Many teams, commentators and fans view team building as a “championship or bust” exercise. While winning should be every team’s goal (in the short-term and/or the long-term), this mentality overstates the significance of championships and understates the entertainment value of the NBA over the course of a season.
The Philadelphia 76ers have preached this idea to their fans for the past three seasons while they’ve fielded rosters with marginal NBA talent and hoarded future draft picks en masse. At a high level, I don’t necessarily disagree with their process. If NBA history proves anything, it’s that very few teams win championships and those that do tend to have a true superstar, if not multiple superstars, leading their teams to victory. The trouble with this rationale, though, is that superstars are, by definition, rare and difficult to obtain. For the teams without a Hall of Fame, top 20 player, a championship or bust approach dependent upon a true superstar (rather than a Carmelo Anthony-level “superstar”) is a recipe for disappointment.
The Hawks, by losing to Lebron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, “busted” under the “championship or bust” rationale. By any other measure, though, this Hawks season was a resounding success. In winning 60 games, the Hawks not only wildly exceeded their preseason expectations, they also proved a valuable lesson to the rest of the league.
The lasting legacy of the 2014-2015 Hawks isn’t further proof that teams without superstars cannot win the title; rather, the lasting legacy is that teams without superstars can nonetheless become title contenders through effective roster construction and excellent coaching. And for any team, with or without a superstar, title contention ought to be what fans hope for. Once a team makes it to the conference finals, all that could separate them from the Larry O’Brien Trophy is one ill-timed injury to a key player, a shooting slump or another variable beyond that team’s control. If Lebron were mortal, maybe he would have been the one on the sidelines this season, watching Kevin Love and a hobbled Kyrie Irving battle the Hawks in the conference finals. Instead, though the Cavaliers certainly faced their own injury issues with Love and Irving, they had the best player on the planet, and the hobbled Hawks, after key injuries to four of their top seven players, were simply no match for Lebron’s excellence.
(As an aside – given the social climate around the county, how has Thabo Sefolosha’s injury not been a bigger story these last several weeks?!? He was arguably their best wing defender and likely would have split Lebron duties with DeMarre Carroll. His loss greatly inhibited Atlanta’s ability to counteract Lebron and no one seems to be talking about it.)
Moreover, a team in title contention provides an entertaining product for its fans from October into May and hopefully June. As a fan of a franchise that has been in contention for a grand total of one season and hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since Barack Obama took office, I can attest that rebuilding phases, even with the hope of future lottery luck, are painful. Atlanta’s regular season revitalized what had been a moribund fanbase and Hawks fans were treated to an exciting brand of basketball with the hope that the team will continue to develop the culture that some, including Lebron himself, have deemed “Spurs East” despite their lack of a superstar.
After getting knocked out in the conference finals earlier this week, then, what can we expect from the Hawks this offseason to maintain their place amongst the NBA’s elite teams?
Year-by-Year Contract Status
Free Agent Cap Holds and Early Bird Rights
The two biggest questions for the Hawks this offseason are obviously the fates of Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll. With the salary cap projected at $67.1 million, the Hawks will have roughly $24 million in cap room, depending on cap holds and their non-guaranteed contracts. Even if the Hawks are able to re-sign Millsap, he could earn as much as $19 million a year, or double the $9.5 million he earned under his previous deal. Millsap’s signing could very well spell the end of Carroll’s tenure with Atlanta, as the Hawks wouldn’t have the cap space to sign Millsap to a max deal and still use either their remaining cap space or Carroll’s early Bird rights if Carroll wants a contract in the $10 million a year range, as some have stated could be his value. And Carroll, turning 29 this summer and at the tail end of his prime, could look to cash in on his excellent season and postseason given the relatively small contracts he has received throughout his career. Cap gymnastics and possible salary-dump moves could provide the Hawks sufficient space to re-sign both, but that may require one or both of Millsap and Carroll to accept less than their full market value.
2015-2016 Depth Chart (UFAs & RFAs excluded)
Looking at their depth chart, the Hawks have glaring holes to fill at the forward positions regardless of what happens with Millsap and Carroll. This season proved that Kent Bazemore and Mike Scott are average-at-best rotation players with limited upside, and Atlanta’s reliance on those two for significant minutes in the playoffs exposed the Hawks’ lack of depth. The Hawks also lack a consistent backcourt shooting threat on the bench. Sefolosha is a defense-first player that’ll be coming off a significant leg injury. And for all the development of Dennis Schröder this year into a primary ball handler, Schröder is still just a league-average three-point shooter whose primary offensive weapon is his ability to get into the lane. Given the success Mike Budenholzer has had with capable outside threats throughout the lineup and the spacing it provides, the Hawks will likely look to address their backcourt depth as well.
Atlanta Hawks Draft Picks under GM Danny Ferry
Most mock drafts predict that the Hawks will address either of the forward positions with the 15th pick. Danny Ferry’s (still on leave of absence but could rejoin the team) draft history with the Hawks, though an admittedly small sample, suggests an affinity for experienced players with an established track record of success. This remains true from his time both with San Antonio and Cleveland in previous personnel roles. Aside from Schroder, the Hawks’ selections have also generally been low-risk, low-reward players who can contribute immediately. (Lucas Nogueira, generally regarded as a raw player with high upside, was acquired from the Mavericks on draft night and was later traded as part of a cost-cutting move.)
With this context in mind, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, assuming they last until the Hawks’ selection, both fit the profile of Ferry selections and would be good fits in the motion-based offense of Budenholzer. Each possess the ability to extend their shots out to the three-point arc as well as the ball handling and playmaking abilities necessary to attack closeouts and get into the paint. Trey Lyles is another common mock draft selection who fits this mold of a versatile forward capable of playing in space.
For a dark-horse selection, the Hawks may look to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as a Carroll replacement if they don’t believe they’ll be able to re-sign the versatile wing player. Hollis-Jefferson is a virtual Carroll clone physically and projects as an elite wing defender capable of guarding positions 2-4. While some may point to his lack of a three-point shot as an unlikely fit in Atlanta, remember that Carroll shot a grand total of 25 three-pointers through his first three years in the league. Ferry and Budenholzer were also with San Antonio when the Spurs selected an elite defensive prospect with the size and athleticism to defend four positions but with a raw offensive game. If Atlanta believes they can coax out of Hollis-Jefferson a similar shooting improvement to that of Carroll or Kawhi Leonard, he’d immediately help fill Carroll’s void and provide depth on the front line, with the upside to do more.
Through Atlanta’s team-building approach, the Hawks proved that they’re title contenders despite their lack of superstar personnel. Facing an offseason of uncertainty, the question now arises: can they maintain it?