An unrestricted free agent, Josh Smith
is unlikely to return to Atlanta. (Erick W. Rasco/SI)
Here's a look at what's in store for the Hawks this offseason after their first-round loss to the Pacers.
• What’s the biggest priority for Atlanta this offseason?
Building a team up from its foundation. Thanks to Danny Ferry's quick, shrewd work in his first year as general manager, the Hawks have just three players -- Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins -- under guaranteed contract for the 2013-14 season. Cap holds on the Hawks' amazing number of free agents (including Josh Smith, who plans to test the market and is unlikely to return given that he'll be seeking a max deal) will clog up the salary cap works until those players are renounced, but Atlanta could have as little as $24 million in guaranteed salary for next season and still have an All-Star big man, a valuable bench scorer, a rotation shooter and two mid-first-round picks on the books.
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That number (and the specifics of Atlanta's situation) could change depending on what becomes of restricted free agent guard Jeff Teague, but the Hawks are nonetheless in a position to make a healthy, low-pressure decision to best serve the long-term viability of the franchise. Atlanta may not yet have its superstar in waiting, but Horford, Williams and Jenkins are valuable players who can be used in a variety of contexts. Their combination of skills will not be rendered redundant by any of the Hawks' offseason maneuverings, and thus Ferry is free to chase every lead on a star-level player who might come available via trade or free agency. Along with the news that coach Larry Drew and his staff do not expect to be back for next season, that gives Ferry a slate as blank as can be.
• How can the Hawks improve this offseason? Through free agency? The draft? Trade?
Atlanta doesn't seem likely to improve on its record (44-38) or seeding (No. 6) next season, unless it re-signs Teague, adds a high-quality player to offset Smith's inevitable departure and fills out the roster with value contracts. Free agency will naturally be the simplest way for Atlanta to pick up new talent, but teams under the cap can often add valuable assets by shopping opportunistically. If the Hawks are willing to absorb some salary in a deal, they could be an ideal trade partner for teams looking to clear their own cap room or aiming to duck under the luxury tax line. Tax-minded moves typically come later in the regular season, but it's not unprecedented for some teams to deal quality players preemptively in the offseason, as was the case with the Thunder and James Harden. Atlanta can't bank on having a deal of that caliber fall in its lap, but by playing the market and utilizing the team's cap space resourcefully, Ferry should find the means to improve the Hawks' long-term outlook.
The draft could also be a nice way for Atlanta to fill out its roster with a few more young players while keeping the finances in check. The Hawks own an additional first-round selection by way of the Joe Johnson trade. If Ferry can hit on a rotation-caliber player with either the 17th or 18th pick, he could make the task of filling out the bench that much easier.
• Which available free agents might make sense for Atlanta?
A multilayered question, to be sure, that depends on the Hawks' chances with the biggest free agents available. Dwight Howard will naturally be among Ferry's offseason targets, and due diligence is also required on Chris Paul. Supposing that neither signs on to be a part of the Hawks' bare roster, that leaves Ferry to balance the desire to acquire talent with the timeline and considerations of a more gradual rebuild.
He would first need to determine which of his own free agents are worth retaining, as the cap holds on those players would otherwise limit Atlanta's room under the cap. For the moment we'll assume that Teague returns, either on a new deal or a one-year qualifying offer, and Smith departs. That would leave seven other players as either restricted or unrestricted free agents, with the most attractive return candidates being big man Zaza Pachulia and sharpshooter Kyle Korver. Both can likely be had at reasonable cost, filling out Atlanta's rotation without getting in the way of other free-agent goals.
Beyond that, filling out the wings would seem to be the most immediate need. Ferry could go in a number of directions. If Atlanta is looking to address one of those spots with a long-term option, Andre Iguodala, O.J. Mayo, J.J. Redick or Tony Allen could make sense, though each would absorb a good chunk of the Hawks' cap room. Lower-priced alternatives include Mike Dunleavy, Dorell Wright, Martell Webster, Randy Foye and Francisco Garcia.
Finding another big man to replace Smith will also be a priority. The best big-ticket option in that slot is Timberwolves restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic, whose low-block game would be a nice complement to Horford's high-post work. There could be some concern about whether the combination of Horford and Pekovic could rebound effectively enough to sustain a contending team, but neither is a slouch on the glass and the synergy in their games could make up for that deficit. Tiago Splitter would seem to be a slightly more affordable alternative, but he is also a restricted free agent. The low-rent options include Nazr Mohammed, Timofey Mozgov, Jeff Pendergraph and Chris Andersen.
This post has been updated to correct Tiago Splitter's free-agent status.