Bibby to a below-market contract.

The Hawks, who face the Celtics Friday and already won in Boston in November, are fourth in the Eastern Conference, just four games behind the Cavaliers for the top spot.

So there is belief that Atlanta is a serious contender, despite the tenuous situations of coach Mike Woodson and All-Star guard Joe Johnson, whose contracts expire at season’s end.

“Our goal was to maintain and take steps on catching the teams ahead of us,’’ Sund said. “We have certainly done a good job of keeping those teams behind us and making up ground. I think our players are maturing. There’s a confidence level. Our guys are so young.

“And the last two years we’ve made a pretty concerted effort to add veterans to the club in various positions, and we have a real solid bench.’’

The key man off the bench has been Crawford, who is averaging 16.5 points playing starter’s minutes. Known for his erratic shooting in the past, he is making nearly 46 percent of his shots. Sund was able to acquire Crawford from the Warriors for Acie Law and Speedy Claxton, two players who were useless to Atlanta’s cause.

Sund also brought back Marvin Williams on a five-year deal, cementing the young core.

Johnson, who stands to become part of the esteemed free agent class of 2010, approached the Hawks about an extension last summer, according to an NBA source, but was told that since his salary cap number is higher than his actual salary, he would be best served to wait until unrestricted free agency and re-sign.

Now, that exposes Johnson to free agency, but he would make more money returning to Atlanta than if he had signed an extension last summer. He will have a big decision come July.

Since the Hawks have Johnson’s “Larry Bird Rights,’’ they can sign him to a maximum extension without considering the salary cap. Johnson’s contract is the lone expiring one among the team’s core players. Josh Smith agreed to a five-year deal through 2013, Williams is signed through 2014, and Al Horford is eligible for an extension this summer.

The development of Josh Smith has been critical. Once considered a jumper who insisted on living on the perimeter, Smith has become one of the better all-around players in the league. He is averaging 15.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.3 blocks, and 1.6 steals - a fantasy basketball league dream.

Last season, Smith took 87 3-pointers; in 2006-07, he took a whopping 152. This season, he has attempted three.

“I think Josh has matured as a player and a person so much, he’s really concentrating on doing what he can do,’’ Sund said. “That’s why I think he’s an All-Star-caliber player.’’

Woodson is nearing the end of a two-year contract; the Hawks would rather not negotiate an extension during the season, so management will wait until the summer for that, too.

This could be dangerous, though. Sund was burned by such thinking in Seattle with Nate McMillan in 2005. McMillan’s contract expired just after he led the Sonics to the Western Conference semifinals, making him more attractive to other teams. He then signed a five-year, $27 million contract with the Trail Blazers.

The better the Hawks fare, the higher Woodson’s stock rises, but Sund is hoping the coach will be amenable to an extension. For now, Sund has pushed those issues aside and has his club concentrating on basketball.

Basketball hasn’t been this significant in Atlanta since the Dominique Wilkins days, and Sund is attempting to increase the interest even more, without the lofty budget of the Celtics, Cavaliers, and Magic.

“The pecking order and the chemistry is very good, that’s been a big plus,’’ Sund said. “And we’re making steps to improve. Our players are pretty comfortable that if we bring our A game, we can compete with anybody. That’s a big step, but there are more steps to make.’’

Rockets put McGrady on launching pad
The Rockets officially put Tracy McGrady (left) on the trade market, creating one of the more interesting scenarios in recent memory - because rarely is the league’s highest-paid player on the market. McGrady will be a free agent after the season, so any team acquiring him is looking to 1. clear cap space for the summer or 2. trade its bad expiring contracts for three months of McGrady’s services.

Either way, the Rockets are trying to dump McGrady instead of allowing him to pollute team chemistry and disturb the momentum created by their young core. McGrady wants more minutes and doesn’t want to rot for three months on the inactive list.

So where should he go? The team that makes the most sense is the Knicks. The Jazz own the Knicks’ first-round pick (completely unprotected), and New York would have no qualms about adding McGrady for a playoff run, although it would almost certainly be a first-round elimination.

