ATLANTA (AP) Danny Ferry can only watch from afar, surely with plenty of satisfaction at the juggernaut he created, undoubtedly offset by a sense of melancholy that he's not along for the ride.
Make no mistake, the Atlanta Hawks are Ferry's baby. He acquired nearly every player on a team that stunningly has the best record in the NBA.
Even one of his harshest critics, who led the protests against Ferry after the general manager's racially charged comments about Luol Deng, gives credit where credit is due.
''Clearly, Danny Ferry is largely responsible for putting together the winning team that we are enjoying here in the Atlanta community,'' the Rev. Markel Hutchins told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday.
That said, there is essentially zero chance of Ferry returning to the team he created.
Not this season.
''I certainly hope that Danny Ferry gets a job as a general manager somewhere else,'' Hutchins said. ''He has expressed what I believe is sincere repentance off the court. Nobody should be condemned forever. He deserves restoration. But,'' he quickly added, ''that should not happen with the Atlanta Hawks.''
Ferry went on indefinite leave in September, just a few days after the scandal broke, and has been in limbo ever since. He's apologized through public statements, met with civil rights leaders in private, and paid a huge price for repeating bigoted comments about Deng that someone else wrote in a scouting report.
Now, nearly five months removed from the initial furor, Ferry has clearly suffered enough for his sin.
''I would welcome him with open arms,'' said Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll, one of many players Ferry brought to Atlanta. ''I don't feel he's a racist. I think he genuinely learned from his mistakes.''
The reality is, there's no impetus for the Hawks to bring Ferry back, not with the team holding a commanding lead in the Eastern Conference and extending its franchise-record winning streak to 18 in a row with a 105-99 victory over Portland on Friday night. His return would undoubtedly lead to renewed protests and create an unnecessary distraction. Besides, the Hawks are up for sale, so this can of worms will get kicked down the road to the next owner.
Yet, in this greatest of seasons for the Hawks, that's the elephant in the room. There will be some huge decisions to make this summer, especially with free-agent-to-be Paul Millsap and what is expected to be plenty of salary cap flexibility.
No one knows exactly who will be making those calls. Whoever it is, that person will face the enormous challenge of following in Ferry footsteps. He completely rebuilt the roster after taking over as general manager in 2012, while maintaining a competitive team that still went to the playoffs the last two seasons.
Ferry defied the NBA's conventional logic, which held that major overhauls had to be accompanied by lots and lots of losses (see: Philadelphia 76ers).
''He did it a totally different way,'' said Kyle Korver, who bought into Ferry's vision right from the start. ''I think there's a whole lot of owners who would rather do it that way, rather than lose for five years and hope their draft picks turn out at the end of the day. Danny is going to have another job. There's not any doubt about that.''
The only Atlanta holdovers from the pre-Ferry era are All-Stars Al Horford and Jeff Teague, and even Teague would have been out the door if Ferry had not matched a four-year, $32-million offer sheet from Milwaukee in 2013. Some wondered if Teague, who had been highly inconsistent to that point, was worth the money. Now, he looks underpaid.
He's not the only one. The Hawks have a lower payroll than all but four teams. Check out these bargains:
- Millsap will be making his second straight All-Star appearance since signing a two-year, $19-million free-agent deal with the Hawks. Nondescript in Utah, he's now recognized as one of the NBA's best all-around players.
- Korver, a backup most of his career, was acquired from Chicago for cash and a trade exception, then re-signed with the Hawks for four years at $24 million. He's one of the best - if not the best - shooters in the league.
- Carroll had bounced around to four teams until he landed in Atlanta for a two-year deal costing a mere $5 million. A defensive standout, he's improved offensively and hasn't met a loose ball he wasn't willing to dive for.
Thanks to Ferry, the Hawks are also one of the league's deepest teams. The draft produced Dennis Schroder and Mike Scott. Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore were below-the-radar free agents. Pero Antic was plucked out of Europe. Shelvin Mack initially came aboard on a 10-day deal.
Almost as impressive was the list of players Ferry sent packing. Shortly after taking over as GM, he somehow persuaded Brooklyn to take Joe Johnson's max contract and Utah to accept the greatly overpaid Marvin Williams. In addition, Ferry didn't make much of an attempt to re-sign longtime Hawks stalwart Josh Smith, who was such a flop in Detroit that he got cut this season.
And, of course, Ferry passed over better-known coaches to hire a little-known assistant from San Antonio.
Mike Budenholzer could very well be the NBA's coach of the year.
Under different circumstances, Ferry would be a lock for executive of the year.
At the very least, he deserves another chance.
It just won't be in Atlanta.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963