Having leftover cap space at the end of the summer can be very useful. Teams with significant cap space can make lopsided trades without matching salary, as the Atlanta Hawks have done the last two offseasons in the trades to acquire Carmelo Anthony in 2018 and Allen Crabbe in 2019. However, this is the first time in the Travis Schlenk era that the team will take some of that financial flexibility into the regular season. Schlenk and the Hawks will open the season next month with about $5.33 million in cap space, barring any unforeseen moves in the coming weeks.
Last year, we saw that Sacramento was able to leverage their leftover cap space when they traded Zach Randolph and Justin Jackson to Dallas for Harrison Barnes. Under normal circumstances, that trade would have never been legal, but Sacramento had about $11 million in extra cap space they could use to take Barnes’ salary back in addition to Randolph and Jackson going out to Dallas. The move was beneficial for both sides – Dallas was able to cut salary for 2018-19 and beyond and Sacramento nabbed a player whom they likely would not have been able to sign outright in free agency.
As the regular season approaches, the Hawks may be looking to do something similar this year with the $5.33 million they have left. Atlanta, like Sacramento, is not necessarily a free agency destination; both teams have historically built their successful teams through trades and the draft. As the Hawks improve, perhaps that perception will change in the next few years, but there isn’t a lot of precedent for them landing big-name free agents.
The only issue is that $5.33 million isn’t exactly a lot of wiggle room, particularly when the league’s trade rules already give teams flexibility in matching salaries in trades. Of the five rotation-level players who may be on the trade block for the Hawks at some point this season, only Alex Len’s trade value significantly improves when the extra cap space is taken into account.
Chandler Parsons’ $25.1 million salary can bring back up to $6.4 million more in a trade than he makes on his contract. Evan Turner’s $18.6 million can be traded for any salary (or multiple salaries) up to $5.0 million more than he makes, which makes the $5.33 million in cap space the Hawks have not all that much more useful than the standard NBA rules. Allen Crabbe’s $18.5 million salary is in the same boat. Jabari Parker may have some trade value, but his $6.5 million salary can bring back up to $11.475 million in a trade under the NBA’s over-the-cap trade rules, which isn’t very different from the $11.83 million the Hawks could bring back using cap space.
If the Hawks are going to be very active in trade discussions this season, then using cap space to acquire a player or two in a trade makes sense, as players traded into cap space can be immediately aggregated with other players in a future trade, whereas players acquired with a trade exception must wait 60 days before being aggregated in another deal. For example, if the Hawks were to trade one of their three big salaries for multiple smaller-salaried players, they could then immediately turn around and trade one of those newly-acquired players alongside one of their current players in a separate deal. It’s a benefit, but it’s a very small benefit that is really only useful for teams looking to make multiple deals in the final weeks before the trade deadline.
The best way the Hawks could use their cap space is to pick up a young player who fits their long-term timeline and still has restricted free agency ahead of him. Atlanta isn’t necessarily a free agent destination and could struggle to use nearly $80 million in cap space next year, particularly as most of the bad contracts signed in 2016 expire. Rather than walking into July 2020 with gobs of money and planning to fight with every other cap space team to sign the biggest young free agents, the Hawks could use their remaining cap space this year to trade for one of those players ahead of time. The aim there wouldn’t necessarily be to acquire that player on his current contract, as he wouldn’t have much time left anyway, but to have match rights in free agency.
Any player with whom Atlanta has been linked in 2020 free agency should also be a trade target during the season. If Schlenk and his front office staff identify a player like Brandon Ingram or Jaylen Brown as someone they believe will fit in their long-term future, then trading for that player ahead of time could make a lot of sense. They don’t have enough space to take on one of those players for no outgoing salary, but Damian Jones’ $2.3 million can be used as enough salary ballast to make a move work financially.
Brown is a particularly enticing prospective addition due to his Atlanta roots and 3-and-D role player upside, whereas Ingram is a tougher fit on a team with Trae Young at the helm. Brown and the Boston Celtics are reportedly at an impasse when it comes to an extension this fall, though they still hold his match rights next summer. Knowing how Danny Ainge usually operates, the lack of an extension won’t motivate him to trade Brown at a below-market value, but if Schlenk came correct with a good offer, there’s a conversation to be had.
The lack of options the Hawks will have with their remaining cap space makes Parker’s contract even worse than it is in a vacuum. The criticisms of Parker’s deal are separate from the player himself; the value of a two-year deal with a player option for Year 2 is very, very slight from the team’s perspective in almost any situation. For a role player who may have some trade value to the team if he plays well, there’s precious little upside to the deal whatsoever for the Hawks.
Before signing Parker to his current contract, the Hawks had about $13.5 million in cap space with which to work. There’s no way to know from the outside (and Schlenk has little incentive to tell anybody the truth about it), but could the Hawks have given that entire amount to Parker in Year 1 and gotten a non-guaranteed second year, rather than splitting up $13 million over two years but relenting on the player option? While at first it would seem that doubling Parker’s salary would be a bad move for the Hawks, a two-year deal worth $26 million with a team option or non-guaranteed second year would have been a more team-friendly deal than the one Parker eventually signed due to the extra trade value that comes with the club holding the option on the second year.
The extra cap space the Hawks have as a result of Parker’s smaller first-year salary might end up being useful, but it’s such a small amount that it would take an incredibly specific set of circumstances for it to come into play.
The other end of the Parker spectrum would be to have not signed him at all, but that may not have been a realistic option once Schlenk identified him as a target in free agency. Filling his spot with a minimum forward would have given them between $10.2 million and $10.9 million in cap space going into the season, which would have been just about where Sacramento was last year and would have given them significant financial flexibility to make a trade. That still would have been a better option than the route they took, but it is perhaps the least likely of the club’s available options, given that Schlenk and his staff seem to have zeroed in on Parker as a key signing this offseason.