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LeBron James’ free agency decision directly impacts Atlanta Hawks

No, really. It does.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One year ago, the Minnesota Timberwolves pulled off a trade for Jimmy Butler and, despite some uncertainty along the way, that move proved pivotal in allowing the team to make the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. As a direct result of that confluence of events, the Atlanta Hawks were able to secure an additional first round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft (by virtue of a previous obligation) and the end result was the acquisition of Kevin Huerter with the No. 19 pick.

Fast-forward to July 2018 and the Hawks are once again involved, at least tangentially, in a high-profile instance of NBA player movement. This time, the entire NBA universe is focused on LeBron James and what the league’s best player might choose to do when July 1 arrives, but the Hawks have a special incentive to monitor the proceedings closely, even if James is extremely unlikely to actually consider Atlanta as a free agent destination.

As a result of the January 2017 trade that sent Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Hawks are owed a future draft pick from James’ current team. However, the specifics are tricky and that is where the free agency decision James will execute in the near future makes things quite interesting.

The selection owed to Atlanta is top-10 protected in both 2019 and 2020, meaning that the Cavaliers would only send the pick to the Hawks if it falls outside the top 10. If, by chance, Cleveland lands in the lottery and ends up choosing in the top 10 in the 2019 NBA Draft, Atlanta’s front office would be holding its breath as the 2019-20 season approached.

That uneasiness arrives as a result of a provision in the trade that indicates the pick would turn into two second-round selections (2021 and 2022) if Cleveland does not convey the first round pick to Atlanta in either 2019 or 2020. In short, the Hawks’ return in the Korver trade (and the future asset, in general) diminishes greatly if the Cavaliers somehow manage to stay within the top 10 of both the 2019 and 2020 NBA Drafts.

Simply put, it would be virtually impossible for the Cavaliers to slip out of the playoffs and into the lottery if James elects to re-sign in Cleveland. Barring some sort of catastrophic (and previously unprecedented) injury to James, he is a walking one-way ticket to the postseason as the best player on the planet. With that said, things get dicey in the event that James chooses to head elsewhere.

Cleveland’s current roster, headlined by Kevin Love and No. 8 overall pick Collin Sexton, might be good enough to approach the 2019 postseason, especially if owner Dan Gilbert mandates an attempt to do so. It would be far from a lock but Cleveland’s brass may steer the direction of the franchise away from a potential rebuild and, frankly, that could outline the best-case scenario (from Atlanta’s perspective) of a 2019 draft pick somewhere in the teens.

The potential of a full-fledged rebuild looms, though, and wise minds might even argue that it would be Cleveland’s best choice to move forward in a post-LeBron universe. The Cavs have some onerous contracts, including $35+ million to Tristan Thompson and $25+ million to Jordan Clarkson over the next two seasons, and the presence of Love as a top-25 player might influence Cleveland in a non-rebuild direction. With that on the table, it wouldn’t be overly difficult to move Love for a future-facing piece (or two) and the other roster pieces aren’t enough to allow the Cavs to seriously compete for a playoff spot next season, especially if the focus moves to the 2019-20 campaign and beyond.

Given all of the moving pieces, there is something of a rooting “choice” to be made for fans of the Hawks. On one hand, James staying with the Cavaliers all but guarantees that Atlanta will receive an extra first round pick, somewhere in the 20’s, to pair with their own 2019 first round selection. On the other, James electing to spend the 2018-19 season elsewhere puts the pick in actual danger but it also opens the possibility that Atlanta’s additional pick might land in a more favorable position, albeit outside the top 10.

Obviously, this isn’t a factor weighed by James between now and his final decision. Still, it could absolutely play into the calculus for Cleveland’s front office should James leave and, if anything, the Cavs would have a significant incentive to forcefully rebuild in an attempt to retain the first round pick currently owed to Atlanta.

Of all the subplots to LeBron James’ free agency decision, this is one that will only be seriously considered by two organizations in the NBA but the Atlanta Hawks are one of them. Stay tuned.