At this exact time last year, the Atlanta Hawks were stuck in basketball purgatory.
They had just finished their fifth consecutive playoff season, a feat that only the Boston Celtics could boast in the Eastern Conference, but suffered a first round exit.
Trapped under a bloated payroll with no real ways of improving, newly hired General Manager Danny Ferry shook up both the foundation and direction of the franchise by shedding the burdensome and wildly expensive Joe Johnson contract in a trade that sent the Arkansas shooting guard to the Brooklyn Nets.
In return, the Atlanta Hawks received only one player that would crack their 2012 rotation in DeShawn Stevenson. However, with another savvy move, the Devin Harris-for-Marvin Williams heist, the organization’s financial handcuffs were suddenly removed.
Despite low expectations the Hawks made their sixth straight appearance in the playoffs but suffered another first round defeat. In fact, out of the six trips to the postseason, Atlanta managed to win only two games in the second round.
Stocked with expiring contracts to all but Al Horford, Lou Williams, and their 2012 draft pick John Jenkins, the Atlanta Hawks were thought to have been a major player in free agency.
Reports began leaking that superstars Chris Paul and Dwight Howard were kicking around the idea of teaming up together in free agency, and Atlanta was the only destination that could offer both max contracts to go along with the prospect of playing with Horford, one of the most widely respected young big men in the league. The Hawks promotional team even went as far as sending out emails to ticket buyers warning fans not to miss out on the potential pairing before it was legal.
The Hawks blunder of drafting Marvin Williams number 2 overall over the likes of Chris Paul and Deron Williams would have a chance for a reprieve with CP3 signing a max deal in Atlanta. Paul, The North Carolina native, would surely like to come back closer to home on a potential contender after clashing with Blake Griffin all season, right?
Homegrown Dwight Howard, unhappy in LA-LA Land, would surely be willing to get over his reservations of returning home to play if teaming up with Chris Paul was an option, or, at the worst he would definitely be interested in teaming up with Josh Smith, with whom he has been lifelong friends, right?
The Doc Rivers trade to the Clippers solidified the point gawd’s commitment to Los Angeles, and all signs point to Dwight Howard either maxing out with the Lakers or bolting for a team in Texas. Howard agreed to let the Hawks to make their pitch, but it has the feeling of being more of a formality.
So, where do the Hawks go from here?
We are two days into the free agency period and Atlanta has not been connected to many free agents. They have shown interest in Andre Iguodala, but if AI is looking for a five-year deal, guesses are the Hawks will be weary of overpaying a fringe star with a long-term deal like they did with Joe Johnson.
At 29, Iguodala is in danger of losing some of the athleticism that has allowed him to thrive both as an elite perimeter defender and one of the best finishers at the rim. Iguodala is a shaky outside shooter, and investing in him for a long period of time is a risky proposition.
But as far as 2013 is concerned, he may be the best and only option if the Hawks are interested in acquiring fresh talent.
Unless Danny Ferry works the phones looking for trades. A sign-and-trade for Josh Smith may become the most effective way in rebuilding the team. Promising point guard Jeff Teague is also in limbo.
Smith has made it clear that he intends to receive a max contract, and most likely, that is not happening in Atlanta. Reports surfaced that Smith is the second priority for the Houston Rockets after their pursuit for D-12. My gut feeling is that Smith ends up in Houston whether or not his buddy is there.
If Howard signs with the Rockets, their young, productive big man Omer Asik would be reluctant to return to a backup role, and the Rockets would have to facilitate a sign-and-trade with Atlanta if they choose to pursue Smith. Asik would be a great return for a fleeing Smith and would allow Horford to shift to power forward rather than playing an undersized center.
The Pistons are also interested in Smith. His lack of outside shooting prohibits him from playing the small forward position. If he signs to play power forward, Greg Monroe suddenly becomes expendable.
With Kevin Martin and J.J. Redick finding new teams on Tuesday, Tony Allen resigning with Memphis, and Kyle Korver drawing interest from contenders (and a high dollar, mind-boggling offer from the Milwaukee Bucks, who were thought to be rebuilding), OJ Mayo becomes the last logical fit to fill the need at shooting guard, but Atlanta has not been linked to having any interest in the USC product.
If Smith leaves with no parts coming back in return, the Hawks could repeat the 2012 route of fielding a roster full of one-year contracts with hopes of making another run after a superstar in 2014 when there will be a surplus of talented players hitting the market.
On the other hand, would Atlanta fans even notice if LeBron James signed with them in 2014? Maybe there is no escaping purgatory.