Atlanta fans have been clamoring for change after change after two seasons of declining basketball since Danny Ferry was fired as general manager. Mike Budenholzer has been relieved of his presidential duties. Wes Wilcox appears to have kept a job in the front office but is no longer the GM. The organization is now officially on the search for a new GM. Atlanta has some terrific assets, but the NBA is a league where the good can be easily outdone by one or multiple bad contracts. Atlanta has seemed to rack up a couple of those, and the future of the organization is cloudy at best. The new GM is going to have to make some tough decisions, but there is a way out of this mess.
The current Hawks team is full of some really good situations and a couple really bad ones. The good begins with a trio of young players that could blossom into the core of a championship team. Dennis Schroder leads the way as the team’s starting point guard. In his first year as a starter, Schroder averaged 17.9 points a game and 6.3 assists. His turnovers were an issue during the regular season, but come playoff time Schroder showed his true potential. He averaged 24.7 points with 7.7 assists and most importantly controlled the game by limiting his turnovers to 1.7 a game. Schroder is a prime-time player made for the spotlight. He will continue to develop into an all-star.
Beyond Schroder, the Hawks feature two young wing players that could start on the team for the next five-plus seasons. Tim Hardaway Jr. was arguably the Hawks’ best player the second half of the season. He averaged over 17 points a game on 47.1% shooting. The ability to create his own shot and score off the dribble is something the Hawks have lacked for years. Hardaway Jr. is set to become a restricted free agent this offseason. There will be teams bidding for his services, but there is mutual interest in him returning to Atlanta. The Hawks should make it a priority to retain Hardaway in free agency.
Finally, there is Taurean Prince, the Hawks exciting young rooking who was promoted to a starting role in the postseason. Prince may put a end to the infamous Baylor curse, implying no Baylor player can succeed in the NBA. After seeing limited playing time the majority of the year, Prince began to see minutes the second half of the season and ran with the opportunity. He became the first Hawks player to score double-digits in his first four postseason games since Pete Maravich and the first rookie to do it in the NBA since Thaddeus Young. Prince is raw, but his shot saw massive improvement in year one along with his defense. It is going to be fun to watch him progress as a starter over an entire regular season.
The bad part is there are a few dark clouds looming over the future of the organization as well. The smallest of them (figuratively not literally) is Dwight Howard. The 3-year, $70.5 million signing of the infamously cancerous big-man was the most intriguing of the offseason. Howard vowed to put the team first, and for 82 games all seemed well. He quietly led the Hawks in PER at 20.79 and was the defensive anchor along with the rebounder that the Hawks had been lacking. It was only after a poor postseason performance by Howard that resulted in several fourth quarter benchings, did this marriage seem it may be heading towards disaster. Howard voiced his frustrations on being benched after the playoffs, and wars between Dwight Howard and the franchise have never been won by the franchise.
However, there are two bright spots that can be found in the Howard situation. The first is that these comments came after an emotional ending to a playoff series. Howard should be unhappy about being benched. Budenholzer may have made the wrong decision in benching him. They will reportedly be meeting to discuss the situation in the coming weeks. It is likely the two can work it out and Howard can continue to build off a productive first season in Atlanta. If there truly is a disconnect in philosophy and a move must be made, it is entirely possible the Hawks can find a suitor for Howard. Regardless of many people’s opinion of Howard, he is still a highly productive NBA player that has a reasonable contract in the NBA’s exponentially increasing cap era. The Hawks might not receive much, but they could move his contract and move on without him.
The second cloud revolves around the contract situation of Paul Millsap. Millsap has already stated that he is “probably going to” opt out. This is reasonable and Atlanta will have the best shot of anyone to sign him. However, Millsap is on the wrong side of 30 and due for a humongous raise. It is no guarantee he keeps up this kind of production into his late 30’s. The Hawks are faced with a tough decision here because they will be forced to overpay to keep Millsap, but without him there is no choice but to rebuild.
The cumulus cloud hanging over the organization is the 4-year, $70-million contract given to Kent Bazemore last offseason. This move alone makes it extremely difficult for the Hawks to take the next step into championship contention. In a league that is all about how many superstars are on one team, the Hawks kind-sorta have one and are in desperate need of another. With Kent Bazemore’s contract on the books, it is much harder for the Hawks to acquire another superstar and keep the current core together.
At this point, it is going to take a Joe Johnson trade miracle part two for the Hawks to trade Kent Bazemore’s contract. Bazemore barely shot over 40% from the field over the regular season and was eventually moved to the bench. If he cannot improve on those numbers in year two of his deal, his contract will end up hamstringing the organization for it’s duration. With that in mind, Paul Millsap might find his best chances of winning are elsewhere. A rebuild may be inevitable.
A rebuild may be the best course of action. In that case, the Hawks situation is not that bad. Atlanta has three emerging players and five first-round draft picks in the next three years and six more in the second-round. Atlanta has done rather well in the draft in recent years and could be in line for some high picks in the event of a rebuild. Kent Bazemore’s contract will continue to look less abdominal as the cap continues to increase. In a few years, the Hawks could have a couple of established stars, top-flight rookies and cap space to go after envied free-agents. It is never easy to commit to a rebuild, but Atlanta is in a good position to flip their roster quickly, and in the long-run take a quicker route to becoming a championship contender.