Q&A: Hawks GM Danny Ferry on Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Basketball Analytics, and Sam Presti’s Wikipedia Page
Last Thursday was a big one for new Hawks GM Danny Ferry: His five kids and wife finally arrived in Atlanta, from San Antonio. Then the Orlando Magic traded Dwight Howard. Not to the Hawks, Howard’s hometown team, but to the Lakers. Ferry had gotten 31-year-old Joe Johnson’s albatross of a contract off the Hawks’ books ($89 million remaining over four years) within two weeks of taking over in late June, so forgive the Hawks fans out there for thinking he could also lure Howard home. In his 19th-floor office in downtown Atlanta, Ferry spoke quietly, and measuredly, for most of an hour, about where the Hawks are going and where’s he’s been.
So. Dwight Howard to the Lakers.
It all happened yesterday. I was here, at the office. I heard the news from some sources around the league. It’s something we looked at, but they just would not … I don’t know that we ever got close at the end, because they just didn’t want to trade him within the division. My first call, when I found out about the Lakers deal, was to [Hawks co-owner] Bruce [Levenson].
Was Howard a major focus for you?
He was a focus of the whole league. It wasn’t our sole focus. You can’t invest everything in one guy like that.
As a GM, when a move like that is made, do you feel pressure to respond?
You have to make decisions based on what your program needs, and how it’s doing, and what opportunities there are. Doing a trade is … you talk about 200 before you can do one that everyone is comfortable with.
What drew you to Atlanta? It’s never really been an NBA mecca, except maybe in the offseason.
I looked at it as a challenge. But once I spent time with ownership, with Bruce, specifically — a lot of time, a lot of deep questioning and thoughts back and forth — I got the sense that: One, he was committed to do this right. And he understands that things needed to change, on his behalf, and on ownership’s behalf, to help make that happen. There was a sense of humility from him: that we can do better than what we’ve done. And I felt like he was gonna empower someone to come in and do that. On top of that, I like the man: He seemed like a pretty good guy. Him being from the D.C. area, me being from the D.C. area. From a background standpoint everything was really positive.
What about the city itself?
It absolutely played into the decision. I have five kids. Four girls: 15, 14, 12, 10, and then a little boy that’s 6. So, life is full. Moving a bunch of people is hard. But they’re adaptable. If I was gonna move from San Antonio, it had to be a situation I liked, and one that was gonna be for a while.
Speaking of things we thought would be around for a while: The Joe Johnson trade, did that require any black magic?
[Laughs] We started talking about it June 26th, and we agreed on things July 3rd. I think it was a win-win for both teams. They got a good player who’d help keep around Deron Williams. It was a hard deal for us. But, at the end, we had a good making-the-playoff run, but we hadn’t had a good playoff run, if that makes sense. And the goal is to have a good playoff run. That was going to be hard to sustain, with how we were set up.
The response to the trade was very positive here in Atlanta. People talking about erecting statues.
That surprised me a little. I think people may have taken for granted the success they’ve had here. And Joe was a big part of that. But also, I think, we recognized that to get better some changes had to happen. The best we could do was status quo. And that wasn’t good enough for anybody.
As a player, what was your opinion of the Hawks in the 90s?
They had good teams. Mookie Blaylock was incredible. I was a big Mookie fan. Completely underrated. Steve Smith, too. And Mutumbo.
What about Atlanta as a city?
Atlanta is a good city. And, as you can see, a lot of players settle here, because they like it.
So why is it harder to get players to come here while they’re playing? Like Dwight Howard. He’s from here. You think he’d want to come play here.
I can’t talk specifically about Dwight Howard, with him being a free agent next year, for one. And two, who’s to say he won’t? But it’s a hard thing to get players to leave where they are, more than anything else. This is a place guys like to play. You see them settle in the offseason here. If we start doing things in an even better way, build a better program and a better model here, then it will be more attractive. We have to make an investment in the team infrastructure.
You’ve got a lot of cap space.
Well, we have good players now to be competitive now. And we’re in a position to be opportunistic going forward. We’re not only going down one path. The map that we’re standing on now has a lot of different roads that we can take. Whereas a month ago there really was only one road.
Are you trying to build a certain style of team?
