While the expectation for the Atlanta Hawks is that they will use their cap space this summer to engage in trade talks surrounding overpaid players on other teams, it’s possible that the market will play out in such a way that they will instead look use that cap space to sign free agents from this year’s relatively underwhelming crop of restricted and unrestricted players. In the first part of this two-part series, I’ll be taking a look at a handful of restricted free agents whom the Hawks could target if they choose to go that route.
Restricted free agency is an entirely separate market from unrestricted free agency. Because the player’s incumbent teams have match rights, offering teams have to contend with that third variable, on top of what they’re willing to offer and what the player desires. Additionally, signing a restricted free agent to an offer sheet often ties up a team’s cap space for at least two days while the incumbent team can drag out its match decision. As such, restricted free agents are often lower on the totem pole than unrestricted free agents, who have no such complications when it comes to their incumbent team.
On the other hand, restricted free agents are younger and offer more future value than unrestricted free agents, in general. For rebuilding teams with lots of cap space (like the Hawks), signing bloated offer sheets with these young players has benefits no matter what happens: either the incumbent team matches and you stick an overpaid contract on their books, or they don’t match and you get a player you like, even if it’s at a poor value. Not all cap space is created equal—teams at the bottom of the league often have a lot of space and not much to do with it, whereas teams at the top often have none and putting a bloated contract on their books could make a major difference, especially when it comes to paying the luxury tax.
If the Hawks end up striking out on finding a trade to take on a bad contract along with future assets, restricted free agency will be the next call in general manager Travis Schlenk’s playbook, as there are quite a few interesting talents on this year’s market who could fit well with the team moving forward. Without further ado, here is a list of five restricted free agents Schlenk and his staff could look to sign this summer, in alphabetical order by incumbent team:
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
The fiery Smart has drawn apt comparisons to Golden State’s Draymond Green as a do-it-all defensive maestro with strong playmaking skills on the offensive end of the floor. Smart would be a fantastic addition to any team, contending or not, but it’ll take a pretty penny to pry him from Danny Ainge’s hands.
While Smart’s high-level skill set as a role player doesn’t quite mesh with the timeline of the current Hawks, he’s just 24 years old and could stick around through the down years and be with the team when it’s ready to compete again in a few years while providing defensive accountability and a competitiveness that is needed on the floor for Atlanta. Boston will be aggressive in wielding their match rights, so it could take as much as $60 million over four years to lure him away from the Celtics.
Treveon Graham, Charlotte Hornets
A 3-and-D wing at his peak, Graham could be a low-usage, low-maintenance wing option for Atlanta next season. Graham’s still working on the “D” part of 3-and-D two years into his career, but under the tutelage of Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce, he could develop into a very useful player on a three- or four-year deal.
Charlotte will absolutely give him a $1.7 million qualifying offer for next season, but they have major tax concerns of their own and a rich deal for Graham might not be what new general manager Mitch Kupchak wants to do with his very limited resources. It wouldn’t take much; a four-year deal totaling $16 million could be enough to get the job done.
David Nwaba, Chicago Bulls
Nwaba had a bit of a breakout year in Chicago this past season as a slashing, playmaking wing who even flashed a very small amount of pick-and-roll usage for an abhorrent Bulls offense. None of his individual numbers stand out, as tends to happen on bad teams, but Nwaba to drive closeouts and either finish at the basket or find the right pass impressed executives throughout the league. For a total non-shooter to be relatively efficient offensively is rare in this day and age, but he was able to hit an impressive 54.2 percent true shooting percentage despite his limitations as a shooter, both from the three-point line and the free throw line.
A late bloomer at the NBA level, Nwaba spent four years in college and another in the G League (then named the D-League) before hitting his stride in the big leagues as a slasher and an active, high-end defender off the bench. Nwaba is thought to be worth about $5 million per season on the open market, but to ensure the Bulls don’t match, it may take something in the range of two years and $12-14 million to push him out of Chicago’s price range.
Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
One of the most polarizing players in this year’s free agency class, Parker’s value has dipped considerably since he was drafted with the second overall pick back in 2014. Two ACL tears and an overwhelming change away from his skill set by the rest of the league has left Parker out in the cold when it comes to an NBA role: he’s not the floor spacer and defender that teams want at the forward position and shoots what we now know to be inefficient shots when he does get the ball in a good spot on the floor.
Once thought to be a future superstar, Parker’s had nothing but trouble in his career in Milwaukee and Atlanta could offer him both a fresh start and a bad team in which he’d have an outsized role to rebuild his value. There’s some thought around the league that Parker could find himself back in Milwaukee for $10 million per season, but if the Hawks were to take a chance on a bigger name in restricted free agency, signing Parker to a two-year deal in the $25 million range could prove enough to pry him out of Milwaukee.
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors
The coveted combo guard and leader of the Raptors bench mob will have plenty of interest from nearly every team this offseason, but the Hawks have a clear opening at that position and will be able to afford to outbid other contenders for his signature. While Dennis Schröder is the incumbent starting point guard for now as the team brings along Trae Young slowly, VanVleet could easily oust Schröder from his position and play a dual role at the top of the Hawks’ attack next season, starting games at point guard before moving off the ball when Young is inserted in the game. The combination of VanVleet and Young in the backcourt would be a much better partnership than Schröder and Young, as VanVleet can shoot from outside to space the floor for Young and is clearly the best defender of this trio, despite measuring in at just 6’0.
VanVleet will have plenty of suitors in early July, the Hawks’ ability to offer more than the mid-level exception and a defined starting role on a young team could appeal to the 24-year-old guard. While he’s been a big part of their success the past two years, Toronto has another player already rostered who plays a similar role in Delon Wright and will face considerable tax concerns if they were to bring him back on a large salary. While his value may not be much more than the aforementioned Nwaba, he’s such a seamless fit with the current roster and will require a larger offer sheet to both pry him away from Toronto and from other teams looking to make him their key signing of the summer. The Hawks will have to overpay, but $36-40 million over four years might do the trick and bring VanVleet to Atlanta.