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Free agent targets that would keep Atlanta Hawks competitive without Paul Millsap

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It’s a possibility that the Hawks have to prepare for...

NBA: Miami Heat at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Previously at Peachtree Hoops, I wrote about the possibility of Atlanta’s four-time All-Star power forward Paul Millsap possibly leaving Atlanta (and why it might be better for the Hawks long term if he did).

This is a follow-up, of sorts, to that piece...

It’s no secret that Hawks owner Tony Ressler is a competitive guy. He described himself as “...frustrated as hell” despite the Hawks’ 10-year streak of consecutive playoff appearances. “I want to be better”, he added, “I think we understand this team has been here for 50 years and hasn’t won a championship...”

Ressler wants the Hawks to be a competitive team and wants the team to be in a winning position sooner rather than later. This was proved when Ressler, as as well as Hawks head coach and former president of basketball operations Mike Budenholzer, seemingly shut down — what surely would’ve had to have been — former GM Wes Wilcox’s thought of trading impending free agent Paul Millsap in effort to see some return for the power forward.

“NFW”...

But a lot has changed since then. Mike Budenholzer and Wes Wilcox no longer call the shots when it comes to personnel (though both have input). The new man in charge is former Golden State Warriors assistant GM Travis Schlenk.

Despite being named to the positions of both general manager and president of basketball operations, it’s unclear if Schlenk will have the freedom to make the decisions he may wish to make with regards the direction of the franchise.

Ressler told the AJC in April that it’s he who makes the final decision, not the GM or president of basketball operations.

“...the president of basketball operations is what I say it is, not what you say it is”, Ressler told the AJC in April. “It has the loudest voice, not the final word. There’s a dramatic difference.”

Whether that’s still the case and that the name “Bud” has simply been replaced with “Travis” remains to be seen, but last Friday morning’s press conference which officially introduced Schlenk as the new GM certainly gave some optimism that Schlenk will indeed have the freedom to do the job he was brought in to do.

“I didn’t bring him in for me to make basketball decisions”, Ressler said at Schlenk’s introductory press conference. “I hope that’s as clear as I can be.”

Actions speak louder than words, so we shall see come July...

Today however — just for arguments sake — we’re going to say that Millsap, whether it was a case of him asking more than the Hawks were offering, a matter of Millsap wanting to join a team with a better chance of winning a title or a matter of Schlenk simply allowing him to walk, leaves Atlanta.

Now the Hawks are faced with a situation where have to replace him. But there’s one condition: Ressler requests that the team remain competitive, perhaps to continue the Hawks’ 10 year streak of consecutive postseason appearances, something that is very important to ownership...

How would the Hawks proceed from that point? What free agents are out there that could keep the Hawks competitive?

Well, let’s figure out the rough amount of cap space the Hawks would have available to them, should Millsap leave — as to better identify realistic targets — and we’ll work from there.

Disclaimer before we get cracking:

All salary related numbers per Basketball Insiders, the salary cap, for reference, is approximately $101,000,000 and please, for sweet love’s sake, remember that ALL scenarios discussed are purely hypothetical.

Let’s start with the guaranteed contracts that the Hawks (barring any trades) will definitely be paying next season:

Hawks' 2017-18 guaranteed salary (as of June 3rd 2017)

Player Amount owed in 2017-18 Total
Player Amount owed in 2017-18 Total
Dwight Howard $23,500,000
Kent Bazemore $16,910,113
Dennis Schröder $15,500,000
Malcolm Delaney $2,500,000
Taurean Prince $2,422,560
Mike Dunleavy $1,662,500 (of $5,175,000)
DeAndre' Bembry $1,567,200
$64,062,373

(As a quick note, the Hawks have until July 1st before Dunleavy’s $5,175,000 becomes fully guaranteed)

So you can see the grand total of the Hawks’ guaranteed salary in 2017-18 is $64,062,373. With the salary cap set to amount to $101,000,000, does that mean the Hawks have nearly $40 million in cap space? No, absolutely not, as the Hawks’ cap holds must now be added to the equation.

A cap hold, in case you didn’t know, basically serves as a placeholder for a team’s free agent. They exist to close loopholes in the CBA.

For example, if cap holds didn’t exist a team could use all of their cap space to sign free agents (notable or otherwise) and then re-sign their free agents — after all of the cap space has been used — using the Bird Rights (which allow you to go above the salary cap to re-sign your own free agents).