I like teams that move the ball and play defense. That are unselfish, that care every night. Teams that play with a system that the coach defines, so it’s clear what the purpose is when they’re out there on both ends of the court.
What lessons did you learn from your time with the Cavs and Spurs?
It was really valuable after running an organization in Cleveland [where he was GM from 2005-2010], to go back to San Antonio [where he was VP of Basketball Operations from 2010-2012] and see how they [the Spurs] had evolved, compared to what we were doing in Cleveland. To learn from [General Manager] R.C. Buford and, in a different way, from [Coach Gregg] Pop[ovich]. Because I’d been in that role, and had to make some of the decisions. So the conversations that I could have with them, and the perspective that I could give them, was enjoyable and, I think, substantive for them and me. I walked in there thinking, ‘I learned a lot the first time I was there, but I think I learned even more the last couple years.’
What were your great successes or failures in those roles?
[With Cleveland] our success was we won like crazy. Our failure is we didn’t win a championship. But, I mean, we won … we had the best record in the league the last couple years. We were able to change the team when it was needed and appropriate. And, ultimately, have the team keep getting better as we did that. The last couple years, we won almost 130 games in the regular season. That success level is unique. Going to the finals the second year we were there, that success level was unique. And it’s something that everyone there should feel good about. In San Antonio, the last couple years, I felt good about the fact the Spurs were able to meld young players with the veterans that were there. And start to transition the team a little bit and still be very good. Again, the best record in the league.
How do you account for San Antonio’s draft successes?
R.C. does a great job, first of all. A good word for him is curious. So when it comes to scouting, they’re one of the first teams looking overseas for players. He’s curious by nature, and process driven. I think one of the things they also do, as good if not better than anyone else, is player development. So they get the talented players and they work with them, and help them succeed once they’re there. It’s not just ‘Throw them out there and go ahead.’ It’s working on specific things and having a development plan for the player, and a buy-in from Pop that he’s gonna work with them and help them grow as people and players. That helps a Kawhi Leonard quite a bit. That helps a Corey Joseph — coming up next for them —that’s maybe going to be a good player. It helped Tony Parker. You can go through the list of guys. They have a level of patience, as well. Best example is, they drafted Manu [Ginobli], but let him stay over there in Argentina for years, to grow and get ripe to come over. Had they not had that patience, maybe he would have failed right away.
Jeff Teague started almost every game last season, but before that there was a feeling that the Hawks were too conservative about letting young players — especially point guards — actually get out there and play.
Larry [Drew] and [former GM] Rick [Sund] deserve credit for finally giving Teague the ball. Especially Larry. That he allowed him to grow and allowed him to become an important part of the team.
Is Teague going to be more important now?
With Joe gone, the dynamic of our team is naturally going to change. There’s going to be more touches and more possessions that other people are gonna be a part of. I would imagine that both Devin [Harris] and Jeff — and Louis [Williams] — will absorb a lot of those. And all of them will become very important to our group.
Have you had meetings with everyone at this point?
I’ve talked or sat down with everyone, yeah.
Is Josh Smith pretty excited about how his role may change?
Change can be a good thing. We’re gonna play a little differently. With our shooters, we’re gonna have more spacing for the guys that can make plays right now. And you look at where our roster sits — with [Kyle] Korver and [Anthony] Morrow and [John] Jenkins — we have three of the best shooters in the NBA. And having one or two guys out there at any time will open the court up for Josh and Al [Horford]. And Al opens the court up for people with his pick and pop play. But it will open up the court for his pick and roll play now. Because there’ll be so much more room. With Devin and Lou, we’ll play with maybe a little more tempo. They’ll be able to get lanes to the basket more. And with the way the game is being called the last few years, with rules changes, it should be advantageous. Korver or Morrow or Jenkins may not average thirty points, but they will create space for the team to be successful on the court.
And you think Josh Smith will get off the three-point line?
I think Josh will have opportunities to play all over. Before I came here, we were watching tape of Josh, and one of the things I enjoy is his ability to pass the basketball. The spacing that they’ll have, maybe create double teams — hit him in the post or driving to the basket — I think that his passing will be even more advanced.
There is frustration about his tendency to want to shoot the three. Is that something you or Larry will talk with him about?
