Need encouragement that the Atlanta Braves rebuilding plan just might pay big dividends sooner rather than later? That encouragement can be found in the most unlikely of sources -- the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks begin the NBA playoffs today as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern conference. Imagine that. Just three years ago, the franchise seemed engulfed in hopelessness. Now, there's a good chance -- despite the lack of love from the national media -- that they could reach the NBA Finals.
Their biggest threats are Cleveland with Lebron James and Chicago. The good news is they're going to have to face only one of those two, and even then not until the Eastern Conference finals. That's assuming they don't trip up in the opening series against Brooklyn or against the Toronto-Washington winner in the second round.
The similarities to how the Hawks were reconstructed into a legitimate championship contender and how the Braves are being made over are plentiful.
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Those similarities begin with the architects. Danny Ferry wasn't looking to leave the San Antonio Spurs' front office when the Hawks targeted him to rebuild the team into the Spurs' image. Likewise, John Hart had to be coaxed out of retirement -- lured first as a consultant, then enticed with the newly created position of President of Baseball Operations.
Ferry and Hart brought in something both franchises sorely needed -- fresh perspectives. Both looked up and down the rosters and were unimpressed. Oh, there was talent -- Al Horford, Jeff Teague for the Hawks, Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran for the Braves. And they had enjoyed some success. But both teams
had reached a point where they underachieved. The sums were considerably less than the parts. Locker room cliques held the teams back.
More than anything, though, Ferry and Hart inherited something more daunting: terrible contracts. Merely shedding teams of those cumbersome contracts took intentional efforts that were creative and bold.
No, the Hawks didn't have to give up anyone remotely as popular as Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel -- mainly because they didn't have anyone popular outside of Horford and Teague. But Josh Smith was fairly well liked by the fans despite his stubborn insistence on throwing up 3-pointers. And Joe Johnson was far more productive for the Hawks than Melvin Upton was for the Braves. But his contract was just as stifling to the overall plan, if not more so.
Ferry and Hart rebuilt their teams in similar fashions. They went after players who filled much needed roles, even if some of the moves seemed like head-scratchers at the time. Five days after unloading Johnson on the Nets, the Hawks obtained Kyle Korver for cash. At $5 million a year, it seemed like Korver was an overpaid shooter off the bench. Now, at $6 million a year, he's one of the best bargains in the league -- a starter and All-Star, and maybe the best shooter outside Steph Curry. Or maybe the best shooter -- period. So said none other than Washington's John Wall.
Hart, after trading Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, signed Jonny Gomes, the veteran outfielder thought by many (myself included) to be finished. Gomes' impact on the Braves -- in the clubhouse and in the lineup -- has been remarkable. He began changing the mindset of the team the moment he walked through the door. The Braves won seven of their first 10 games, and Gomes already has contributed directly to three of those wins, whether it's starting a rally with a walk or hitting a pinch-hit homer as he did Friday against the Blue Jays.
There's another similarity in the rebuilding plans, one that could give Braves fans comfort for 2015. It was assumed that the Hawks would have to struggle significantly for a couple of years before they could ever become competitive. But they won 44 games the first year under Ferry. They slipped to 38-44 last season, largely because Horford was injured.
The Braves, as mentioned, have defied expectations with their 7-3 start. Yes, the season is quite long. It's far too early to start making postseason plans. But it seems clear that those projections of a 95-loss season were a bit drastic.
As for the Hawks, the team has been transformed from one that was a bunch of mismatched parts into a bunch that's a pleasure to watch. More than anything, they've restored hope for their fans.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org