Our offseason plan for the Atlanta Hawks

 

The playoffs are here and we should all be soaking up every minute of that. However, there are a few teams that have already entered their offseason — 14 lottery teams (that we’ve already covered) and 8 more teams that got sent packing in R1.

Today, we’re going with perhaps the highest win/attention ratio in the league. NBA TV’s own:

ATLANTA HAWKS

Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks should try and retain Paul Millsap.

50 years from now, we’re going to have to explain the success of Gregg Popovich and Bill Belichick in their respective sports. How can a coach be that good for that long? Obviously each had a star player to build their dynasty around, but in general, they’ve both taken a hodgepodge of undervalued talented and spun gold year after year. They’ve achieved sustained success lasting nearly two decades each. Whatever the “magic formula” is, they have it.

One difference between the two is: Bill Belichick doesn’t share that formula with anyone. His lieutenants have continued to be high-profile flops whenever they dare to go off on their own: from Charlie Weis to Eric “Mangenius” Mangini, to Josh McDaniels (so far, anyway).

Meanwhile, Pop’s disciples have actually started to produce results and create basketball cultures of their own. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer started strong in Atlanta, winning 60 games by year two. In turn, his assistants have gone off to coaching jobs, including coach of the year candidate Quin Snyder in Utah, and the promising Kenny Atkinson in Brooklyn.

All four of those coaches have an ability to draw up plays, sure, but it’s the ability to develop talent that’s become their signature. And for an NBA franchise, that’s not small feat. Whether it’s being able to turn a fringe player into a capable 3-and-D starter, or a good starter like Kawhi Leonard into a legitimate MVP, that development is crucial to sustained success in the NBA.

Right now, the Hawks are going to need it. The team still made the playoffs without Al Horford, but they’re trending in the wrong direction (43-39 this year). Coach Bud is going to reverse that momentum to prove he actually escaped San Antonio with the magic formula in tow. Here are some steps to take in order to do that.

(1) Give it a try

It’s become the laziest trope in the media to constantly say “blow it up!” about every team. And sure, it makes some sense in this case. Even if the team re-signs Paul Millsap (a free agent), they can’t win the title; heck, they’re going to struggle to advance past round one.

But what are you going to do about that? Blow it up? Trade off your pieces and descend down into the depths of the lottery and take 5-6 years to rebuild to make the playoffs again? That’s a lot easier said by a writer with no skin in the game than done by an owner who actually needs to sell tickets. Making the playoffs may not be the ultimate goal, but it’s a fine goal to have.

If the Hawks can keep up their playoff streak, that is a selling point for their future. A potential star will have to look at this franchise, and this coach, as an appealing destination. Success breeds success, and the Hawks can strive to create a culture that guarantees the playoffs on every season ticket sold.

(2) Open up the checkbook (but prepare a backup plan) for Millsap

For the second summer in a row, the Hawks face the possibility of a star leaving them in the lurch with no way to recoup that talent. This time, it’ll be Paul Millsap.

Make no mistake: even if he’s still not a national name, Millsap is a genuine star. He’s a versatile player on both ends. In fact, his ability to switch on defense may be his most underrated attribute. ESPN’s real +/- metric calculates him as a +3.46 on defense, one of the better marks in the league. It’d be awfully difficult to replace a talent like that. A player like Paul Millsap is worth $30+ million a year.

For now. But the Hawks’ brass needs to be practical about this as well. Millsap is 32 years old, which is already older than Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard (two players generally seen as past their prime.) His 3-point shooting dipped last year (31.1%) although that can be explained by too much attention to him. But regardless of how long it takes, Millsap will start declining as a player eventually. He’s worth $30+ million now, but for how long?

Personally, I would try to avoid a 4-5 year deal with Millsap. There’s almost no chance Millsap will still be a max-level player when he’s 35+ years old, seeing as how his feet will slow down and cause his defensive prowess to decline. I’d try to conjure up a contract that pays him handsomely, for 3 years, with maybe a team option the year after.

There’s a VERY GOOD chance that hard line would cause Millsap to balk, and go elsewhere for the full max he can be afforded by them. Even though most NBA franchises would be cautious about a long-term deal for a 32-year-old, all it takes is one. And if that happens… so be it. The Hawks can NOT allow their long-term future to be put at risk like that.

If that does happen, and Millsap leaves, the Hawks can try to find some pieces to replace him. Current Hawk (and current free agent) Ersan Ilyasova does offer some decent spacing and rebounding (5.8 boards in 24.3 minutes). Raptors’ free agent Patrick Patterson is having a bad year offensively but does have fluidity on defense. If you can sign both for the same price as one Millsap, that’s not a huge downgrade. In fact, I believe the Hawks would still be in the playoff picture with them.

(3) But don’t write a SECOND fat check

The Hawks have another big free agent decision to make, regarding free agent shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr., a restricted free agent this summer.

Hardaway Jr. is in a different stage of his career to Millsap. The 25-year-old finally had a breakout season in Atlanta, scoring 14.5 points per game in only 27.3 minutes a night. He kept improving as the season went on, shooting 47.1% (37.3% from three) after the All-Star break.

The timing couldn’t be better for Hardaway the Younger because he’s about to get PAID. There are a handful of young restricted free agent swingmen this offseason, including Otto Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Both of those players may actually get the max (or close to it) which means teams in need may turn their attention on Hardaway Jr. as a consolation prize. I wouldn’t be shocked if Hardaway gets paid $17+ million a year; I’d expect that.

Should the Hawks pay a tab like that? I don’t think so. Hardaway is definitely an ascending player, but he’s a limited one. At 6’6″, he’s more of a pure shooting guard who would struggle with bigger small forwards. His defensive +/- was a -1.10, suggesting as much.

More than anything, I’d feel okay with letting Hardaway get overpaid elsewhere because of the aforementioned ability of Mike Budenhozer to develop talent, particularly at the wing.

In fact, the Hawks already have a promising project in the works there, in the form of rookie Taurean Prince. Your comfort with letting Hardaway Jr. go is directly proportional to your faith in Prince, and mine is high. Prince is longer than Hardaway and more capable on defense already (ESPN charted him as a +2.50 on defense — as a rookie!). His offense is a work in progress, but he’s not too far away there (32.4% from three last season.)

And that’s where the talents of Coach Bud need to come into play. Rather than overpaying Tim Hardaway Jr. now, the team needs to rely on its coach to mold Prince into that level of player sooner than later. Prince is locked into a long rookie deal, so it’s the much cheaper and pragmatic solution.

Fellow rookie DeAndre Bembry seems farther away in his development, so I’d re-sign Thabo Sefolosha to help with the immediate depth on the wing. Sefolosha’s older now, but he’s still a lockdown defender. A G-F rotation of Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Sefolosha isn’t going to be the strength of the team, but it’s passable — especially on D. And that’s a much cheaper option than paying both Bazemore AND Hardaway $17 million a season.

There are a few more tweaks I’d make to this Hawks team (finding a better backup PG than Malcolm Delaney, re-signing Mike Muscala) but all in all, the goal remains the same. Make the playoffs, again, and again, and again — even if the games will only be shown on NBA TV.

 

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