The Atlanta Hawks are in the midst of one of the longest streaks of making the playoffs in the NBA. They have qualified for the postseason in 10 consecutive years and have advanced past the first round in five of those seasons. This run of consistency has cemented the perception that the Hawks are perpetually stuck on the treadmill as a good but never great team.
After winning 60 games and reaching the conference finals in 2015, the Hawks slid back slightly in 2016 and then faced a summer of major roster turnover. Jeff Teague was traded at the draft for a first round pick and Al Horford left as a free agent for the Boston Celtics. A third starter, Kent Bazemore, who is one of the more successful products of what Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux have coined “Hawks University”, re-signed for $70 million over four years.
Atlanta used two first round picks, their own pick and the one acquired in the Teague trade, to draft DeAndre Bembry and Taurean Prince. Bembry appeared in only 38 games, mostly playing garbage time minutes in a developmental season. Prince, on the other hand, was a pleasant surprise. He played in 59 games, starting 10, and scored 5.7 points per game, along with solid defense. He was even better in the playoffs, as he started all six games of the Hawks first round loss to the Washington Wizards. He scored 11.2 points per game and grabbed 5.3 rebounds per game in the postseason and showed he may be Atlanta’s long term small forward.
The Hawks were able to trade Teague because of the presence of Dennis Schroder behind him on the roster. Atlanta bet on their former backup being ready for the starting role and gave him a four-year, $62 million extension that starts with the 17-18 season. Schroder paid back this faith with career-highs across the board and stepping up to average 24.7 points per game in the playoffs.
To replace Horford, the Hawks brought Dwight Howard home to Atlanta with a three-year deal worth $70.5 million. Despite some slippage in his game as he has aged, Howard remains one of the better centers in the NBA. He was his typically solid self inside on both ends of the floor.
Atlanta then filled out the rotation by re-signing Kris Humphries and added Malcolm Delaney to be the new backup point guard. The Hawks swung two more trades during the season. The first was to move Kyle Korver to Cleveland for Mike Dunleavy and a future first round pick. Korver was completing the final year of his contract and the Hawks were floundering a bit at the time of the trade in early January. Getting a first round pick and a useful player in Dunleavy was solid work by Atlanta.
The second deal was smaller, but ultimately just as impactful for the Hawks, as they traded Tiago Splitter to Philadelphia for Ersan Ilyasova. Splitter was never healthy and barely played over two years in Atlanta. Ilyasova gave the Hawks solid minutes when Paul Millsap was out with an injury and could return as a free agent this summer.
Millsap’s case was a bit different for Atlanta. When Korver was traded in early January, Millsap was also put on the trading block in a move that seemed to signal the Hawks were blowing up the roster. Following severe backlash from the fan base, Atlanta pulled Millsap off the market and let it be known they would be keeping him for the rest of the season. He put together another good year and then was terrific in the playoffs, but the question remains: is Millsap coming back to the Hawks this summer?
Millsap is already 32 and this is likely his last chance to cash in on a big contract. As a productive power forward that can play on both ends, Millsap will have no shortage of suitors. Several teams that are looking to take the next step to make the playoffs, like Denver or Minnesota, are expected to be interested. And teams like Boston, who have cap space and are just shy of being title contenders, could get in the mix as well. The Hawks would love to see Millsap return, but have to be smart. Extending big money over several years for an older player, could create a tricky cap situation as they move forward. With major money already committed to Howard, Schroder and Bazemore, Atlanta needs to be careful, otherwise they will have an older, expensive roster.
If Millsap does leave, the Hawks could re-sign Ilyasova as a far cheaper alternative. Ilyasova fits in well next to Howard with his ability to space the floor as a stretch 4. He’s also a solid positional defender, who annually finishes among the league leaders in charges taken.
Atlanta’s other major free agent of concern is Tim Hardaway Jr. After being acquired from the New York Knicks, Hardaway has become the latest graduate from “Hawks University”. He broke out to average 14.5 points per game on solid shooting numbers. He showed an increased ability to create his own look off the dribble as well. He’s a restricted free agent, so Atlanta can match any offers he might get. Hardaway is likely a touch below Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Detroit Pistons on the restricted free agent shooting guard pecking order. But there are executives around the league who prefer Hardaway, especially as a slightly cheaper option to Caldwell-Pope. Teams like Brooklyn and Philadelphia that have the cap space to make an offer and a need at shooting guard could put together an offer sheet that makes the Hawks pause on matching.
Atlanta’s other two free agents that bear watching are Mike Muscala and Thabo Sefolosha. Muscala has blossomed as a bench big man, who can play either center or power forward. He has good range on his jumper and fits several teams as the new age stretch 5 that is so en vogue around the NBA right now. Sefolosha continues to be a good defender that shoots just well enough to qualify in the 3&D role NBA teams are always looking for. Both players could return or could price themselves out of the Hawks plans rather quickly.
The other free agents, Jose Calderon and Humphries, are likely minimum salary players who have value on a playoff team. Atlanta can wait and see on both players, just as both can afford to wait and see what the situation is in Atlanta before deciding on where to play next year.
The Hawks also have Dunleavy on partially guaranteed contract for 17-18. He did a nice job as a bench wing for Atlanta and could return, as he’s guaranteed to get $1.6 million of his $5.1 million salary. If the Hawks believe they need the extra $3.5 million in cap space, they will move on from Dunleavy with no concern. Ryan Kelly is Atlanta’s other non-guaranteed player and is likely to return for at least a training camp run at a roster spot.
By making the playoffs, Atlanta has the 19th pick in the draft and, through trade, has the first pick of the second round at 31st overall. Given the Hawks' ability to find players later in the draft, they should be able to add talent with both picks. This is the first decision facing new General Manager Travis Schlenk, who comes to Atlanta fresh off helping to build a burgeoning dynasty with the Golden State Warriors.
Free agent and trade targets are hard to project for Atlanta. Everything hinges on Paul Millsap and if he returns or not. If Millsap leaves, with Howard, Schroder and Bazemore in the fold, Atlanta won’t rebuild. They’ll pivot to replacing Millsap with veterans on short term deals, while also developing their draft picks. If Millsap re-signs, the Hawks won’t have the cap space to make many additions and will likely look the same as the previous edition.
There is something to be said for a franchise making the playoffs year after year. It shows a sign of commitment to winning consistently. But at some point it begs the question of: is simply making the postseason enough? The Spurs have an unparalleled run of 20 consecutive seasons in the playoffs. The Spurs have also won five titles over that period are always contenders. For a franchise that fancies themselves as “Spurs East”, the challenge facing Schlenk is taking the Hawks from good to great. And that jump is often a lot harder than making the leap from bad to good.
Guaranteed Contracts (6): Kent Bazemore, DeAndre Bembry, Malcolm Delaney, Dwight Howard, Taurean Prince, Dennis Schroder
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (2): Mike Dunleavy, Ryan Kelly
Potential Free Agents (7): Jose Calderon (UFA), Tim Hardaway Jr. (RFA), Kris Humphries (UFA), Ersan Ilyasova (UFA), Paul Millsap (UFA), Mike Muscala (UFA), Thabo Sefolosha (UFA)
“Dead” Money on Cap (0): None
First Round Draft Pick(s): #19
Maximum Cap Space: $32,043,937
Projected Cap Space: None. $33,958,851 over