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Bad contracts, flexibility and Paul Millsap: An Atlanta Hawks free agency preview

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It’s set to be another wild off-season for the Atlanta Hawks...

NBA: Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

If you ask fans of the Atlanta Hawks about quiet summers regarding their team in recent years, they won’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

In 2015, both DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap hit the free agency market after the Hawks won 60 regular season games and made their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance. However, due to the fact that Atlanta only held “Early Bird” rights on both Carroll and Millsap, the Hawks could only afford to keep one of Millsap or Carroll. Subsequently, Carroll signed a lucrative deal with the Toronto Raptors as the Hawks inked Millsap to an extension. The Hawks also traded for Tiago Splitter, pairing the Brazilian center with Al Horford and Millsap.

In 2016, the Hawks infamously allowed Horford to walk away and sign with the Boston Celtics, traded Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers and signed free agent center Dwight Howard, as well as inking Kent Bazemore to a big-money four year extension.

And the Hawks are already off to a flier in 2017, even before free agency has begun, as the Hawks — now under the leadership of Travis Schlenk — traded Dwight Howard to the Charlotte Hornets, ending Dwight’s homecoming after just one season.

The Hawks are set to be much busier this summer in free agency than in seasons past — which is impressive in its own right — and that’s because seven Hawks players are hitting the free agency market, highlighted of course by Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr.

The Hawks don’t have the cap space to sign free agents, so — if they want to make some signings — the beginning of this summer is about who the Hawks let go/trade in order to free up some cap space with which to work with rather than who they decide to bring in.

And it all starts with Paul Millsap.

Atlanta’s free agency begins with Paul Millsap: What do the Hawks do?

When it comes to what the Hawks can achieve in free agency (barring any potential trades), Paul Millsap is the be-all and end-all.

If Millsap’s cap hold is kept/Millsap re-signs with the Hawks, that’s it for Atlanta’s cap space (again, unless the Hawks make some trades to relieve salary). If Millsap leaves/has his cap hold renounced, this will open up significant cap space to make some possible signings. Can the Hawks still talk and agree deals with potential targets? Sure. But until Millsap either signs with another team or has his cap hold renounced, the Hawks won’t be able to sign any sizable contract.

So, what do the Hawks do when it comes to Millsap? What should the Hawks do?

Well, let’s start with what kind of contract Millsap is looking at? Peachtree Hoops’ own salary cap expert Bob (hawksfanatic) broke down what a possible Millsap deal would look like many months ago and nothing has changed. This is the sort of deal Paul Millsap will want to sign, and finally cash in on the full extent of his worth having taken less money throughout his entire time with the Hawks.

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk has talked about ‘flexibility’ and ‘not signing bad contracts’. Signing Millsap to a four/five year max deal would go against everything Schlenk has said up to this point in his time with the Hawks. However, that doesn’t mean the Hawks won’t try and sign Millsap to an extension. They will try, but Schlenk has acknowledged that the Hawks may not be able to offer Millsap the same kind of contract that other teams may be willing to.

“We are going to make Paul our best offer,” Schlenk told the AJC earlier in June. “Will he have better offers? I don’t know. Do we want to keep Paul? Sure. I said last week, if you are building a team with all the things I’ve said, Paul checks all those boxes. He’s a hard-worker. He’s a good guy. He’s high-character. Skilled. He does all that stuff.

“We’d like to have him,” Schlenk added. “The reality is, he might get better offers than we can make him.” “...I can tell you we want Paul. We want to keep him. He checks everything.”

So, Schlenk has made it clear that the Hawks would like to keep Millsap but only for the right price/duration. The likelihood is that Paul Millsap — as is his right — will seek a maximum deal and the Hawks don’t seem as though they’re going to be willing to offer it.

For that reason, I don’t see Paul Millsap returning to Atlanta, and that’d be the right decision — for the sake of the long term future and ‘flexibility’ — for the Hawks to make.

What should the Hawks do with Tim Hardaway Jr.?

Unlike Paul Millsap, the Hawks completely control the destiny of Tim Hardaway Jr. after they tendered the qualifying offer to the young guard, making him a restricted free agent, giving Atlanta the right to match any offer sheet Hardaway Jr. may sign with another team.

Again, we have to apply ‘the Schlenk criteria’ with Hardaway as we did Millsap — ‘bad contracts’ and ‘flexibility’. Does a possible THJ extension fit under this criteria?

