Offseason Outlook: Atlanta Hawks

Hoops Rumors is looking ahead to offseason moves for all 30 teams. We’ll examine free agency, the draft, trades and other key storylines for each franchise as the summer approaches.

State of the Franchise

Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports Images

Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports Images

The Hawks enter the offseason coming off a humbling sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The franchise likely missed its best window to reach the NBA Finals in 2015, having won 60 games and earning the top seed in the Conference for its efforts. The 2014/15 Cleveland squad was still trying to gel together and the Bulls were hampered by another unfortunate run of injuries, but the Hawks still failed to capitalize and were sent home by the Cavs via a sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Atlanta took a step back this season, notching 48 wins and earning the fourth seed in this year’s playoffs. Both accomplishments are respectable, but the team almost assuredly had higher aspirations when the 2015/16 season tipped off. The Hawks have a number of vital roster decisions to make this offseason and the team may look drastically different in 2016/17 as a result.

Roster Decisions

The biggest decision the Hawks will need to make right out of the gate is whether or not to re-sign center Al Horford, who has spent his entire nine-year career with the team. Horford has been a remarkably consistent performer throughout his tenure and his $12MM salary for 2014/15 was extremely reasonable given his track record and output. The big man, who turns 30 next month, will have no shortage of suitors this offseason, with his current team in Atlanta expected to make him a max offer in July. However, it’s not yet clear whether the Hawks intend to offer Horford a five-year pact to go along with that max salary. While Atlanta appears to be strong frontrunners to lock up the veteran, Houston and other clubs figure to make pitches as well, if given the opportunity. While re-signing Horford would appear to be a no-brainer for the team, big men don’t traditionally age well in the league, so giving Horford a five-year pact is a risky move, regardless of the significant increase in the salary cap that takes effect for next season.

The Hawks will also need to make a decision regarding swingman Kent Bazemore, who enjoyed a breakout season for the team, averaging 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists over 75 appearances in 2015/16. Atlanta only has Early Bird rights on Bazemore, meaning it can only exceed the salary cap to keep him if his contract starts at less than about $6MM annually. Any additional salary for next season would have to come out of cap room, and given the cap flexibility that many teams will have this summer, there is a good chance that Bazemore will end up being overpaid as a result. Whether or not Atlanta will be the one to do so remains to be seen.

Atlanta will also need to decide whether or not Dennis Schröder is its point guard of the future, or if Jeff Teague should continue to be the starting playmaker. Both players have one season remaining on their current deals, though Schröder will only be a restricted free agent after next season, which may factor into the Hawks’ thinking. Teague was reportedly in high demand from a number of teams prior to February’s trade deadline, which certainly makes him and his team-friendly salary of $8MM a potentially valuable trade chip this offseason. Schröder, who has gone on record saying he wants to be a starter going forward, would also fetch a solid return, though his salary of $2,708,582 may make it harder to work a deal for an upper-tier player if Atlanta decides to part with him.

Free Agent Targets

The Hawks won’t know what roster holes they will need to fill until decisions are made regarding Horford and Bazemore. If both players re-sign, Atlanta will likely return all five starters and all five primary reserves from the 2015/16 campaign. While the organization certainly values continuity, this outcome may not be the best one for the team given the rapidly improving competition in the Eastern Conference.

If Horford leaves, Atlanta may be tempted to make a run at Dwight Howard, who is widely expected to opt out of his deal with Houston to become an unrestricted free agent. Howard is no longer the dominant physical force that he was during his tenure with the Magic, plus, he’s not a great fit for coach Mike Budenholzer‘s system. If the Hawks do pursue Howard, the only safe play is to sign him to a short-term deal, though there is no guarantee that Howard would accept such an arrangement. But inking a two-year pact that includes a player option for the second season could allow Howard to re-establish his value as well as rebuild his reputation as a teammate. This sort of arrangement would also serve to mitigate some of the risk involved on the team’s part, as big men always bring with them injury concerns and Howard already has a history of back woes.

The other area that the Hawks need to address, regardless of whether or not Bazemore is retained, is the team’s subpar outside shooting. Atlanta missed the presence of DeMarre Carroll, who departed via free agency to Toronto last summer, and the team could definitely benefit by upgrading at the wing. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kyle Korver don’t appear to be the solution, though Hardaway did show promise during the second half of the 2015/16 campaign. But questions about his defense and shot-selection make him far from a sure thing and Korver’s production has been on the decline the past two campaigns. This franchise desperately needs to add a new body to the mix.

There are a number of potential wing upgrades expected to be on the market, including J.R. Smith, Arron Afflalo and Austin Rivers, none of whom would be a great fit in the team’s offense. The most intriguing potential target for Atlanta is Magic swingman Evan Fournier, who would be a fantastic fit in Budenholzer’s system. The 23-year-old is set to become a restricted free agent and any suitors will need to grossly overpay for his services in order to scare off the Magic, who have stated they intend to keep the Frenchman.

Draft Outlook

The Hawks own the No. 21 overall pick, as well as two second-rounders (No. 44 and No. 54) in June’s draft. While it’s difficult to predict who the team will target given the other roster decisions Atlanta will need to make, the Hawks will likely look to add frontcourt depth in the first round. Some possibilities for the Hawks include Damian Jones (Vanderbilt), Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV), Cheick Diallo (Kansas), Ante Zizic (Croatia), Brice Johnson (North Carolina) and Diamond Stone (Maryland).

All of the players I mentioned would come with question marks, but Zimmerman and Diallo would be the smartest additions given their respective upsides. Diallo has impressed scouts with his physical tools during the combine and pre-draft workouts thus far, but he is a project that Atlanta may not be able to wait on to develop. The safer pick, provided he is still on the board when Atlanta is due to select, would be Zimmerman. There are major concerns regarding his ability to defend at the NBA level, but his versatile offensive skill set makes him a good bet to develop into a prototypical stretch-four in the league.

Final Take

The Hawks are in danger of allowing themselves to be overtaken in the Eastern Conference by a number of up-and-coming teams. Much of the franchise’s cap flexibility and offseason plans depend on the decisions made regarding Horford and Bazemore. Calls that will need to be made rather quickly once the free agent signing period commences. But even if both players are retained, Atlanta doesn’t look to be an improved squad heading into the 2016/17 campaign. Barring a big name free agent deciding to take a discount to join the Hawks, the team’s best chance at improving itself is to trade either Teague or Schröder for help on the wing.

Atlanta appears to be a franchise that will be doomed to be good enough to make the playoffs, but not talented or deep enough to be considered serious contenders for the foreseeable future. This will make it difficult to rebuild since the team isn’t likely to fall far enough in the standings to nab a lottery pick. Retaining Horford and Teague would maintain continuity, but perhaps the team would be better served in the long-run to deal Teague and allow Horford to depart. The fanbase may not appreciate taking a step back, but doing so may allow the franchise to remake itself into more than just an annual playoff-qualifier.

Guaranteed Salary

Player Options

  • None

Team Options

  • Mike Muscala ($1,015,696) — salary non-guaranteed even if option picked up

Non-Guaranteed Salary

Restricted Free Agents

  • None

Unrestricted Free Agents (Cap Holds)

Other Cap Holds

  • No. 21 pick ($1,207,500)

Projected Salary Cap: $92,000,000

The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

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