With the Jeremy Lin trade completed on Friday, the Atlanta Hawks have used the majority of their 2018 cap space. There will be plenty of speculation and rumors about another potential deal, perhaps including incumbent starter Dennis Schröder, but for now, the Hawks are left with between $7.7 million and $10.4 million in cap space and no open roster spots, though Jaylen Morris and Antonius Cleveland can be waived to create a regular-season slot.
It’s unlikely that Atlanta will use the majority of this space, as they’ll want to hold back a few million to facilitate a trade later in the season to pick up some additional future draft assets. Still, opportunities remain for general manager Travis Schlenk to identify an underrated talent on the free agent market and perhaps lock that player up to a three- or four-year contract using some of their remaining space.
A major factor in Schlenk’s favor is the dilapidated 2018 free agency market. After massive contracts were given out left and right in 2016 and relatively small cap jumps the past two years, there aren’t very many teams out there with significant spending power, leading to a depression in wages across the market. Many players who were expected to receive somewhere in the high single-digits are instead settling for the minimum, whereas some who were looking for $20 million per season are finding the mid-level exception the best they can do. This has led to more one- and two-year deals than many are used to seeing in July, as teams and players are both trying to keep their options open for 2019 and beyond, when there will be more available money and more high-end free agents available to take that money. Whether this is an advantage to the teams or players remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is that many free agents still available this late in the process will also want those one- or two-year deals in order to sign a better deal in the coming years.
It’s an open secret at this point that the Hawks are not going to try to be competitive this season, instead using another year for player development to obtain a high draft pick. Even though this is the goal throughout the organization, there’s nothing to stop them from signing a useful player or two to help buoy the team and offset some of that losing, especially since the lottery odds have flattened out in 2019 and beyond to make it less beneficial to be among the worst teams in the league.
We saw this with the Jeremy Lin trade – they could have taken on entirely dead salary into their cap space, but they decided to go with a player in Lin who can absolutely still contribute on the court and will likely be a big part of the team’s success next season, to whatever extent that success occurs. In that vein, here are a pair of free agents the Hawks could target for very little money, in addition to some of the names I wrote about before free agency opened, including Treveon Graham, David Nwaba (both of whom are now unrestricted free agents), and Josh Huestis:
The lack of true small forwards on the Hawks’ roster is startling – only Taurean Prince is truly capable of defending against the bigger wings in the league. Kent Bazemore and others will be able to fake it, especially on a team not designed to win, but bringing in another wing-sized player to take some of that load off these two would help Atlanta’s defense tremendously. Poythress isn’t even necessarily a high-end defender, but his size at 6’7 and 240 pounds would be a strong addition to the team’s wing depth.
After being cut a week ago from the Pacers main roster but continuing to play Summer League with them, he’s played well enough to warrant a look at the minimum from the Hawks. With just 261 NBA minutes to his name across the past two seasons, Poythress has never really gotten a shot to show what he can do consistently in the big leagues, and like the Philadelphia 76ers did in the early Process era under Sam Hinkie, the Hawks should be looking for players willing to sign long-term minimum contracts in the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough. With some defensive development from new head coach Lloyd Pierce, Poythress could grow into a long-term option on the wing.
Connaughton doesn’t fill the opening on the wing like Poythress does, but he does fit the team-wide ethos of shooting that has permeated Schlenk’s moves over the past month. After using all three of his first-round picks on players who can bomb from deep, the addition of another shooter off the bench would surprise exactly nobody. Connaughton played all 82 games for the Portland Trail Blazers last season in a key reserve role, but did not receive a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent, opening his services up to any team in the league without the ability for Neil Olshey to match that offer.
While Connaughton doesn’t project to being much more than a bench shooter, he’s done well in that role on significant per-minute attempts for Portland over the past two years and would give the Hawks another option to space the floor around Lin and Trae Young (and Schröder, I suppose, if he’s still on the team come the regular season).