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July 2, 2012
Transaction Analysis
Atlanta's Afternoon Rebuilding

by Kevin Pelton

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Atlanta Hawks

Reportedly agreed to acquire guards Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson, forward Jordan Williams, center Johan Petro and Houston's lottery-protected 2013 first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for guard Joe Johnson. [7/2]

Reportedly agreed to acquire guard Devin Harris from the Utah Jazz in exchange for forward Marvin Williams. [7/2]

In a single afternoon, barely a week on the job, new Hawks general manager Danny Ferry completely changed his team's direction by shedding two of the three non-rookie contracts on the team's books for the summer of 2013. Dumping Johnson and Williams cut a staggering $80 million from Atlanta's payroll over the next four seasons.

Most of that figure, naturally, comes from the remaining $89.4 million due Johnson over the next four years. When then-GM Rick Sund first signed Johnson to a six-year deal, I argued at the time it could become the worst contract in the league. Nothing that has happened since has changed that perspective. Johnson bounced back from an injury-plagued 2010-11 campaign to post 8.1 WARP last season. However, the issue was always the ugly back end of Johnson's contract, which will pay him ever-increasing sums as his production declines.

It's not that Johnson is a bad player. Far from it. Unfortunately, second-tier wings of his ilk have aged extremely poorly in the past. Subjectively, my favorite comparisons for Johnson among SCHOENE's top picks are Steve Smith and Vince Carter. At the same age, Smith was arguably the best player on a Portland team that got within one quarter of the NBA Finals; by three years later, he was resigned to the bench. Carter was the same age in 2007-08. He hung on for one more elite season before slipping and becoming a journeyman. Basically, Carter's 2011-12 campaign is a reasonable proxy for Johnson in the last year of his contract, 2015-16. For those services, he'll be paid $24.9 million, or more than 40 percent of the current salary cap.

One way or another, Atlanta had to get out of Johnson's contract to have a chance to avoid slipping backward over the next few seasons. Thanks to the Nets, the deal was relatively painless in financial terms. The five contracts the Hawks took on include no guaranteed money beyond next season, and also save Atlanta more than $7.5 million in 2012-13 after an expected buyout of Jordan Farmar reported by Nets Daily--a meaningful sum to a cash-strapped organization.

Of course, there will be a price on the court. Besides Farmar, the rest of the group was a combined 3.5 wins below replacement in 2011-12. While Marvin Williams for Devin Harris is a more even trade in terms of talent, it means the Hawks will have to find a way to play him together with incumbent starter Jeff Teague. As constructed, Atlanta is probably a fringe playoff team at best.

The payoff comes next summer, when the Hawks currently have two contracts: Al Horford and first-round pick John Jenkins. Atlanta will have plenty of room to bring back unrestricted free agent Josh Smith and still offer a max contract to a free agent like, say, Atlanta native Dwight Howard. The Hawks would even have the flexibility to let Smith walk or deal Horford to make room for two max players, should Chris Paul like to join Howard and help the Hawks get over picking Marvin Williams instead of Paul way back in 2005.

None of that is guaranteed to come to fruition, which is why this is a calculated gamble. Atlanta is betting that Howard doesn't get traded to somewhere he would want to re-sign, forcing him to free agency and making the Hawks one of the most intriguing possible suitors. The downside for Ferry is relatively limited. He's not breaking apart a championship team; we've seen the ceiling for this Atlanta group, and last year that didn't even include getting out of the opening round of the playoffs. And, with Horford signed to an attractive deal and Teague at a manageable cap number next summer as a restricted free agent, there are pieces in place that make this something less than a complete teardown.

This is an excellent start for Ferry, who has one more move to make. Harris is still effective enough that he should have value at the trade deadline. Atlanta may be able to pick up another first-round pick to go with the Rockets' lottery-protected 2013 selection inexplicably extracted from New Jersey (that Ferry had the leverage to demand a pick on top of dumping Johnson's contract is crazy) to put more cost-effective talent around the Hawks' new core.

