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A broad look-ahead to Atlanta Hawks free agency

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Exploring the objectives of the roster building ahead.

Lloyd Pierce Press Conference Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2020 NBA Draft is finally only a week away and, with free agency soon to follow. As such, it is a good time to glance at some broad objectives that seem appropriate considering the actual current roster.

This piece will not include specific free agent targets, nor any salary cap-driven analysis. This space has featured, and will continue to feature, pieces that focus on those angles of the offseason period.

In addition, this outlook will no account for who the Hawks might add by way of the draft. It is probably safest to assume a rookie is not going to be the key player to help them make a move toward playoff contention for the 2020-21 season specifically.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at a reasonable set of prioritized objectives.

Explore the opportunity to add a top-50 player via trade

The Hawks have more cap space than any other team in the NBA. As such, if another team needs to move a valuable (not too old) veteran to make space for another move, Atlanta could be in position to capitalize.

This could be in the form of a starting wing and/or a backup point guard that is good enough to close games with some regularity. As mentioned, I’m not going to play a guess game here, but it seems appropriate that Hawks fans may not love the way that a move like this would play out.

Are fans okay with either Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter or Cam Reddish (and perhaps two of the three) playing off of the bench next season? It could happen, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world for either of them.

There are a number of examples that we could point to here. For one, Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown (a former No. 3 overall pick) went to the bench in his third season and it didn’t seem to negatively impact his development. His teammate Marcus Smart (a former No. 6 overall pick) has carved out a role in which he is nearly irreplaceable despite having played extensively off the bench in his career.

Do you want your team to be good? Do you also want your team’s young players to be increasingly featured? Those objectives don’t always go together.

Acquire players that allow Lloyd Pierce to construct lineups that can defend

Travis Schlenk was proactive in his trade deadline acquisition of Clint Capela last season in a deal that seemed to be based upon the forethought that the free agent class is not full of realistic players that will be able to help potentially new teams significantly move the needle on either end of the court.

Capela, when healthy, is one of the more versatile defensive centers in the league. Keep in mind that versatility is not always measured in whether a big man can equally defend on the perimeter and in the paint. Capela is not the best candidate to regularly switch on to primary ball handlers.

Another way that versatility can be measured is in the number of different schemes a player can handle. This is an especially important context for a defensive anchor. Capela can function in a drop-based scheme, an approach that calls for the big to help at the level of the screen before recovering to the lane and a switch-based scheme when the switching excludes the big man.

In each of Pierce’s two seasons in Atlanta, we’ve seen a variety of schemes deployed, but this is the year in which a defensive identify needs to be forged. Finally having some stability at the center position should help towards that goal.

With the makeup of the centers on the roster, being two-deep in experienced veterans, I believe we will see more of the scheme that calls for switching “one through four” (guards and forwards switch on most ball screen) with a specific type of help from the center. I also think we will continue to see some occasional zone defense.

If this is the case, then getting experienced defenders on the wing that can diagnose plays, react quickly and communicate well may be just as if not more important that acquiring players perceived to be individual defensive stoppers. This is something we might want to keep in mind when we see the individual transactions announced.

Even still they will need players that are reliable when defending at the point of attack in space. Reddish emerged last year as a quality defensive option, but every team needs multiple options and, thus far, Huerter and Hunter are more effective defending near the baseline than at the top of the defensive half court.

Acquire veteran depth

This is not entirely separate from the first objective, but Atlanta’s 2019-20 roster was embarrassingly short on actual depth pieces that know how to play. Jabari Parker helped a bit with offensive production during the early part of John Collins’ absence due to suspension, but in 2020-21, Dewayne Dedmon projects to provide more two-way value than Parker did.

Likewise, Evan Turner was a tough fit if not because they lacked shooting elsewhere in the rotation. In addition, he wasn’t really a backup point guard despite being cast in that role.

The bench unit also needs to have more shooting. The Hawks were dead-last in the league in three-point shooting last season, despite having the one of the single best shot creators in the league in Trae Young and a knock-down shooter in Huerter.

The roster also needs more playmaking. They were willing to live with an ugly volume of turnovers last year with Young growing in his second season in the league and with repetitions Huerter, Hunter and Reddish working on ball last season. I don’t think you want to completely rob the young players of any opportunity, but in the last five minutes in close games, secure offensive possessions need to be a priority for a team chasing a playoff berth.

Atlanta also needs more defensive playmaking. This is a somewhat separate evaluation from the broader defensive capabilities the roster would have. If you are going to build an offensive formula for a rotation that includes Reddish, Collins and Capela (and maybe even Bruno Fernando), it would make little sense to ignore the opportunity to add players that can create transition possessions.

If one of the highest usage players in the league is also one of the single best hit-ahead passers in the league, as is Young, you are going to want to create possessions that let him put the skill to use.

Lastly, the bench construction needs to account for the fact that Vince Carter is no longer on the team. It doesn’t require that another future Hall of Fame forward to be added to replenish the leadership he provided the young players, but neither can the attrition of that veteran presence simply be ignored.

Figure out the backup point guard spot

I have share in full transparency that I am a full-fledged believer in Brandon Goodwin. I think he is undoubtedly an NBA player that can help a good team. He’s smart, strong, more physical than you would ever anticipate based upon his size, and well equipped to regularly create via the pick and roll offensively.

With that said, Atlanta needs to figure out if Goodwin is the right backup point guard for this particular team. Doubly so, he is on a non-guaranteed contract that requires a decision in the near future.

Young needs help, even as one of the best creators in the NBA. He will likely need to sit a game here and there and, almost more importantly, he needs to see his team not become historically bad on offense when he heads to the bench for rest.

Additionally, if the defensive expectations are going to be raised for Young in 2020-21, then all of this is even more important.

I will never forget how important Jeremy Lin was to helping Kemba Walker elevate his status to the level of perennial NBA All-Star. Walker, an undersized point guard that was capable of adding value in spot-up opportunities, needed to work off ball for a dozen or so possessions each game. In games in which his team needed more from him defensively, he needed even more than that.

Does any of that seem relevant? Could they find a similar type complementing player at the backup point guard spot? It was a gaping hole on the 2019-20 roster that must be addressed moving forward.


Once the free agent period arrives after the draft, the transactions will fly, perhaps faster than ever. Here’s to hoping we see the formation of the first roster of the Schlenk-Pierce era intended to earnestly compete for a postseason appearance.