Perhaps the greatest failure in the Hawks’ injurious 2019 offseason was the front office’s decision to go without a backup point guard and instead fill the minutes behind Trae Young with an assortment of combo guards and point forwards. The theory of the move made some sense: Atlanta would not win many games in the coming season, so why not experiment with a more versatile and positionless style? In practice, it had disastrous effects, and Trae Young’s ascension into All-Star territory only cast Travis Schlenk’s missteps into starker relief.
Schlenk corrected that mistake in somewhat short order by bringing in Jeff Teague in January, at which point Atlanta began to resemble an NBA team with Young off the floor. It’s safe to assume the Hawks won’t make the same error this offseason, but filling the backup point guard spot could be a tricky endeavor. The upcoming free-agent point guard class isn’t replete with transformative options, even in the backup range in which the Hawks will be shopping.
Rather than a dynamic ball-handler who constantly puts pressure on defenses, Atlanta’s best options might be less exciting veterans who will merely manage the offense when Young leaves the floor and provide capable floor balance in whatever amount of time they share the floor with Young. Atlanta, of course, still has the option of bringing Teague back -- perhaps the most likely option. If they don’t, however, these three alternatives could help solidify the Hawks’ second units.
Fred VanVleet (Toronto Raptors)
VanVleet’s name has been among the most frequent to arise in connection with the Hawks, but his fit in Atlanta may be slightly overstated. The point guard could command close to $20 million in free agency, which the Hawks -- who will target a backup point guard -- can offer. But they might not reap the same return on that investment that other teams would, and Atlanta might be better off allocating its resources elsewhere.
Part of VanVleet’s appeal is his ability to guard both backcourt positions. Generously listed at six feet tall, the 26-year-old has the strength, quickness, and tenacity to hold his own against bigger guards and speedy ball-handlers alike. He hounds shooters coming around screens and is a smart, disruptive defender away from the primary action. But part of what allows him to toggle between guard spots in Toronto is the defensive context in which he plays. Kyle Lowry is equally dogged and intelligent on that end of the floor, and with savvy, versatile defenders around him, VanVleet’s size limitations aren’t as pronounced. Atlanta wouldn’t offer the same luxury, which would place more defensive responsibility onto VanVleet. Neither he nor Huerter are the kind of defender that can mask Young’s deficiencies. If Atlanta intends on spending significant money on a backup point guard, it should consider one with more size and defensive versatility.
Offensively, VanVleet would fit on most any team as a backup point guard or secondary playmaker in the starting lineup. He’s a reliable 3-point shooter with incredibly deep range and has an arsenal of cagey interior finishing moves to compensate for his lack of size. He uses his bulk and speed to generate downhill momentum and has been a sound decision-maker his entire career (his kickout bounce-passes are among the most aesthetically pleasing passes in the game right now).
VanVleet would undoubtedly help the Hawks, but is he worth more than $10 million annually if he isn’t a clean fit with Young Would he even find Atlanta alluring enough to leave Toronto or turn down an opportunity to run the show elsewhere? Other backup point guards on the market -- including Jeff Teague -- come with similar drawbacks, but cheaper options would at least allow Atlanta to productively spend its money at other positions.
D.J. Augustin (Orlando Magic)
The last four seasons in Orlando have been some of the best of Augustin’s career, but the Magic could move in a different direction this summer. Markelle Fultz took Augustin’s place in the starting lineup early last year, but the team should still be open to the possibility of adding a long-term fixture at point guard. That could leave little room for the 11-year veteran, who will be up for a new deal this summer.
Augustin is, in many ways, the archetypal Solid NBA Backup Point Guard; he sets the table for others without commandeering the offense, scores efficiently when he does shoot the ball, spaces the floor, seldom turns the ball over, and plays competent defense at the point of attack. The Magic have been meaningfully better with Augustin on the court in each of the last three seasons, though that’s partly a reflection of their mediocre talent when he’s off the floor. The veteran isn’t particularly dynamic at this stage in his career, nor has he ever been the spearhead of an incredibly efficient offense, but his brand of reliable, unselfish play would serve most any team well.
Like most 6-foot guards, Augustin struggles to finish in the paint, but he’s a mostly reliable shooter from everywhere else on the floor. His 3-point shooting tends to fluctuate from year to year, though Augustin has hit at least 40 percent from deep in three of the last five seasons, and has enough versatility to punish defenses off the catch or off the dribble. The team that offers him his next deal will hope that last season -- his age-32 campaign -- was an aberration rather than a harbinger of decline.
Like VanVleet -- and most point guards -- Augustin’s size would make it difficult to effectively pair him with Young on defense, which effectively places a cap on how many minutes he can play each game. There simply aren’t many available point guards with the defensive versatility to play major minutes alongside the worst defensive starting point guard in the NBA (perhaps that’s an argument to overpay VanVleet). If the Hawks can’t find one, Augustin might be a safe place to land.
Though Temple has played point guard at certain points in his nine-year NBA career, he probably isn’t a primary ball-handler at this point, even on second units. But Temple is a steady, trustworthy veteran who could make life easier on other players, and might be one of the few available free agents capable of defending both guard positions. That, and Temple’s shooting ability, could allow him to share the floor with Young more than Teauge, VanVleet, or Augustin would.
A nine-year journeyman, Temple has 26 games of playoff experience -- more than any Hawk currently under contract for next season has -- and would meet Lloyd Pierce’s desire for a steady veteran who can also contribute on the floor. His 3-point percentage has declined each of the last two seasons, but Temple is a career 34.7 percent shooter from the beyond the arc. He’s a pesky defender on the ball and reliable in a team concept, though he certainly won’t singlehandedly transform his team’s defense into a juggernaut.
Signing Temple as a “backup point guard” would require a team to fill the position by committee -- a prospect Atlanta may not be comfortable with given how that approach worked last season. Perhaps signing Temple would accompany bringing back Teague or signing another point guard at a modest salary. The Nets have a $5 million team option on Temple for next season -- a decision that isn’t a no-brainer either way. (Brooklyn, like the Hawks, will have pivotal decisions to make this summer.) If they decline the option, it will likely mean that Temple’s market is richer than $5 million annually -- a price Atlanta may be unwilling to pay for a fairly limited and physically declining player. But like so many free-agent forwards, Temple’s value isn’t necessarily in what he brings to the table, but what he doesn’t take off of it.