Brooklyn Nets

Reportedly agreed to acquire guard Joe Johnson from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for guards Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson, forward Jordan Williams, center Johan Petro and Houston's lottery-protected 2013 first-round pick. [7/2]

As the Hawks chart a new course, Brooklyn has decided to try to emulate Atlanta's plan the last few seasons. If the Nets can re-sign Deron Williams to a max contract, and bring back restricted free agent Brook Lopez, having already agreed to a reported four-year, $40 million deal with Gerald Wallace, they're locked into their core for years to come.

In the short term, this group could be pretty good. A Johnson-Williams backcourt would be one of the league's best; only the Oklahoma City Thunder had two guards at least as valuable last season. Wallace's defense and rebounding is a nice complement to that duo, and up front Brooklyn could have a solid three-player rotation with Lopez, unrestricted free agent Kris Humphries and Bosnian forward Mirza Teletovic, the Nets' rumored target with the mid-level exception. (One potential issue: Teletovic and Lopez would be an atrocious rebounding frontcourt.)

Brooklyn has the chance to battle for the Atlantic Division crown and possibly get up as high as third in the Eastern Conference. Given Derrick Rose's injury, the East looks a little more open next season than in the years to come, when the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat will be clear favorites. Sometimes, we probably obsess a bit too much over ceilings. The Boston Celtics were a game away from reaching the NBA Finals last year. Crazy things happen even in seven-game series, and you've got to play to win.

The key question here is how long Johnson and Wallace can continue to play at peak level, keeping the Nets contenders. Wallace's comparables aren't all that much more encouraging than Johnson's. Their future WARP projections go from a combined 7.2 next season to 5.4 in 2013-14 and just 4.1 in 2014-15, when they'll be making more than $30 million combined. From a subjective standpoint, Wallace's high-intensity game seems unlikely to age well.

The counter is that billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov can easily afford to pay the luxury tax. Brooklyn's current direction is predicated on the ability to go far over the salary cap to bring in Johnson and Teletovic and re-sign players like Humphries and Lopez using Bird Rights. The steeper penalties for taxpayers, especially repeat offenders, may not deter Prokhorov. The problem with this line of reasoning is that, with the exception of the Dallas Mavericks, teams that go deep into the luxury tax have rarely found it a successful long-term strategy. Having so much money committed limits options and tends to force teams to keep chasing short-term upgrades while their core ages. It's one thing to commit to paying the tax to keep a successful team intact. Doing so for the chance of being a second-tier contender is something different altogether.

I've never entirely agreed with the age-old NBA axiom that the worst place to be is the middle. To me, there's someplace a whole lot less fun, and that's where the Nets have resided the last several seasons. At the same time, you'd hope all that losing would translate into something more promising. Brooklyn better win now, because the team has given up its best hope of landing Howard and big contracts for declining veterans could saddle the Nets for years to come.

Utah Jazz

Reportedly agreed to acquire forward Marvin Williams from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for guard Devin Harris. [7/2]

Lastly, we get to the new scenery portion of Atlanta's trades. Harris and Williams were virtually equally productive last season, and have similar projections going forward (Harris is three years older, but that won't make a difference in the near future). Both players struggled with expectations--Williams as the No. 2 pick in the draft, Harris as the replacement for Deron Williams--and can figure to look better in new settings even if they perform no better.

All things considered, Marvin Williams' contract isn't so bad. He'll make $15.8 million over the next two seasons, which is only a little generous for a starting small forward. There's little risk here for the Jazz, who had virtually no salary committed for 2013-14 and could afford to take on Williams' contract to improve their distribution of talent. Utah already acquired yet another Williams (Mo) to serve as starting point guard, and Marvin fills a need at small forward. Consider him an up-market version of the players like Demarre Carroll and Josh Howard the Jazz has plugged in at the position.

Combined, the two moves improve the Jazz's shooting while maintaining size and athleticism on the wing. At best, Williams shows more of the promise that made him so coveted coming out of college. If not, Utah still gets a starter for the next two seasons at an acceptable price.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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