Childress' move to Greece hurts Hawks on many levels

After the Hawks came back to beat the Lakers in a game in February, one of the team's myriad owners sidled up to a reporter, beaming, and said, "We have arrived."

It appears it was a brief stay.

The departure of Josh Childress to Greek squad Olympiacos Piraeus, first reported by Sekou Smith in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a crushing blow to the franchise on multiple levels. First and foremost, obviously, it deprives the Hawks of one of the best sixth men in the game, a guy who could make a huge impact without needing any plays run for him because of his ability to attack the glass, score in transition and play off the ball.

It also leaves them scrambling to fill out the roster, with most of the offseason's top free agents already claimed by other teams. Atlanta has only eight players under contract at the moment, and two of them (oft-injured Speedy Claxton and oft-inactivated Solomon Jones) barely count. Even if the team can re-sign Josh Smith, the Hawks are still paper thin.

But the real damage here isn't immediately visible. Nothing could do more to perpetuate the Hawks' standing as one of the league's worst-run organizations than to have a player they desperately wanted to keep bolt for another continent. The stink from that will linger long into the future -- affecting other free agents' decisions to join the Hawks and/or remain with them -- until there comes a time when the organization can prove it has its act together.

That day seems a long way off. Look, good organizations just don't screw up like this. They stay in touch with free agents: They make sure the player knows he's wanted and it's just a question of finding the price, and they lay the groundwork far ahead of time by operating in a first-class manner.

On that level, the fact that Childress didn't think twice about leaving -- and that Josh Smith seemingly would gladly pack his bags too -- speaks volumes about the management. So does the fact that Atlanta is among NBA players' favorite cities to visit, yet nobody wants to play there.

And it's not as if Childress woke up on July 1 with a craving for tzatziki and an iPod full of Yanni tunes. He's a smart, cultured guy and he'll do fine over there, but going abroad wasn't his preferred option. He was pushed into this position when the Hawks first didn't extend him a year ago, then followed that up by not making a strong enough initial offer to him in free agency.

Atlanta essentially overplayed its hand, thinking that Childress, as a restricted free agent, didn't have any other options but to take the Hawks' offer for a bit above the midlevel exception. But Childress and agent Lon Babby recognized that the increased power of the euro has made going overseas a real option for all but the most expensive of the league's players, and they found a way around restricted free agency by signing a lucrative three-year deal in Greece -- one that has opt-outs after each season that could allow him to return to the NBA.

By screwing this up, Atlanta also popped its own balloon from the seven-game run against Boston in the first round of the playoffs. That series featured a shocking sight: an incredibly loud, involved, borderline intimidating Philips Arena crowd that gave the Hawks their first legitimate home-court advantage in ages.

In that series, it appeared the team had finally turned the corner in reaching what had been a notoriously apathetic fan base. Losing Childress deflates much of the enthusiasm from that run, especially as the Hawks have signed exactly zero players in free agency thus far. One wonders if the team even had a contingency plan in place in the event that Childress left or if it's a fire drill over at Centennial Tower today.

Obviously, this signing has implications beyond the Hawks. Already this summer, we've seen Juan Carlos Navarro, Tiago Splitter, Bostjan Nachbar, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Loren Woods, Primoz Brezec and Carlos Delfino say no thanks to the NBA because they got better money from a team overseas; by the end of the summer, we might be saying the same about several others.

The only difference in Childress' case is that he's American and his deal was for even more money than the others (Nachbar also got some major dough, incidentally). So Childress might become a pioneer in terms of restricted free agents working around the system.

So in the long term, then, the big winner in this development likely will be future restricted free agents. In the short term, perhaps the winner is Josh Smith. With the Hawks still wiping the mud off their faces, they're certainly more motivated to reach a deal with him fairly quickly and get some good news out there. And if his agent starts throwing around hints that teams in Europe are willing to meet Smith's price, Atlanta is likely to take the threat much more seriously than it did with Childress.

And although there are ways for the Hawks to try to undo some of the damage from this -- such as making a run at former Atlanta area high school star and restricted free agent Louis Williams -- nothing in their track record says they're capable of pulling it off. That Childress so improbably slipped from their grasp only cements that impression.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.