The Atlanta Hawks are one of the most interesting NBA teams this off-season. They are juggling between the success of a 60-win season two years ago, and building towards the future. It is very “basketball fan know-it-all” to sit here and say that fixing the team is easy, and that there is an obvious plan. That is far from the truth! However, the franchise has to decide how it wants to go about contending for championships in the future. The team is not currently constructed to win a title, or go far in the playoffs in the next 5 years.
It is now official news that the organization is undergoing some reconstruction in the front office. The moves will mean that a new President of Operations enters the picture, Mike Budenholzer will focus on coaching duties (with major input on roster moves), and Wes Wilcox will no longer be GM.
These are all signs that the team, and it’s new ownership (Antony Ressler, Grant Hill and co.) are not content with just making the playoffs and losing in the first round. While it’s great to claim that the Hawks have been to 10 straight playoffs, the lifeblood of NBA fandom breeds from HOPE. The 60-win team from two years ago sniffed that, and the city of Atlanta went wild.
The Hawks new mission must be to maintain a following, be interesting, get people to show up, and most importantly to be ready in 5 years (2020 or 2021 season). Their marketing team and organization actually do a great job through their membership program, and presentation skills at games to create incentive for fans to follow the team. But if you create hope, even knowing that it will take time, fans will support you. The worst thing to do is be stagnant and stupid.
The initial moves made in the front office this year HOPEFULLY show that the team will make the smart long play, and in the mean time create curiosity among those who follow the league. I think there are six major factors to acknowledge when considering future moves for the Atlanta franchise.
1. Current contracts
If you consider the 5-year rebuild theory, the current contracts the Hawks have are not bad nor the end of the world. If you have an NBA 2K mentality, they stink. However, the league is not a video game! You only have Dwight Howard for two more seasons, and after next year, could be a trade asset to a team looking for an expiring contract. Kent Bazemore did not live up to his new contract in year 1, however you have a versatile wing under contract for 2 years (and a player option). Bazemore will be easier to move if necessary, or worth keeping in a competitive rebuild scenario.
Dennis Schroeder, regardless of your opinion, is on a great and very affordable four-year extension. He is still developing, and has shown signs of being a really good guard. In the new cap rules, paying $15 million to your second or third best player is a good thing. Once again, the talent and value is there if you need to trade him down the line, and even then his next deal will come in his prime. In addition, the Hawks have considerable value in Taurean Prince, and DeAndre Bembry. It’s just a matter of seeing how they both develop.
2. Re-sign or not
The hot basketball topic around Atlanta centers around Paul Millsap, and whether the Hawks should try to re-sign him. His play the past few seasons should earn him max, or close to max offers from various teams around the league.
My personal opinion is that the Hawks can not afford to give Millsap a 5-year max or close to max contract. Maybe you consider a two or three year max deal, if Millsap and his agent even consider that an option. There are really only two problems with re-signing Millsap to a max; years 4 and 5, and the team’s ability to tank.
The all-star forward will be 35-37 years old in the final two years of his deal, and way past his prime. A max contract would pay Millsap in the low to mid $30 million a year range at the late stages of his career, and limit the Hawks cap maneuverability in the future.
In addition, the next two to three seasons are prime years for Hawks to competitively tank, and keeping a really good player like Millsap will hurt your chances of doing so. He is good enough to help your team make the 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs the next three years, and fall out of the draft lottery.
The other debate centers around Tim Hardaway Jr. and whether to bring him back. This one is simple to me. Give him a three year deal, similar to or slightly larger money-wise than Bazemore’s deal. He would be a great piece to have in a competitive tanking situation, he will be playing to earn his next big pay day at age 28, and will be trade-able towards the end of the deal because of his positional value. If another team out-bids you, then you will make a similar play with another guard on the market.
