The Atlanta Hawks have undoubtedly been the biggest surprise of the NBA's first half. Now comes the hard part: Figuring out how to sustain that success into the future.
Atlanta is often compared to San Antonio on the court, as Gregg Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer has the Hawks whipping the ball around the perimeter and launching shots from beyond the arc, where Atlanta has assisted 92.8 percent of its made threes, the highest mark in the league. The similarities between the clubs also extend off the court.
General manager Danny Ferry, who is still away from the team after his racially insensitive remark about LuolDeng in the offseason, constructed a roster extracting All-Star production from four players on extremely team-friendly contracts, as well as a host of other solid contributors.
Remember how the Spurs won the title last season with Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard on his rookie contract and Tim Duncan taking a hometown discount? The Hawks' highest-paid player is Al Horford, who at a tidy $12 million per year, is giving Atlanta superstar-level play, as recently detailed by Grantland's Zach Lowe.
Jeff Teague isn’t in the class of John Wall or Kyle Lowry, but at $8 million a year he does more than enough to set the table for Atlanta’s offense and defense. The Hawks signed Paul Millsap to a two-year, $19 million deal before last season that was considered a steal at the time. In two seasons since, Millsap has extended his range to the three-point line, a critical key to the team’s rising offense. And Kyle Korver’s legendary 50-50-90 season is costing only a little more than $6.2 million, a salary that decreases over the life of his contract.
The Hawks' contracts are not only affordable, they also give Ferry flexibility moving forward.
Korver and Teague are both signed through 2017, and Horford is signed through 2016. The swing player here is Millsap, whose contract expires after this year. Without Millsap on the books, Atlanta has roughly $41.2 million committed to nine players next season, with important role players Pero Antic and DeMarre Carroll potentially coming off the books.
This is where the Hawks will have to decide if they want to gamble on a big-name free agent or maintain their team identity.
For example, despite his recent comments, it’s possible that Kevin Love opts out of his contract with Cleveland after this season, even if purely for financial reasons. Could the Hawks find a way to nab Love and keep Millsap, too?
Millsap can re-sign with the team using his early Bird rights, which would net him a solid raise. In that situation, his cap hold would add about $12.3 million to the Hawks cap before he signs a new deal. The Hawks could clear an additional $2.4 million by finding a team to take Shelvin Mack, a serviceable guard who saw his minutes decrease in January with the emergence of Dennis Schroeder. Renounce every other player, dump their draft picks and the Hawks nearly create a mini-max slot in the neighborhood of $15 million in cap room, taking into account some other cap holds.
The Hawks could potentially pair Love (albeit on sizeable discount) with Horford and bring Millsap off the bench, and then use their full mid-level exception to bring back Carroll or find his replacement. Of course, if they renounce Millsap, Atlanta would have enough room for a full max slot and another player.
However, as we’ve seen this season in Cleveland, Love looks like an entirely different player when he’s not running the offense from the left wing as he did in Minnesota, and his team’s defense suffers whenever he’s on the court. Not to mention Atlanta’s track record for luring free agents is poor.
Love could very well not be worth the risk for the Hawks. As of now, it's unclear if Love can bounce back to the player he was with the Timberwolves, with his stats potentially being inflated by the lack of talent around him. Also, if Atlanta is dedicated to bringing in a max player, which they've certainly shown interest in doing in the past, the Hawks could wait until 2016, when the cap is expected to skyrocket into the $90 million range because of the new TV deal. The front office could bring back the current core and then load up for a run in 2016 when Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard are scheduled to be free agents.
But if Atlanta is worried its past lack of success at meeting with big-time free agents won't change, a better strategy might be to find less ball-dominant pieces that could fit in to the rotation for next season.
Who else could be available? Greg Monroe could fit nicely into that mini-max slot if Detroit doesn’t try to retain him. If Atlanta decides to hold Antic, then dump Mack, its draft picks and renounce Carroll, they would still have around $13 million in cap room, which could potentially be enough to make a run at Goran Dragic or Wesley Matthews, who are both unrestricted free agents this summer. And that still gives Atlanta a chance to use its mid-level exception.
Matthews would fit in extremely well with the Hawks. The Blazers guard has hit more threes than Klay Thompson this season, and plays tough, physical on-ball defense. Depending on how the market shakes out, the mid-level could be used on a Dorrell Wright or Brandon Bass-type player, or once again, Carroll.
A rotation of Teague, Matthews, Korver, Millsap and Horford starting with Mike Scott, Dennis Schroeder, Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefelosha, Antic and a mid-level player off the bench could make the Hawks even scarier next season.
What if they kept DeMarre Carroll outright, who is likely due for a raise? With Carroll, Antic and Millsap’s holds on the books and no draft picks, the Hawks would come close to $10.5 million in room, potentially still enough to lure Matthews or another valuable piece, say Danny Green, who played for Budenholzer in San Antonio, and then re-sign their current trio to raises using their early Bird rights.
The Hawks aren’t beholden to chasing a “star” player. If anything, this season has proved that making the biggest free agent splash isn't necessarily an indicator of success. And the Spurs' model has depended on improvement from within and shrewd drafting.
In that case, Atlanta is still in great position. In fact, they could be in line for a great draft pick this year, which would mitigate the need for any cap-clearing. The Hawks have the right to swap 2015 first rounders with Brooklyn, and the Nets could easily end up in the lottery with no protections on the outgoing draft pick. Atlanta can let Carroll and Mack go, bring back Antic, sign a Green or Matthews, replace Carroll with a lottery pick, and then use their mid-level exception on another role player. Or bring back every one and use the lottery pick. Or trade the pick. Or draft a player and use him in a trade.
The combinations are really endless here. Atlanta has the assets to trade for a great player, push all its chips into free agency or bring back the same roster with the added benefit of a lottery pick. And that's only in this upcoming offseason, before the potential free-agent bonanza in 2016.
Atlanta is playing extremely well right now, and they don’t need to look ahead with a Finals berth in reach this June. But as the Hawks try to break in to the championship picture this season, there is an open window waiting for them if they make another splash in the summer.