The Hawks were both the most and least surprising team last year. In the regular season, they came out of nowhere to win 19 games in a row and secured the top seed in the Eastern Conference. However, many questioned the Hawks’ ability to convert their success to the postseason.
After the injury to Thabo Sefolosha, Atlanta lost a lot of its regular-season shine. It took the Hawks six games to dispatch the lowly Nets, and they beat a Wizards team that lost John Wall for three games to a wrist injury. Ultimately, Atlanta finished where people expected, losing to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals in an ugly four-game sweep.
It’s impossible to say that Sefolosha’s presence would’ve been enough to swing the series in the Hawks’ favor, but it was still a loss of a key player to a team whose biggest strength was its deep and balanced roster. There were several other injuries as well that hurt Atlanta against Cleveland, and the question the Hawks have to ask themselves is whether or not they should try to keep together the same team from last year or try to go in a different direction.
Currently, the Hawks have three players in their main rotation hitting free agency: Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antic. Antic is reportedly heading back overseas, so he’s going to be out of the picture. Millsap and Carroll are the top priorities anyway, but because Atlanta only owns their Early Bird rights, bringing everyone back to the team may not be as easy as one might think.
A team is allowed to use the Early Bird exception to re-sign its own player and go over the cap, but in that scenario, the team can only offer the free agent up to 175 percent of their salary from the prior year or 104.5 percent of the average player salary from the previous season (whichever is higher). If the player wants more than that, cap space must be used, and that’s the situation the Hawks face with Carroll reportedly looking for an eight-figure salary and Millsap possibly seeking out a max deal. Carroll can only get about $5.8 million in the first year of a new deal with the Early Bird exception, while Millsap could get about $16.6 million.
Atlanta is projected to have around $25 million in cap space to re-sign the two players, which certainly isn’t enough to fit both if cap space is required to keep both. Some salary dumps of smaller contracts would help, but it would still be cutting it close. One possibility is the Hawks using cap space to sign Carroll and then inking Millsap to a less-than-max deal with the Early Bird exception, although Millsap would have to be okay taking that deal and his cap hold would limit Carroll’s first-year salary to around $12 million. But one would think that would be enough for Carroll, and they’d be bringing back a team that won 60 games last year without losing anything of significance.
Once again though, the Hawks have to ask themselves if they’re on the right track to winning a championship with this specific core of players. Cleveland will have another offseason and training camp to become a more cohesive team, while the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers will be healthy next season. Free agency could help shift a bit more power to the East as well if players want to escape the loaded West. Atlanta may want to seriously consider moving on from one or more of its free agents and signing someone else on the market.
Depending on how much it would cost, Carroll would be the most likely casualty out of the two players. The Hawks can’t use any exceptions to go over the cap to sign him, and they’d be paying him at the absolute height of his value when he’s just about to turn 29 and doesn’t have a long track record of success. For the amount of money Atlanta would be paying him, perhaps the team instead goes after another free agent with that money, or maybe even split those dollars between several players. The exact amount of money available to spend would depend on what happens with Millsap, and there’s also the possibility of a sign-and-trade.
The Hawks could also choose to move on from both players, but that seems unlikely. At any rate, Atlanta has some interesting decisions to make that will shape its immediate future. The Hawks will likely still be good no matter what happens, but just how good will be the question.