I’m still learning our group. Ultimately, Larry will coach the guys. And put some boundaries on all of them. But I think Josh is a pretty darn good player. And the impact he can have in making other players around him better. We may play through him and Teague and Al more than we ever have, and I think they will accept that responsibility and make good decisions.
Nobody doubts Josh’s ability. It’s his decision-making that seems off sometimes.
You can go through every player and their strengths and places they need to get better. And we can go through that with Lou, and others, and those will all be worked with and coached. But there will always be things a guy can get better at.
Do the Hawks have a hoops analytics program?
We will build an analytics program. It’s something that can be a good tool. It doesn’t make the decisions for you, but it can challenge you and make you look at different things. And there’s people doing things out there now that can challenge you and be a very good tool in an important way, that didn’t exist ten years ago.
There’s two ways to look at the analytics: at a micro level — on your team, and how you play — and a macro level — on how you build your team, the direction you’re gonna go for the season, and the next three seasons. Those are areas we want to build in. A good analytics person would tell you not to cede your decision-making to statistics alone. Because there’s flaws to it: sample sizes. And the game is more static than baseball, for example. In baseball, it’s this pitcher that’s right-handed against this batter that’s left-handed, and it’s really just a one-on-one game. With five different guys on the court, it’s much more complex.
In 2008-2009, Josh took 87 threes. In 2009-2010, he attempted just 7. In 2010-2011, he took about two per game. One theory is that someone made a bet with him before the 2009-2010 season that made him limit his threes. If true, would you make the same bet?
[Laughs] No comment.
How does being a former pro player help you as a GM, beyond relatability to players? You have successful GMs right now, like Sam Presti and Daryl Morey, who haven’t played in the NBA.
Sam’s one of my best friends. I’ve worked with him in San Antonio, and I’m going to his wedding in a week. He’s terrific. Being a player can be a positive, but it’s certainly not a necessity. I think playing at some level helps. Sam played at Emerson college.
His Wikipedia page says he drew six charges in one college game.
Did he write his own Wikipedia page? I’m gonna call him and ask him! I think playing in the NBA and understanding the dynamics of that is an advantage for me. That I have. Understanding the NBA season, and a locker room, and the cycle of a year from a player’s perspective. From not getting to play when your next contract depends on certain things. And playing with people, or myself, and living through their experiences as closely as I did. That’s all certainly a positive. Playing for a different coaches in the NBA, knowing what their strengths were. And, as a player, understanding the positive and negative attributes of an organization. That gives me a level of depth that’s helpful. But it doesn’t give me a magic plan.
Are you the kind of GM who’ll be at games, in locker room, stuff like that?
Yeah, I’ll be present. But hopefully you don’t see me a lot. I’ll be around somewhere, and aware of what’s going on with our club. And I’ll help make decisions on things. But I’ll also give them the space to be a team. I’ll sit in a suite and I’ll travel to some of the road games — probably more early in the year, as I’m getting to know our team, our trainers, our coaches. I have to be as familiar as I can with all that. I’ll probably have to be around the team more this year than next. I’ll start to have to go see college games, and go overseas, more in the future.
Are you superstitious?
I used all my superstitions up when I was a player. [Laughs] I was very routine-driven. My warm-up and my pre-game. When I ate. I always ate spaghetti and chicken, or tried to, before every game. Three dribbles before a free throw. I got into sports psychology the more I played. I practiced some of that stuff pretty consistently as I went along: visualization stuff, meditation, things of that nature. To get yourself ready, calm, mind in the right place. It’s not for everybody, but for a large number of people, I’d encourage it.
Does your oldest daughter play basketball?
She picked up basketball late. She’s been a soccer player, only, ‘til a couple years ago. She picked it up when she was around twelve, thirteen. Kids sports now are like, you get on one thing and the pressure on the kids to stay doing it year ‘round is not great. But a couple years ago she decided she’d play basketball, too, and she’s enjoyed it. Maybe she’ll play both sports this year. She’s 5’11’’ and only fifteen. I don’t think she’s gonna end up quite as tall as me, though.
A contributing editor at Atlanta magazine, Charles Bethea writes for Men’s Journal, Outside, GQ and the Wall Street Journal, among others.