3. The need to fill Phillips
One thing that has strapped the Hawks during this 10-year playoff (mainly the Joe Johnson/Al Horford/Josh Smith era) stretch is the need to keep people coming to games. It has also reared its ugly head when leadership showed a lack of decisiveness in moving or keeping Al Horford, and now Paul Millsap. Ownership and people with business interest in the team seem to fear the state of the team and it’s finances if it is not winning at a certain level. That mentality breeds mediocrity. It all stems back to the original idea of hope. You present a team, even if it is losing, that has promising players, or a promising method, then fans will support you. The fringe or negligent fans will come in the door because of INTERESTING signings, like a coming-home Dwight Howard, with marketing opportunity and interesting draft picks. It also helps that the league is saturated with talent and attractive match-ups. Very few teams don’t have a player people will want to come out and see.
4. Ability to attract top free agents
YOU WON’T! It’s plain and simple. You will only attract other talent if you have talent they want to play with. The Hawks do have a great coach in Budenholzer, and that will be an asset down the road. They can grab some really good free agents though, and take flyers on guys who need an opportunity to prove themselves. YES, Atlanta will need foundation players to be great. But in the process of finding those players, they can search for and develop assets for the bench, that can compliment the foundation, or be turned into trade pieces (aka Taurean Prince).
The Dallas Mavericks are a great example. It helps that they have Dirk, but the signing of Harrison Barnes (right types of players and age) shows that competitive tanking doesn’t mean disregarding free agency. In 2017, the Hawks could pursue Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (UGA), Greg Monroe, and Jrue Holiday to fit that age/value mold. In 2018, they could go after Will Barton, Austin Rivers, and Derrick Favors (GT). Sure, none of these players blow your mind, but their age and value could help fill out a roster and generate value on the back end.
5. Luck of the draft
The previous four factors all lead to one thing, and that’s the Atlanta Hawk’s success in the draft. It is IMPOSSIBLE to predict where the team will pick, how good the talent will be each year, and how players will develop over time. The best thing the Hawks can do is use the Sam Hinkie method of acquiring as many chances (draft picks) as possible to add significant assets to the team. Luckily, the Hawks are already thinking this way with 11 draft picks in the next three drafts. With the right moves, that number could increase, or could be used to move up for a more significant pick.
In reference to free agency moves, the Hawks will almost certainly need a top 5 pick or two in the next few years (and make them count) to make championship hope come alive in Atlanta. That alone should create incentive to get attractive assets in free agency that don’t quite fit together, that can be moved mid-season to add picks, or are on shorter deals that help fill cap space while competitively tanking.
This is why signing Dwight Howard was not a bad move. It was an attractive feel good story, a shorter deal in a rebuilding period, potentially a movable piece when it’s an expiring deal, and a team centered around him will ultimately fail and lead to better picks.
The larger amount and volume of quality picks will allow the team to take a handful of more proven prospects, while taking chances on early “one-and-done’s” or lesser-known overseas players.
6. Waiting out LeBron and the Warriors
Last but not least, the Atlanta Hawks rebuilding time frame completely centers on waiting for LeBron’s and the Warriors dominance to be over. The Hawks must use the next 3 to 5 years to get in line with the Celtics, Bucks, 76ers, and Nuggets (maybe, I’m a Jokic fan) as the teams who will dominate when they are gone.
Making brash moves is futile during this current stretch of NBA basketball, and the sooner it becomes about intelligently gaining assets, the better.
My Mock 2017 Off-season for the Atlanta Hawks:
NBA Draft picks 19, 31, 60 – target Terrance Ferguson or TJ Leaf or Harry Giles or OG Anunoby in the first round, Justin Jackson or Donovan Mitchell or Sindarius Thornwell or Frank Mason or Yante Maten or Melo Trimble in the second round, AND search for overseas players to stash if need be.
Trade considerations? – I don’t believe the Hawks will make one, but here are a couple theoretical trades. (Using trade machine for this year so contracts are one year too long)
(Add a Hawks 2nd round pick) Nets take on a larger contract of a wing that can score more, Hawks take on Nicholson and try to develop Hollis-Jefferson as a defensive specialist.
Hawks improve backcourt, give Schroeder some ball handling relief. Pistons move on from Jackson.