As you can imagine, this could possibly create a huge imbalance which favors larger market/title contending teams. That is why they exist.

Since there are a number of Hawks players hitting the free agency market this summer, there’s a lot of cap holds to add to this equation. Let’s go over them.

Very quickly, here’s how a cap hold is calculated:

Non-Bird Rights: 120% of previous salary

Early-Bird Rights: 175% of previous salary or 104.5% of average salary

Bird-Rights: 250% of previous salary for first round draft picks if below average salary, 200% of previous salary for first round picks at/above average salary, 190% of previous salary for non-first round picks below average wage and 150% of previous salary for non-first round picks above the average salary

Cap hold numbers per Basketball Insiders:

2017 Hawks cap holds

Player Cap hold amount ($) Total
Player Cap hold amount ($) Total
Paul Millsap $30,108,050
Ersan Ilyasova $12,600,000
Thabo Sefolosha $7,315,000
Tim Hardaway Jr. $5,704,013
Kris Humphries $5,200,000
Mike Muscala $1,471,382
José Calderón $1,471,382
$63,869,827

So if we were to add the total that these cap holds amount to ($63,869,827) to our original figure ($64,062,373) you get $127,932,200. That’s nearly $26 million over the salary cap and at this point you can forget about cap space, now you’re in the luxury tax.

For arguments sake, let’s take out all the cap holds (including Paul Millsap’s) apart from Tim Hardaway Jr. ($5,704,013 cap hold) and Mike Muscala ($1,471,382) since it’s likely the Hawks will want to re-sign them and will need to hold onto their Bird Rights. We’ll add the total that their two cap holds amount to ($7,175,395) to the Hawks’ guaranteed salary total of $64,062,373 and we’ll get $71,237,768.

We’re almost done. Now we have to apply the roster spot charges, $815,615 per open roster spot under 12. The Hawks currently have 9 players under contract (assuming both Dunleavy and Ryan Kelly are kept/have their contracts guaranteed and Paul Millsap opts out) so the Hawks will be charged $2,446,845 for those three open roster spots under 12.

So we’ll add that figure to $71,237,768 and we get $73,684,613.

This figure does not include the remainder of Dunleavy’s $5,175,000 non guaranteed contract ($3,512,500), Ryan Kelly’s non guaranteed contract of $1,572,230 nor the Hawks’ 19th overall selection in the draft ($1,614,400). We’re now going to add those.

If we added these figures (as it would seem as though the Hawks plan on keeping all three) to our original figure we get $80,383,743.

So, $80,383,743 is the final figure of salary counting against the Hawks that we’re going to use today, giving the Hawks just under $21 million in cap space in this hypothetical example.

This figure — and this is very important — is only possible if:

  • Paul Millsap’s, Thabo Sefolosha’s, Ersan Ilyasova’s, Kris Humphries’ and José Calderón’s cap holds are all renounced/sign for other teams. There is no other way (barring a Kent Bazemore/Dwight Howard trade to relieve salary) for the Hawks to have cap space this summer.

Now that we know that the Hawks (hypothetically) are working with just under $21 million we can now look at specific players/positions for them to possibly target.

In terms of position, the power forward spot would require the most immediate attention and love, since Millsap would obviously leave a massive hole at power forward in the wake of a departure and the departure of backup power forward Ersan Ilyasova, who would also have to leave in order for the Hawks to have the cap space we’re using for today’s example.

So, for that reason we’re going to be looking at forwards, not guards like Chris Paul (who the Hawks wouldn’t be able to afford anyways) or Kyle Lowry.

Now the part you’ve waited for (and the part you probably skipped all of the salary cap talk for): potential targets. Remember, we’re working with the idea that the Hawks will want to remain competitive despite Millsap’s departure, guys who could help the Hawks right this second.

Since the Hawks — in our example — are working with $21 million in cap space, we can instantly rule out Blake Griffin and Gordon Hayward, who would be seeking the mid-tier max contract starting at $30,600,000, which is obviously more than what the Hawks can offer (again, unless they make moves to relieve themselves of some salary).

Sorry, Hawks fans, neither Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin are likely coming to Atlanta.

So that rules out the best two forwards in free agency straightaway, but what about the best of the rest? Well, the simplest way to go about this is headings, of course, so let’s do that.

‘All of our free agency eggs (also read as: money) in one basket...’

