The Curious Case of the Atlanta Hawks

News flash: the Eastern Conference is wide open. Well, sort of. Though we’re only about a quarter of the way into the season, it’s all but a lock that Miami and Indiana will wind up in the top two. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. The Derrick Rose injury puts Chicago back in the pack and one could say that Brooklyn and New York haven’t exactly come out of the gate firing on all cylinders (see Around the Hill on S-7). It would be an overreaction to think that those three teams aren’t going to contend but the fact remains that seeds three through eight are wide open for the taking. While it’s going to be a bloodbath in the West just to get the eighth seed, it may actually be harder to tank than to make the playoffs in the East. Just ask Boston, Orlando, Philly and Toronto who somehow find themselves on the fringes of the playoff race.

This makes it decision time for middle-of-the-pack teams in the East: do you look to make a trade to make a run at a higher seed or look to trade out of the playoffs and improve your shot at getting a top pick in a draft that might be the deepest in decades? In such a weak conference, making the playoffs shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself; teams should be evaluating whether they have a puncher’s chance at winning four out of seven games against Indiana and Miami. The reality is that most of the teams facing this decision aren’t strong enough to be able to answer in the affirmative and should be looking to trade out of the race.

The Atlanta Hawks find themselves in the most interesting and flexible situation because they’re a team flush with tradable assets, but also a team that could be a threat come April. The Hawks’ best five players – Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Lou Williams – all possess fair, tradable contracts and should any become available, there would be suitors salivating to acquire them. The question is whether Atlanta should look to cash in on some of its assets, stand pat or look to make a push for the three seed.

If I’m Atlanta General Manager Danny Ferry, I’m pushing all my chips to the center of the table. The Hawks already have the most essential foundation necessary to be a competitor in the East – the size to withstand Indiana and expose Miami in the formidable frontcourt duo of Horford and Millsap. They also have an emerging star and excellent facilitator in point guard Jeff Teague, who is putting together his best season yet in his fifth year. Korver is still what he’s always been: an elite spot-up shooter and a minus defender, but merits 30 minutes a night for how much he improves the team’s spacing. There is Williams, who has been hobbled early but will be an important contributor in providing the scoring punch necessary to keep bench units afloat.

The elephant in the room has been the Hawks’ glaring hole at SF. Starter DeMarre Carroll is known for making hustle and energy plays, but is limited offensively and shouldn’t be receiving starter’s minutes. If the Hawks could pry away an above-average player with the ability to produce their own shot, take on some of the scoring burden and guard LeBron James or Paul George, the Hawks have a puncher’s chance. I would be surprised if Danny Ferry hasn’t already been exploring his options, but his first call should be to Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie to inquire about Thaddeus Young, who is definitely available, for Carroll, Elton Brand’s expiring contract and a first-round pick.

Throughout the Josh Smith and Joe Johnson eras, Hawks fans became accustomed to mediocrity; in every season since 2007-08, the Hawks have exited in the first or second round of the playoffs. There’s no reason to blow this team up because their best players are just entering their primes, but if the Hawks stand pat they’re all but guaranteed to make first or second round exits during this year and for the foreseeable future. So what the heck, why not go for it? And if it doesn’t work out, no one’s going to be that disappointed anyways because OUTKAST IS BACK.

Contact Pete Koehler at [email protected].