Similar to Pistons trade. (Trade not listed – could move Malcolm Delaney as well to team for late 2nd round pick in future draft)
Who to resign? – Paul Millsap is gone because (rightfully so) he and his agent want a 4 or 5-year deal. Re-sign Tim Hardaway Jr. to 2-year deal with a 3rd year option (unless you believe in Caldwell-Pope, then get into his sweepstakes). Re-sign Mike Muscala to 2-year deal with 3rd year team option.
Contracts heading into free agency (In millions): Howard at 23.5, Bazemore at 16.9, Hardaway Jr. at 16.5, Schroeder at 15.5, Muscala at 5, Prince at 2.4, Bremby at 1.5, Delaney is traded, Ferguson at 1.5 (1st round pick), Jackson and Maten at rookie min (2nd round picks). – adds up to roughly $84 million spent and $10 to $12 million in cap space.
Sign one of the following Power Forwards – James Johnson, Maybe bring back Ersan Illyasova, Taj Gibson, Patrick Patterson, Jonas Jerebko
Sign one of the following Point Guards – Ramon Sessions, Sergio Rodriguez, Shelvin Mack
Veterans to bring in – Bring back Jose Calderon, Jason Terry (who eventually moves into front office role), Ty Lawson, Jodie Meeks, Omri Casspi, Brandon Bass, David West,
Young guys to bring in – Tyler Ennis, James Young, Christian Wood
Final 2017/18 Roster:
PG – Dennis Schroeder (4 years at 15.5), Sergio Rodriguez (1 year at 3.5, 2nd year team option at 3.5), Jose Calderon (Vet minimum)
SG – Tim Hardaway Jr. (2 years at 16.5, 18, and 3rd year player option for 19.5), DeAndre Bremby (1 year at 1.5, 2 more team options at 1.6 and 2.6), Terrance Ferguson ( 2 years at 1.5, 2 years team options at 1.6, 1.8)
SF – Kent Bazemore (2 years at 16.9 and 18, and 3rd year player option at 19.2) , Taurean Prince (1 year at 2.4, and 2 years with team options at 2.5 and 3.5), Justin Jackson (2 year deal with team option 2nd round scale), James Young (1 year at 1.3, team option for 2nd year at 1.5)
PF – Patrick Patterson (2 year deal at 9 and 11.5, 3rd year player option for 13), Omri Casspi (1 year at vet minimum), Yante Maten (1 year at rookie minimum with one year team option slightly higher)
C – Dwight Howard ( 2 years at 23.5), Mike Muscala ( 2 year deal at 5 and 6.5, with 3rd year team option at 7.5)
At point guard, you continue to develop Schroeder in a value contract and hope he develops into an All-Star or borderline All-Star point guard. You have two vets behind him to help.
At shooting guard, Tim Hardaway Jr. gets 2 or 3 years to prove he is worth one more big contract somewhere else. Develop Bremby and Ferguson to play or trade.
At small forward, wait out Bazemore or trade him down the line. Develop Prince (who may start anyway), Jackson and Young.
At power forward, Patterson fills Millsap’s role but a major downgrade while he tries to earn one more contract after the Hawks, Casspi can play multiple places and can space, Develop Maten.
At center, wait out Howard or trade down the road, Muscala proved to be valuable.
Your 2017/18 team is at the cap with only minor luxury tax issues that could be alleviated at the trade deadline. It is a competitive team with some exciting young pieces, but it should finish in the bottom 10 of the league. If they begin to over-perform, one of the better players is movable (besides Schroeder) for draft picks. As the next 3 season develop, different players come off the cap to allow free agency plays for tier 2 and 3 young players with value. In addition, you will most likely pick once or twice in the top 5 in the draft during a 3-year span. Hopefully you draft top players like a Michael Porter or Collin Sexton in 2018, and a Marvin Bagley or Zion Williamson in 2019.
Like I said, some of this may be unrealistic, but it’s the thought process I would use to guide the team. Ultimately, the draft will decide the fate of the Atlanta Hawks over the next decade, while great value free agent signings (like Paul Millsap when he first arrived) could give them a window to contend for a championship.