With eight expiring contracts and a general manager hired precisely for these situations, the Atlanta Hawks are convinced they can make a major offseason overhaul.
And their No. 1 target, say multiple NBA executives, is none other than the offseason’s biggest prize: Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard.
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Howard’s contract is expiring after one forgettable year in LA — a year that began in disarray and ended in disappointment following a first-round playoff sweep to the San Antonio Spurs.
While the Lakers are hoping to give the key members of their current cast another season, Hawks GM Danny Ferry believes this is the summer that could change the course of his franchise.
Granted, it won’t be easy for anyone to pry Howard away from the Lakers, considering he can sign a maximum contract with them and nobody else. But the Hawks are optimistic a chance to return to his hometown and the uncertainty surrounding the Lakers will cause Howard to pause and give them serious consideration, league executives say.
Ferry and the Hawks certainly possess the financial wiggle room. Along with the expiring deal of Josh Smith ($13.2 million), the contracts of Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia, Kyle Korver, Johan Petro, Dahntay Jones, Anthony Tolliver and Shelvin Mack are also coming off the books.
The Hawks also hold team options on the contracts of DeShawn Stevenson and rookie Mike Scott, and there’s no indication the team will pick up either.
In other words, not only could the Hawks sign Howard, but they could pursue another star to complement Howard and returning veteran Al Horford. They are also expected to be active once the trading season heats up around the time of the draft in late June.
On top of all this, the contract of Hawks coach Larry Drew is expiring, opening the door for Ferry to handpick Drew’s predecessor should Ferry decide to go that route. Most sources believe that’s exactly what Ferry will do.
While some inside league circles are convinced Howard will take the max deal from the Lakers, many seem to think it’s no sure thing.
Kobe Bryant is coming off Achilles tendon surgery and turns 35 years old in August. The Lakers’ other top players, Paul Gasol and Metta World Peace, will each be 33 at the start of next season, and point guard Steve Nash is 39.
That makes each tough to trade when the idea is receiving equal or increased value in return — and could mean the Lakers might soon enter a rebuilding phase, even with Howard.
These are all possible selling points for Ferry when he and Howard can finally engage in conversation, executives indicated, and points that could sway Howard’s potential decision to leave LA.
Other teams, such as the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns, are expected to extend offers to Howard once free agency begins — but executives feel no one other than the Lakers and the Hawks stands much of a chance to land him.
Howard, 27, is an Atlanta native and played his high school ball at Southwest Christian Academy, from where the Orlando Magic selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NBA draft.
He spent the first eight years of his career with the Magic before a trade sent him to the Lakers last August. His father is the athletic director at Southwest Christian Academy and a Georgia state trooper.
Howard averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds in 76 games with LA this past season.
• If Drew is not retained by the Hawks, sources expect Ferry to extend an interview to former college coach and NBA assistant Quin Snyder. Ferry and Snyder were roommates when the two played together at Duke University in the 1980s.
• Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer and Oklahoma City Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks have also been linked to the potential coaching vacancy with the Hawks.
• Former Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan is said to be the top choice of the Milwaukee Bucks for their head-coaching job. However, McMillan is in high demand and will weigh his options before accepting any offer, several insiders said.
• The free-agent stock of Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen is quickly rising during the playoffs, with several teams likely to offer Allen a large raise come summer. Allen is widely considered one of the league’s top two or three backcourt defenders and is making $3.3 million in the final year of his deal — well below the going rate for a starting shooting guard.
• The Cleveland Cavaliers are one team that may have an interest in Allen, according to a report in The (Willoughby, Ohio) News-Herald.
• Former Bucks coach Scott Skiles has been linked to openings with the Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons. The Nets lost in the first round of the playoffs under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo.