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The Atlanta Hawks and the Middle Build

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With Kent Bazemore resigning and Dwight Howard coming home, the Hawks have again shown a resolve to not bottom out.  With this in mind, let’s look at the team’s commitment to the “middle build.”

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Current NBA roster building preferences seem polarized between super team formations and tanking (insert whichever Sam Hinkie joke you like) aka lottery pick accumulation. However, there are a few teams, such as the Hawks, who take different approaches. The Hawks have built, and continue to build, their roster by using the middle build. A process which keeps the team competitive while infusing and developing talent simultaneously.

Eyeing undervalued free agents has become a staple of Atlanta’s middle build. Atlanta has become the Pimp My Ride of NBA franchises.

Like Xzibit and West Coast Customs, Mike Budenholzer and his staff specialize in finding underappreciated assets and transforming them into works of basketball, instead of automotive, art. This process started with Paul Millsap in 2013. A solid starter in Utah, the Jazz let Millsap enter free agency because of younger forwards on the roster. The Hawks swooped in to sign him to an affordable 2-year, $19 million deal. Almost a month later, the Hawks decide to kick the tires on another former Jazz player, Demarre Carroll. A wing defender who did not offer much offense at the time, Carroll received a nifty 2-year, $5 million deal. Kent Bazemore was signed to a paltry 2 year, $4 million contract as an athletic wing and renowned bench celebrator.

The key to signing these undervalued players is offering short “prove it” style contracts. The Hawks have cleverly used shorter team deals like Paul Millsap’s current one (3 years with a player option for ’17-‘18) to entice players to sign, allowing the possibility to re-enter free agency quicker for another pay day. Not only does this allow for players to enter the free agency pool again at a younger age to cash in on another deal, it also ensures the Hawks continue to have financial flexibility which has proven to be one of their biggest priorities.

The downfall of this financially savvy approach arises if the player outplays expectations and signs elsewhere during his next free agency experience. Since the team can only offer Early Bird rights, actual cap space must be used to sign the player. Suddenly, Demarre Carroll is offered 60 million dollars by Toronto and departs for Canada. Paul Millsap receives a three-year max deal. Kent Bazemore’s new contract is worth 17.5 times more money than before!

This brings us to today and the results of the madness that was 2016 free agency. As previously mentioned, the Baze Gaze will stay an Atlanta tradition for another four years. Following the model to stay competitive, Atlanta GM Wes Wilcox made it abundantly clear a week before free agency began that resigning Bazemore was a team priority. Bazemore’s 4-year, $70 million deal seems exorbitant, but in the context of the 2016 salary cap explosion, it might prove to be savvy contract with less productive wings like Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe receiving similar contracts.

Before Al Horford shipped up to Boston, the Hawks signed three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. Such a signing appears as an alternate route than the middle build, but upon a closer look, Howard could be yet another undervalued project for Bud and company to transform. Having finished his worst scoring season (13.7 ppg) since being a rookie, the Hawks organization must believe they can develop and retool Dwight into a highly functional piece of the Hawks. Believing that Howard will return to his MVP form might be foolish, but if there is any team in the NBA that can rehabilitate his play (and image), it’s Atlanta.

Finally, the sneaky signing of Malcolm Delaney falls right in line with recent Hawks signings. The point guard has a difference than the likes of Carroll or Bazemore in that he is a five-year European professional who has never played in the NBA before. Yet, he fits the Hawks system as a guard who can run the pick and roll, plus shoot from distance (40.2% from 3 last season). The most important detail might be how affordable his contract is, especially in the free agency period. Delaney will make $2.5 million dollars over two years. That is pennies in today’s NBA.

Dream Team? Not here. “Trust the Process”? Not us. The Atlanta Hawks have built a roster ignoring those trends, culminating in the 60 win 2014-2015 season. Will the Hawks ever climb to that regular season height again? Will they advance to the NBA finals utilizing this competitive model? Find out on the next episode of Pimp My Hawks! Coach Bud and his “East Coast Customs” team will be scouting, finding, and developing talent that the rest of the basketball world has overlooked.