This is basically a category of two players that would, pretty much, eat all of the Hawks’ hypothetical $21 million of cap space. Pursuing and possibly signing either of these two players would mean the Hawks would have to get crafty with any remaining salary as to fill out the rest of the roster, but they are arguably the best two players available in the $20-21 million per year price range.

Serge Ibaka

As an overall package, Ibaka would probably be the best single replacement for Millsap should he leave.

Offensively, Ibaka has adapted to the modern NBA beautifully and now can space the floor. He has always had a great touch in the mid-range but has now expanded that already potent range beyond the three-point line which creates problems for opposing defenses. His hard work has paid off as he shot a career-high 39% from behind the arc this season between his stops in Orlando and Toronto.

Ibaka is also versatile. As well as starting him at power forward you can also deploy him at the center spot in small-ball lineups and that spacing he provides becomes even more valuable at the 5. Spacing is something the Hawks really value, something which Mike Budenholzer proved when he benched his star free agent signing of 2016, Dwight Howard, for the Hawks’ failed fourth quarter comeback against the Wizards in Game 6 of the 2017 playoffs (as well as other comebacks such as the Hawks’ 26 point fourth quarter comeback), all in favor of more spacing.

Ibaka can also operate in the post, meaning he can score in a variety of ways, similar to Millsap.

Is Ibaka a better offensive player than Millsap? No, but he can do a lot of similar things to Millsap...things that Mike Budenholzer likes his bigs to be able to do.

Defensively, we all know Ibaka is more than capable of challenging shots at the rim but he can also guard out on the perimeter, similar to Millsap, which is a very important to coaches and executives when evaluating aspects of a big man’s defensive game in today’s NBA.

Ibaka is also only 27 years old, meaning you could invest a four year deal into him and he’ll still — in theory — be playing at a high level when he hits the market again. However, according to Basketball Insider’s Steve Kyler, Ibaka and the Toronto Raptors (Ibaka’s current team) have basically agreed upon an extension that would keep the Congolese shot blocker north of the border on a reported salary of 20+ million.

Time will tell.

Danilo Gallinari

Here’s an interesting free agent. If the game of basketball is an old fashioned weighing scale, with Ibaka providing a balance of offense and defense, Gallinari is certainly weighs more on the side of offense.

Gallo possesses elite size for a small forward at 6’10” and his ability to play power forward shows versatility, which is something the Hawks like in their players. It would give Bud the choice to mix-and-match different lineups.

Offensively, Gallo can put the ball in the bucket in a variety of ways (averaging 18.2 points per game in 2016-17) and can space the floor with his 38.9% three-point shot.

When the Hawks needed a bucket, they could dial up Paul Millsap and he would normally make something happen, whether it was for himself or others. In a hypothetical situation where Millsap isn’t with the team, creating offense is going to be a huge concern. As we saw in the playoffs, no one outside Dennis Schröder or Millsap could consistently create offense/get into a consistent offensive rhythm. It was one of the many reasons the Hawks lost that playoff series...

With Gallinari, you can also throw him the ball and he can make something happen.

However, the problem is defensively. With Ibaka, you don’t really take a major step back but with Gallinari you more than likely will. With the likes of Dennis Schröder and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the lineup, adding Gallinari into the mix could be a defensive disaster for the Hawks’ overall defense.

The other problem is Gallo is best suited as a small forward who can take advantage of the more than likely smaller small forwards since Gallo stands 6’10” tall. Sure, you can deploy Gallo at power forward in certain lineups but if he were to be plugged as the starting power forward — which he would probably have to be in this situation — I’m not sure it would really work. Plus, if you started him at small forward your power forward spot is still horrendously vulnerable.

Though he would certainly give Budenholzer an interesting option on the offensive end (an end that the Hawks certainly regressed in last season), the overall fit of Gallinari in Atlanta would be a concern...

‘Sign-plus-change’

This next tier consists of potential targets who would cost less than the hypothetical $21 million, leaving the Hawks a bit of change to fill out the rest of the roster. These players aren’t world beaters by any stretch of the imagination but they could certainly make a significant impact in their role.

James Johnson

James Johnson just finished his ninth season in the NBA but this was his best season yet and it wasn’t even close.

Signing a one-year deal with the Miami Heat for $4 million has absolutely paid off for Johnson as he averaged a career-high 12.3 points per game on 48% shooting from the field, a career-high 34% from behind the arc, a career-high 4.9 rebounds per game, a career-high 3.6 assists per game as well as a steal and a block a night in a career-high 76 games played.

All of this was possible thanks to the Heat’s unique culture (a culture instilled from the top-down beginning with Pat Riley) and a new diet which helped Johnson shed 37 pounds.

Johnson was just a beast defensively last season. He posted a defensive rating of 102.3, which ranked 10th out of all forwards who played more than 60 games and averaged more than 17 minutes a night. When opponents were guarded by Johnson they shot 5% worse than normal. That might not seem like much but that is actually is very good. That’s right near the top of the category with the likes of your Draymond Green’s, Kevin Durant’s and Anthony Davis’. In fact, Johnson’s 5% differential percentage is actually the same as Rudy Gobert, and in terms of actual defensive field goal percentage only Patrick Patterson, Draymond Green and Jrue Holiday posted better defensive field goal percentages than Johnson.

In the Hawks’ 116-93 loss to the Miami Heat on February 1st, Johnson was arguably the best player on the entire court and outplayed every single Hawk on the floor that night — he was playing chess while the Hawks were playing checkers. He was phenomenal and, as you can see by some of the defensive numbers, he is the real deal defensively.

Offensively, Johnson has never really been much of a juggernaut but he took a big leap forward in that department last season with the Heat. His added strength and quickened mobility opened more opportunities for him at the rim as he was able to overpower or shake his defender. Johnson is also able to put the ball on the floor, stretch the defense and hit the mid-range shots as well as get to the rim.

Johnson also showed his capabilities as ball handler on some possessions and as a facilitator. He gets his head up, sees what’s around him and makes the right pass. He would fit the Hawks’ style of play very well.

Though he is a small forward by trade, you could absolutely — based on what he showed last season — plug him in at power forward and he would excel. That’s where he spent most of his time last season with the Heat and he even spent time at center.

Again, this kind of versatility is something the Hawks and Mike Budenholzer value greatly.

Though he primarily came off the bench last season averaging 27 minutes a night, he is more than capable of stepping into the starting lineup and performing to a high level. In his five starts last season Johnson averaged 18.2 points per game on 50% shooting from the field, 7 rebounds per game and 5.6 assists per game in 36 minutes per game. Though that’s a small sample size, the core point still remains: Johnson is more than capable in whatever role is placed before him.

Johnson is probably looking at a $10-15 million dollar contract and though Johnson has said he would like to stay in Miami he conceded that the right offer would certainly make him think about switching sides. Every player has his price and if the Hawks wanted to remain competitive, the fit here with Johnson is perfect. They may stump out the chequebook, however...

Ersan Ilyasova

It’s entirely conceivable that Hawks could also just decide to bring back Ersan Ilyasova. We know Ilyasova’s cap hold to be $12.6 million, which would leave the Hawks with just under $10 million in cap space to work with.

The Hawks know Ilyasova’s body of work at this stage. He sacrifices his body on a regular basis and can stretch the floor with his three-point shot. It’d be easy to forget that Ilyasova is actually one of the better power forwards available in free agency this summer and he was also a player Mike Budenholzer and the old Hawks front office targeted for “some time”. When you acquire a player you’ve been targeting for a few years in a trade, you wouldn’t just let that player walk if you had the opportunity to bring him back, would you? It would make sense for the Hawks to attempt to re-sign even him if Millsap didn’t leave.

They say stick to what you know, and at least this way the Hawks know how much Ilyasova is going to count against them before he potentially whereas with every other free agent discussed here today that isn’t the case. Ilyasova is certainly a starting calibre player but he looks set to earn himself a contract of $13-15 million per season — do the Hawks want any part of that contract?

Honourable mention to JaMychal Green of the Memphis Grizzlies but due to the nature of his free agency (restricted) it would seem unlikely that the Hawks would be able to pry him away from Memphis...

There are certainly a number of interesting options out there for the Hawks should Paul Millsap leave Atlanta. It’s worth repeating that the only way Atlanta would have any significant cap space work with (barring any trades) is for the Hawks to renounce Millsap’s/allow him to sign elsewhere.

But in the event that Millsap does stay and the Hawks want to add to their squad (potentially a player mentioned above) then they’ll have to make a trade which would shed salary, which would mean one of Howard or Bazemore would have to be one sacrificed for cap relief. And you’d imagine this could easily happen, the Hawks surely can’t run this team back again after last season?

Summer time should be interesting in Atlanta indeed...