The answer to this is ‘yes’ but only if Hardaway receives an offer that exceeds, in my opinion at least, $13-15 million per year. If the Hawks were able to ink Hardaway to four year $43-50 million deal, that’d be good value for the Hawks but once you start getting past that $50 million range, you begin to question if this THJ is worth that kind of long term investment. Can he improve still and can he improve his, let’s be honest, pretty shady defense? Would that be a good contract to sign him to for the sake of the future? Would that give the Hawks ‘flexibility’? Possibly not.

So, what’s likely to happen here with Hardaway?

Is it likely that Hardaway will receive an offer sheet that the Hawks may be reluctant to match? It’s very possible, but you never know how teams are thinking this year as opposed to last season. How many teams, who signed free agents last season, now regret spending the money they did? Many, and perhaps teams won’t want to blow the majority of their cap space on Tim Hardaway Jr., and this could potentially play into the Hawks’ hands in terms of signing Hardaway to a potentially team friendly extension if they desire to keep him.

Mike Muscala and the rest

Similar to Millsap and Hardaway, Mike Muscala will also garner a lot of interest around the league when he hits the market on July 1st for the first time as a free agent.

Muscala, like Millsap, is an unrestricted free agent, meaning he can choose to leave if he so desires. Muscala’s skill-set is rare for someone at his size. I’ve already made a case here on Peachtree Hoops as to why the Hawks should look to keep Muscala this summer: he can spread the floor, plays to the system, moves the ball well and plays good defense. He’s the sort of player you look to add, not let go from your organisation.

But similar to Millsap and THJ, Muscala is subject to the Schlenk criteria and the Hawks will have their price when it comes to Muscala. If Muscala’s contract begins to exceed $12+ million per year, I’d imagine there’s going to be some problems there...

But we’ll see. Muscala has said he would like to stay in Atlanta and, who knows, he could take a hometown discount if it means staying in the right situation — similar to what Kent Bazemore did last season. Alternatively, Muscala has made less than $6 million in his four year career and he may just be at a place where he’ll take the best deal available to him, and you couldn’t blame him for doing that — same way as you couldn’t blame Paul for doing that.

As for the rest of the Hawks’ free agents (Ersan Ilyasova, Jose Calderon, Kris Humphries and Thabo Sefolosha), I’d be surprised if any of them returned to Atlanta. I believe Schlenk will simply allow them to walk away in order to free up some additional cap space and give him the opportunity to bring in players who fit his vision/traits of length, skill, character and athleticism.

Where do the Hawks look to add?

Assuming Millsap — and the majority of the other free agents — leave Atlanta, and leave the Hawks with cap space in the process, what positions should the Hawks look to improve?

Well, simply put, all of them.

Brad Rowland is currently covering specific players at different positions (point guards, wings and bigs) and which ones would be in the Hawks’ wheelhouse — and players who would be worth taking a flier on — and all of those are worth reading.

But, ultimately, the Hawks should be looking to add at all positions.

Trades?

Schlenk has certainly been working the phones in his brief time in Atlanta, and I expect him to continue to do so throughout the summer and in free agency.

I’d be very surprised if both Miles Plumlee and Kent Bazemore were still with the team by the end of the summer...those two contracts are not going to work together long term — they do not keep the Hawks ‘flexible’.

If the Hawks allow Millsap to leave, they could free up further cap space if they were able to trade either of Plumlee or Bazemore if they found a team to take on those contracts without taking much salary back in exchange.

The Hawks have assets to attach if they wanted to relieve themselves of one/both of those contracts. They have their own draft picks, Minnesota’s 2018 lottery protected draft pick and Cleveland’s protected 2019 first round pick.

A prediction

Let’s get straight to it.

Based on everything I’ve already said, I think Paul Millsap leaves, I think it’s 50-50 if THJ stays and I expect Muscala to stay. In addition, I expect Schlenk to work the phones and make some trades, involving Kent Bazemore and/or the recently acquired Miles Plumlee — I think one of those players will not be with the Hawks beyond this summer, if not both.

In terms of players who possibly come in, who even knows. Who. Even. Knows. Just keep the words ‘skill’, ‘athleticism’, ‘length’, ‘character’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘bad contracts’ in mind... It’s going to be that kind of summer in Atlanta.

Well, there’s one thing you can say for sure: the Hawks don’t do boring summers. Get yourself (and your tissues, because it could get sad before it gets happy) ready for a wild summer...