They say there are no guarantees in life. Atlanta Hawks general manager Pete Babcock is learning that lesson the hard way.
At the start of the season, the Hawks guaranteed season ticket holders a playoff berth this season. Four months later, the dreaded but all too familiar "R-word" has crept back into the Hawks' vocabulary. The Hawks are talking rebuilding ... again.
"We stuck with our plan, and I was wrong-across the board," Babcock said just before the All-Star Game.
It's rare to hear an NBA GM publicly take the blame for a train wreck. But if you're Babcock, at this point you don't have much of a choice. Almost every move Babcock has made the last few years has blown up in his face.
Trading Steve Smith for Isaiah Rider. Signing Alan Henderson to a long-term deal. Swapping Dikembe Mutombo (and his expiring contract) for an injured Theo Ratliff. Drafting DerMarr Johnson ahead of Desmond Mason, Hedo Turkoglu or even Jamal Crawford. Exchanging Lorenzen Wright and the draft rights to Pau Gasol for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Swapping Toni Kukoc and the Hawks' 2003 first-round pick to Milwaukee for Glenn Robinson. And with the Hawks staring at a $50 million payroll next year, and only seven players under contract, the team looks like it's mired in salary cap hell until the 2005-06 season.
Yes, these are harsh times in Atlanta right now. The fans have abandoned the team. The Hawks' owners, AOL Time Warner, announced $100 billion in losses recently, the most ever by a U.S. corporation. The team's one bright spot -- hosting the 2003 All-Star Game -- suffered a huge setback when not one Hawks player was selected to participate in any of the events.
So, how do the Hawks fix this mess?
Priority No. 1 this summer will be figuring out what to do with restricted free agent Jason Terry. The Hawks can't afford to sign him to a long-term deal for several reasons. One, their luxury-tax situation is already bad. Two, a long-term deal will kill his trade value. The best bet for Atlanta is to work out a sign-and-trade that packages Terry with a guy like Nazr Mohammed or Ratliff for an expiring contract.
If the Hawks find a way to get a few long-term salaries off the books, then they'll figure out what to do with Abdur-Rahim. Abdur-Rahim continues to put up good numbers in Atlanta, but according to one Hawks insider, they're empty numbers. "Shareef knows how to score, but he isn't a go-to guy," the source said. "He's just not a leader. He'd be a great sidekick or a third wheel on a good basketball team. But on a team struggling to rebuild, he's just not the right guy."
Finally, the Hawks will have to figure out whether they can afford to re-sign their other young players like Dion Glover and Johnson. Glover, who was given a golden opportunity to play when Johnson went down, has failed to live up to expectations. The good news is, given the tough free agent market, he may come cheap. Johnson's health makes any sort of long-term contract a risky proposition. Doctors still aren't sure he can ever play again.
If they let Terry, Glover and Johnson all slip away this summer with nothing in return, the Hawks' young core will essentially have been strip-mined. Their future has never been in more doubt.
Chad Ford writes the daily NBA Insider column for ESPN Insider. To get a free 30-day trial, click here.