We’re only barely into 2017 and the Atlanta Hawks will probably need the rest of the month to blow this whole thing up, but they are already crossing the road towards rebuilding despite still having a very real shot at winning the Southeast Division this season (for now).
The Hawks are at a crossroads of their own making. The core of this team is old, over half of this roster will be free agents in July and no one gives them a ghost of a chance of getting by the second round of the playoffs as constructed in a best case scenario. So, Kyle Korver is gone, Paul Millsap is expected to follow and things shouldn’t stop there.
This year’s starters Millsap, Korver and Dwight Howard are in their thirties as is sixth man Thabo Sefolosha and backup Kris Humphries. Millsap (PO), Korver, Sefolosha and Tim Hardaway Jr. (RFA) will be free agents along with Tiago Splitter, Humphries, and Mike Scott.
Sure the Hawks could have pointed to about $40 million in salary cap space next summer, but cap holds would have used up all of that and more and the Hawks are more worried about losing what they have for nothing than fantasizing about which free agents from other teams might be tempted to join them.
Another summer of losing their best player was (is still) definitely on the table and finding a replacement in free agency that would let them tread water again next year will be difficult to say the least.
So it appears that first round draft picks are the currency that will extract the Hawks veterans and in today’s NBA with exploding salaries, players coming in on rookie deals are the one class of asset management still has solid cost controls on.
To saddle the Hawks future with doom and gloom, however, would be a mistake. Dennis Schroder (23), Kent Bazemore (27) and Tim Hardaway (24) give them the start of a solid young core to build around and it should be possible to expand this group with players in their early to mid-twenties using their prime veteran players as trade bait. A complete tear down and rebuild from the ground up shouldn’t be necessary.
Millsap makes $20 million, so most teams will have to find at least $15 million worth of player contracts to send back and even if the Hawks get a decent first round draft pick in the deal, they aren’t going to accept players with deals extending past this season they wouldn’t be willing to keep on the roster. They should get at least one or two young players worth keeping.
While it might be hard to discern what the Hawks could get for their other players on expiring deals, they do have another impact player in Dwight Howard ($23 million, plus two more seasons totaling $47.3 million) who could take a contending team to the next level. Don’t laugh, Howard is averaging 14 points on 8.7 shots, 13.1 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 1.4 blocks in under 30 minutes. 7th in the NBA with 22 double-doubles and his salary is only about 2/3rds of next summer’s maximum so it isn’t as exorbitant as it sounds.
The Hawks may have “brought Howard home,” but things change and if the Hawks are willing to trade Millsap to get younger and acquire picks, they may as well start shopping the 31-year-old Howard as well. Korver is just the guy who got this party started.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.
Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson