Paul Millsap has left the building. On Sunday night, word broke that he will sign a $90 million contract over three years with the Denver Nuggets, completing the exodus of the Atlanta Hawks’ starting lineup that won 60 games for the most successful team in Atlanta history. The era that began with Al Horford’s arrival in 2007 is now over, and the Hawks have to look toward the future to rebuild and retool for the next ten-year playoff run.
It remains to be seen whether Atlanta will receive any compensation from Denver for Millsap—there may be an opportunity to work out a sign-and-trade if the Nuggets are open to it, but they will hold the upper hand in negotiations over the Hawks, as Denver can take Millsap directly into their cap space and doesn’t need the sign-and-trade to make the deal work. Assuming Atlanta gets nothing for Millsap, they’ll have a lot of cap space to move forward but will likely be a team that won’t attract high-quality free agents.
Atlanta has just eight players on the roster for next season, but look to have at least $18.4 million in space to fill out the roster before taking into account the potential salaries of Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Mike Muscala. That $18.4 million can jump up to $28.7 million if they dump five different Traded Player Exceptions they’ve generated in the past year.
It’s also expected that 2017 second-round pick Tyler Dorsey will receive a small contract to help with Atlanta’s guard depth, lowering the Hawks’ potential space slightly. With that much space and a few gaping holes on the roster, the Hawks might get into the market for a big-name veteran to replace Millsap, but it’s more likely that they’ll use it more strategically to put pressure on other teams with restricted free agents or as a dumping ground for some of the league’s bad contracts.
The Hawks are relatively stocked on the wing with Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince expected to start on opening night to go along with Hardaway (potentially), Marco Belinelli, and DeAndre’ Bembry coming off the bench. Regardless, they may put in a call to the agents of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter to gauge their clients’ interest in making a move to Atlanta. Caldwell-Pope might even come cheaper than his full maximum of $24.77 million next season because of Detroit’s complicated cap situation, and Porter would fit in perfectly on the wing next to either Bazemore or Prince to give the Hawks a very formidable wing trio.
Atlanta is incredibly thin at the big man positions, especially if Muscala, an unrestricted free agent, decides to take a deal elsewhere. Miles Plumlee, who is barely a rotation-level big on a decent team, and John Collins, whom the Hawks drafted in the first round a few weeks ago, are the only big men under contract for next season, so using a majority of that space on a big man would be a prudent use of resources for Travis Schlenk and his staff. Restricted free agent Nerlens Noel comes to mind as an athletic center who can protect the rim and play in pick-and-roll with Dennis Schröder, but the remaining market falls off a cliff after Noel. If the Hawks do overpay for a guy in the tier below Noel, hopefully that deal won’t be so long that it ties up their cap sheet for years to come.
Alternatively, the Hawks could go with a bit of a skeleton crew through the rest of free agency, picking up cheap deals to fill out the roster but holding a majority of their cap space for trades with teams who need to dump bad salary they signed in 2016. Those bad contracts would come to Atlanta with future first-round picks or good young players attached to them to sweeten the deal for the Hawks to take on that bad money. Perhaps a team like the Lakers would reach out to Atlanta about Luol Deng’s contract or Portland about any one of the Evan Turner-Maurice Harkless-Meyers Leonard-Allen Crabbe quartet that has completely hamstrung their roster-building efforts since those deals were signed last summer.
Whichever path they take, the next step is an initial step backwards for the Hawks. There’s no way around it—replacing Paul Millsap’s productivity from last season just isn’t going to happen, so the team should be looking toward a longer-term rebuild (whether management will use that term or not, that’s what it is) rather than trying to get back to the playoffs quickly and overextend themselves financially.
It might be enticing to try to retool quickly and make a run toward the playoffs in a much weaker Eastern Conference, but this is not a sustainable model for ultimately competing for a championship or even putting together another extended run of playoff appearances.