But the atmosphere created by a playoff run might intrigue a certain impending free agent from Cleveland (LeBron James) who will be wooed by New York in the summer.

Also, the Knicks have the bad salaries to trade to Houston.

The Knicks could deal the disgruntled Eddy Curry ($10.5 million), and the expiring contract of Al Harrington ($10 million) or Larry Hughes ($13.6 million) and include rookie Jordan Hill. Houston has said it wants a younger piece in the deal, but the Knicks shouldn’t part with Danilo Gallinari, who has turned into a potential cornerstone.

In Chicago, the Bulls could deal the expiring contracts of Brad Miller and Jerome (he’s still in the league?) James and perhaps Tyrus Thomas to sweeten the trade.

The question is how much McGrady has left, and the Rockets haven’t allowed him to show much since he returned from microfracture surgery on his right knee.

McGrady is in a similar situation as Allen Iverson - a former All-Star who has lost something but isn’t quite ready to accept a reduced role. McGrady has gained a reputation as a selfish player who cares only about numbers, and that wasn’t helped when the Rockets won their first playoff series in 12 years with him on the injured list.

To his credit, McGrady has handled this situation in a classy manner. He understands that the Rockets want to move on, but he wants to make some type of impression in the next few months to improve his free agent value.

Remember, the Eastern Conference is so bad after the top four teams that the Knicks entered yesterday just 1 1/2 games out of a playoff spot.

McGrady could be the answer for them, but the Rockets will be patient as they look for the best deal.

Coach eagerly awaits Griffin’s return to LA
Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy is putting a lot of pressure on rookie forward Blake Griffin (above), the No. 1 overall pick from Oklahoma who has yet to play a professional game. It seems Dunleavy believes that Griffin, who is recovering from a knee injury, could have a profound effect on his inconsistent club, so much so that he thinks the Clippers may be capable of a postseason run.

Griffin is expected to return in two weeks; before the Clippers’ game against the Celtics last Sunday, he was on the court shooting but not jumping. He has yet to practice.

Dunleavy cited Griffin’s “ability to get us extra possessions because of his rebounding. And the fact is, his percentage, his ability to finish, make us more efficient. And then he is also a great passer. He makes easy plays for himself and others. So all the things he brings, we really need right now.

“In a sense, he’s not that big of a question mark because he played in the preseason and we were 6-1 with him in the preseason and our numbers were very good with him. He will help us in many ways.’’

Dunleavy’s job has been a difficult one. The Clippers have seven players with expiring contracts coming off what is already the fifth-lowest payroll in the league.

Middle class is missing in the East
The Nets are 3-30 but are just 10 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, a prime example of how poor the middle-of-the-pack Eastern clubs are. The Wizards (10-20 entering last night’s game) and Pacers (9-22) have shots at catching Charlotte for the final playoff spot. What’s more, take away Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, and Atlanta, and the East was a combined 124-219 entering yesterday. That’s an average record of 11-20.

Free throws
The Kings signed general manager Geoff Petrie to a three-year extension after he built a talented roster with draft picks who are fulfilling their potential. In addition to Tyreke Evans, Petrie scored with Jason Thompson, Spencer Hawes, Omri Casspi, Jon Brockman, and Donte Greene. The Kings had a 14-18 record entering last night’s game without leading scorer Kevin Martin, who may be on the trade block when he returns . . . New Orleans guard Devin Brown (left) did not want to reduce his trade-kicker salary by 10 percent, and the Hornets were unable to deal him to the Timberwolves. Instead, the Wolves sent Jason Hart to the Suns for former Wisconsin standout Alando Tucker, who may finally get a chance to play after sitting two years in Phoenix . . . An intriguing free agent is ex-Clippers and Thunder guard Shaun Livingston (left), who had a catastrophic left knee injury two years ago. Livingston, cut by Oklahoma City when it acquired Eric Maynor and Matt Harpring, is not the player he once was but could help a team as a reserve. At 24, it’s hard to believe his NBA career could be over.

Gary Washburn can be reached at

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