Judging transactions from the outside is simultaneously an impossible task and perhaps the most interesting thought exercise among analysts and writers. There are thousands of variables that go into signings, trades, and draft picks that will never be made public, from interpersonal relationships within a team to an owner’s infatuation with a specific player to the actual contracts and on-court play of the individuals involved. When suspect moves occur, as happened late Thursday night, it’s good to take a step back and realize that while the game is played out in public and there is certainly a lot of information available about team and player finances, not everything that goes into a decision can be captured overnight. That said, there are still aspects to analyze of the Atlanta Hawks’ acquisition of Jeremy Lin from the Brooklyn Nets, regardless of the fact that so little about the team’s motivations is available to those of us outside the organization.
The details of the move, which technically occurs separate from the Nets’ other trade with Denver: Atlanta picks up Jeremy Lin, the right to swap 2023 second-round picks with Brooklyn, and the Net’s unprotected 2025 second-round pick, in exchange for Isaia Cordinier, who was selected 44th overall in 2016, and a top-55 protected second-rounder from the Trail Blazers. Lin’s contract stipulates that he’ll make $13.8 million in 2018-19 after the trade also triggered a 10 percent trade bonus in his contract, which is paid by the Nets but will count against the Hawks’ cap sheet. Cordinier played with Atlanta’s entry in Summer League each of the last two seasons, but missed the second half of his season overseas with double knee surgery to alleviate tendinitis. It was unlikely he was ever going to be an NBA player and certainly having simultaneous surgery on his knees won’t improve his stock in that area.
In the purest of vacuums, it’s hard to argue with the value of getting a mid-tier starting point guard and at least one second-rounder with a bit more than half of the team’s remaining cap space. Lin is immediately the best point guard on the roster, provided he’s able to return from his own knee surgery to be the player he was previously, and should take over the starting spot on opening night. There’s been no indication that the Hawks plan to move on from Lin in the near-term and while Dennis Schröder is more highly-paid and the incumbent starter, Lin provides more value at the position as a shooter and playmaker, both attributes general manager Travis Schlenk has mentioned as top priorities in Atlanta’s rebuild.
However, individual moves don’t happen in a vacuum and while the trade to bring in at least two valuable assets and send out essentially nothing can be viewed as a positive, the other move attached to this trade and the surrounding financial marketplace play massive roles in assessing exactly what the Hawks were thinking in making this particular deal. As has been written about ad nauseum, there were very few teams with cap space to use this summer, with the Hawks starting Thursday as just one of four teams reasonably capable of reaching double-digit space. The edict from Schlenk was that his team was going to use their space to take on a contract from another team in an effort to add to their war chest of future draft picks. If the player attached to that contract can shoot and pass, even better. From that limited perspective, the Hawks once again achieved what they set out to do, but given that the deal was almost simultaneously reported with the Nets’ acquisition of Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, a protected first-rounder, and an unprotected second-rounder, it’s hard not to imagine what could have been for Atlanta.
League-wide, it was an open secret that the Denver Nuggets needed to shed salary. After re-signing Nikola Jokic and Will Barton to massive raises, they were staring down the barrel of a huge tax bill, so they quickly made their moves – Wilson Chandler was shipped to Philadelphia and Faried and Arthur are set to be moved to Brooklyn – to get out from under that financial burden. With so few teams with enough space to take on that money and more than just Denver looking to move on from their bigger-salaried players, it was a buyer’s market; teams like Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Sacramento could dictate terms and find the very best deal to maximize that space.
The Nuggets found their match with the Nets, who had to move Lin to Atlanta to get the requisite cap space, which begs the question – why didn’t Atlanta do the same deal with Denver directly, rather than using most of their space in a trade that netted no first-round picks? The Hawks had the necessary space and were operating under the same asset-gathering philosophy as Brooklyn, so it seemed to be a natural fit between the Nuggets and Hawks to get a deal done as soon as the Jokic and Barton deals were reported.
Perhaps that same offer wasn’t on the table for the Hawks, for interpersonal reasons between the two front offices or a myriad of other reasons why deals don’t get done. Even if that same trade wasn’t available to Schlenk and his staff, the logic of waiting for most of free agency to conclude and then taking on Lin’s contract and no first-round picks raised some eyebrows.
There are still moves to be made for the Hawks, who can immediately package Lin with other players in a separate trade or hold him and attempt to trade the immovable object that is Schröder’s contract. With Atlanta apparently interested in keeping Lin on the roster through the end of his contract in 2019, Schröder becomes even more available than he already was.
There’s a school of thought that theorized that the Hawks already have a buyer for Schröder lined up, so they brought Lin in as a short-term replacement until Trae Young is ready to take over the team in his sophomore season, but given that the organization is committed to a long-term rebuild (read: tanking) this season, spending $13.8 million of valuable cap space on a point guard to shepherd a losing team doesn’t make a ton of sense. There are plenty of options available for the minimum who wouldn’t have been nearly as good as Lin, but again, they don’t want to be good anyway.
If they do have something for Schröder in the works, it won’t change the fact that taking the offer from Denver, should it have been on the table, and signing a minimum point guard to replace Schröder would have been a better option than how the Hawks handled this trade. Names like Devin Harris and Jameer Nelson could have provided more losing value than Lin on a tenth of his contract, leaving their powder dry for a more lucrative salary dump later in the summer. Atlanta still holds between $7.7 million and $10.4 million in cap space, which is enough to take on another player with more second-rounders, but any dreams of making a big splash on the trade market are made much more difficult with the acquisition of Lin.
Hanging over the entire move is Lin’s immense worldwide popularity and the Hawks’ increasing need to be relevant in one way or another during their extended rebuild. Whether the team wins or loses, Lin will sell tickets, jerseys, and other Hawks-related merchandise all over the globe, which will certainly be a benefit to the team’s finances. It wouldn’t be the first time the Hawks made a move (at least in part) for off-the-court financial reasons under Tony Ressler – many attribute the signing of Dwight Howard in 2016 to be heavily influenced by ownership’s desire to sell tickets rather than what was actually better for the team. This isn’t to say Lin is a bad player or isn’t worth his contract, because he almost certainly is when healthy, but to this specific Hawks team in the first phase of their rebuild, the extra on-court value he brings isn’t beneficial enough to outweigh the $13.8 million in cap space that his contract eats. Ownership’s finances are just another aspect of these moves that outsiders will never know – Lin brings with him hordes of fans who will absolutely spend enough on tickets and merchandise to outweigh his contract, especially given that he’ll likely be the starter for Atlanta in 2018-19, but unless there’s an unforeseen move to come in the near future, it’s difficult to see how the Hawks are in a better long-term position than they were when Thursday began.