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 second part of this two-part series, I’ll be taking a look at a handful of unrestricted free agents whom the Hawks could target if they choose to go that route and, if you missed it, part one covered restricted free agents.
Unrestricted free agency is much looser but generally brings with it older players who have already completed a contract or two in the league. The exception to this is when a player reached restricted free agency but is then let go to become unrestricted because his team needs extra cap space or is afraid of him signing the qualifying offer and cementing himself to their books for the upcoming season.
While a rarer tactic in previous seasons, qualifying offers will be signed more often in 2018 because of the tight market and how few teams have money to spend, leading to more teams pulling those offers off the table, which they can do unilaterally before July 13. While the majority of the players here are going to be at the bottom of general manager Travis Schlenk’s priority list this offseason, if he and his staff strike out on trades and aren’t able to steal a restricted free agent with a large enough offer sheet, unrestricted free agency will be all he has left.
There are still several players who are either unrestricted or might become unrestricted who fit the Hawks’ long-term timeline and would be good signings for the team this summer:
Josh Huestis, Oklahoma City Thunder
After infamously agreeing to go to the G League for a year rather than the NBA despite being drafted in the first round in 2014, Huestis showed next to nothing through his first two years with the Thunder, prompting them to decline his fourth-year option last October. Lo and behold, he broke out in 2017-18, providing Oklahoma City with good wing defense off the bench and a (very) slowly developing offensive game.
A poor man’s Andre Roberson with more size, his entire value lies on the defensive end of the floor, where he can swing between multiple positions to be the versatile threat that teams need in the modern era. The epitome of a low-usage combo forward whom defenses don’t guard, Huestis is an objectively awful offensive player, but could develop into a decent contributor on that end with some coaching. Huestis can’t go back to Oklahoma City for more than the $2.2 million option they declined, and he should have offers slightly north of that amount.
Jerami Grant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Perhaps my favorite under-the-radar unrestricted free agency this summer, Grant would be a phenomenal signing for any team who needs a versatile player on both ends of the floor. He’s played everywhere between small forward and center with success and though he doesn’t necessarily pop when watching in the box score, Grant’s contributions to a team are wide-ranging, from spotting up in the corners to playing the dive man in pick-and-roll to defending three positions and switching everything on the defensive end.
Grant has played for four years on the minimum salary and will be looking to cash in this summer, but with the market as tight as it is, some team is going to come away with a bargain signing when he does choose his next destination.
Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic
Like Huestis, Hezonja saw his fourth-year option declined just ahead of the best season of his career. The 6’8 forward is still just 23 years old and slowly but surely was able to put together a relatively efficient offensive game in his third season with Orlando.
Hezonja is an interesting buy-low candidate for teams with space to spare at the end of the summer and although he can go back to Orlando for up to $5.2 million, his value shouldn’t be anywhere near that amount. He won’t be any team’s priority this summer, but there’s definitely a team out there who could talk themselves into Hezonja flourishing under new circumstances with a roster that makes sense around him.
Patrick McCaw, Golden State Warriors
McCaw is restricted for now, but given Golden State’s immense tax concerns, they may cut him loose to unrestricted free agency in the first few days of July, especially if they get a commitment from a wing for the mini mid-level exception. The sometimes-frustrating wing shows flashes of being able to get to the rim and shoot the corner three, but the consistency hasn’t been there through his first two seasons in the NBA.
Still relatively slight of build, McCaw’s not a traditional 3 and would run into trouble with playing time in Atlanta with the combo guards/wings ahead of him on the depth chart, but if his market falls apart elsewhere and the Warriors pull his qualifying offer, the Hawks could be a place to continue to build his value. Schlenk is familiar with McCaw’s game from their time together with the Warriors and was on the Golden State front office staff when McCaw was drafted in 2016, so there’s ample reason for him to consider a reunion in Schlenk’s new home with the Hawks.
Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
After some speculation that he may hit unrestricted free agency immediately due to the Lakers’ bigger plans this offseason, Randle did in fact receive his qualifying offer and will be restricted at the beginning of the summer. However, for the Lakers to accomplish their lofty offseason goals, Randle would need to go, at which point the Hawks could swoop in and pick him up for cheaper than some of the other top power forwards on the market.
While Atlanta is not starving for talent at the big man positions this season, Randle is still just 23 years old and could be a long-term centerpiece for the team moving forward. With Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala in the last years of their deals and imminently tradeable, Randle and John Collins form an athletic frontcourt partnership that would grow together over the course of the next few years. Should the other top power forwards (Aaron Gordon, Jabari Parker) find new homes before Randle and the Lakers no longer be interested in his services, he could find himself without a chair when the music stops, at which point Atlanta would make sense for him.
He might want a shorter deal to get back out on the market in 2019 or 2020, but if the Hawks can sign him up to a four-year deal and sell him on being a starting-level player for the team when they’re back in the playoffs, they could get a steal of a contract this summer.