What a start for Danny Ferry as GM of the Atlanta Hawks, what a coup for a team that’s clearly reached its peak, and what a sigh of relief for an organization that’s known as much for its history of questionable front office decisions as its play on the floor. With one fell swoop the present and future of this middling franchise was changed for the obvious better, and it involved trading arguably their best player. Such is life in the NBA when it comes to players with the unique combination of a contract and talents like those of Joe Johnson.
The Hawks agreed in principle earlier Monday to trade Johnson and his albatross of a salary to the Brooklyn Nets. In return, Brooklyn will send the expiring contracts of Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Williams, Johan Petro and a future first-round pick to Atlanta, as well as completing a sign and trade for Deshawn Stevenson. Originally, the deal was contingent on Deron Williams accepting the Nets’ max contract offer and be paired in the Brooklyn backcourt with Johnson, but sources have confirmed the trade has been submitted to the league for approval without any promise from the league’s top free agent.
The goal for the Hawks is clear – regain cap flexibility and, in turn, opportunities to overhaul a roster that topped out as just below the Eastern Conference’s elite. Until now, Johnson’s contract was considered untradeable despite his undeniable talents as an oversized shooter and scorer. With his cap number off the books, the Hawks are free to build more creatively around the younger triumvirate of Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Jeff Teague. With a deal to trade Marvin Williams forthcoming, too, Ferry has given his roster elasticity previously deemed untenable. Impressive for a GM most thought a typically easy and middling hire by Atlanta.
For Brooklyn, the end-game is just as obvious if not quite as practical or functional. They’ve been looking for a star to play alongside Williams since acquiring him at the 2011 trade deadline, as much to ensure he re-signs this offseason as they enjoy on-court success. The Nets could get both in this scenario, as Johnson is a nice fit next to Williams on the Brooklyn perimeter and Gerald Wallace remains a versatile and valuable performer on both ends despite his age and recently signed contract. With youngsters Brook Lopez and MarShon Brooks in the fold, too, Brooklyn suddenly boasts an impressive quintet that should enjoy some sustained success – as long as Williams re-signs, that is. What level of such remains to be seen, but it seems a team led by Williams and Johnson will be this franchise’s best since Jason Kidd wore a Nets uniform a decade ago, something of great importance to owner Mikhail Prokhorov. This takes the Nets out of the running for Dwight Howard, but given cap constraints and an underwhelming stable of assets compared to those offered by teams like Houston and Golden State, they figured a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Tough to fault them for that reasoning, even though there’s still no way to know just how good this Nets team can be.
Regardless, two organizations in totally different but similarly difficult situations changed their immediate and coming outlooks with the trade of Johnson. If there’s a winner here, though, it’s Atlanta. For all of Johnson’s talent, his contract puts any organization that employs him in a precarious situation if they aren’t winning as much as they’d like, and with no guarantee from Williams that he’ll join the franchise in moving to Brooklyn that’s definitely a possibility. Even if Williams does re-sign, it’s still tough to imagine this group joining the likes of the Heat, Bulls, and Celtics, let alone usurping the tier below led by the Pacers. The Hawks, meanwhile, will remain very competitive in the East’s bottom-half in the coming season, enter the 2013 off-season with tons of cap room and no doubt emerge as a frontrunner next year’s crop of elite free agents. This is a great spot for Atlanta, with possibilities looming that haven’t in decades. Those are more middling for Brooklyn even though they’re better today than yesterday, and that’s what matters most.