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Atlanta Hawks quietly improve, leave organizational questions open at trade deadline

The Hawks are better on the floor than they were last week.

NBA: New York Knicks at Atlanta Hawks Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

The dust has settled with regard to the 2017 NBA trade deadline and the Atlanta Hawks are better than they were last week. That is the simplest way to explain what transpired over the past 48 hours.

With that said, there is more to consider from an organizational sense than simply how the team looks and there are a number of factors in play.

On the floor

Ersan Ilyasova is a significant upgrade over what the Hawks have been deploying at the backup power forward position. The veteran forward was acquired in a deal from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Tiago Splitter’s contract and second-round draft considerations.

He immediately represents the best option available behind Paul Millsap, with Mike Scott (now in Phoenix) struggling and both Mike Muscala and Kris Humphries better suited for minutes at center. The Hawks have toyed with “small ball” lineups featuring players like Thabo Sefolosha, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Taurean Prince at the 4 in order to provide offense, but Ilyasova’s ability as a floor-spacer will help and he is physical enough to play the position credibly.

As noted above, losing Scott is not a blow to the on-court product, as he has regressed wildly after peaking a year ago. The Hawks will, in addition, have two open roster spots to play with and Chris Vivlamore of the AJC reports that the team could add through either the buyout or D-League markets in the near future.

What the Hawks gave up

The Hawks did well in not mortgaging major assets in order to upgrade in the short term. Atlanta will send a protected second-round pick owed from the Miami Heat in the Ilyasova trade and the franchise will also take a haircut in swapping second-round picks with the Golden State Warriors.

In short, that is a real, live downgrade in draft assets, but the Hawks do have the Brooklyn Nets second-round selection (likely to be No. 31 overall) to go along with extra first-round picks in both 2018 (via Minnesota) and 2019 (via Cleveland). In terms of the Scott trade, it is a cost-saving move that doesn’t affect the on-court product but it does save the ownership group a bit of cash and provide roster flexibility. That’s a win.

What’s next?

The ominous cloud hanging over the organization at this moment is that the future was not addressed before the deadline. Paul Millsap was removed from the trade market in advance of the deadline, leaving little doubt as to where he would be for the rest of the year, but the Hawks will exit the All-Star break with seven expiring contracts on a 13-man roster.

Millsap was likely a command a five-year deal that could reach “max” money and, given his tenure in the league, contract figures could rise to more than $180 million. That is, for all intents and purposes, going to be a negative investment if signed, and that situation also influences decisions on pending free agents including Tim Hardaway Jr., Mike Muscala and Thabo Sefolosha.

At the moment, the Atlanta Hawks are 32-24 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a likelihood to remain in that position through the end of the regular season. However, there are four teams solidly better than Atlanta (including a Toronto team that upgraded by adding both Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker) and the Hawks have outperformed every metric with their current record.

It remains quite clear that the Hawks are better than they were during their final contests before the break and the return of Thabo Sefolosha from injury will only help matters in that regard. Still, Atlanta simply kicked the can down the road when it comes to the real organizational decisions that must be made in the future. In short, the past 48 hours made it more likely that the Hawks will either overpay to keep their best player in July or be left with a gaping hole without the requisite flexibility to fill it in the short term.

These are not new decisions for the Atlanta Hawks but their tact at the deadline was clear. The team “bought” and did so responsibly, but the next step is still wildly unclear and, frankly, treacherous at best if the long-term organizational goal is to bring a title to Atlanta.