(Feature image: Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)
Ah, draft night… One of my favorite dates on the NBA calendar. I don’t know what it is about this day that I look forward to so much. I suppose the fascination of which player ends up where, and what he can contribute to his new team is what which really grips me the most. What said player will be able to blossom into over the next few years, what said player’s arrival means for an existing player on the team already, and so on…
Personally, I find it hard to explain why I love draft day so much — it’s just a great day for all involved. Unless you’re the Brooklyn Nets this year, in which case, there’s always next year. Or 2019, whichever.
It’s not just a very interesting day for the fans — who spend weeks speculating and discussing/arguing who their team should select — but it’s also an interesting day for executives all around the league, as the future of their franchise potentially hangs in the balance by a thread of one draft pick. Some executives, however, are going to be busier than others, with the Nuggets, the Celtics, the Suns, and the Sixers all owning at least three first round picks. Each.
It’s going to be a pretty busy day for Atlanta Hawks too, who have the 21st overall selection as well as two second round selections (44 and 54).
Naturally, the question all Hawks fans are asking is “Who should we draft?”. But to thoroughly answer that question, we must do our research, and identify all the different forces at play here. There’s all sorts of different avenues the Hawks could explore when approaching this year’s draft, and today we’re going to address them — and by doing so, identifying the area (the area that I at least believe) the Hawks should draft in. Then we’ll be able to ask, and answer, the original question.
The future of Al Horford
As noted about a thousand times at this stage, franchise cornerstone Al Horford is about to hit the free agency market. A lot of mock drafts out there project the Hawks to take a center as insurance, since Horford is a free agent and can leave Atlanta without the Hawks receiving anything in return — unless a sign-and-trade is negotiated. Now look, let’s be fair, these mock drafts bring up a fair point: Horford is an unrestricted free agent after all, and it makes logical sense to, perhaps, draft a big just in case he does decide to leave. So let’s not ridicule sites who suggest the Hawks select a center for that reason.
At this point, however, I’d like to bring up the Mike Conley situation in Memphis, just as a comparison to set the foundation for a point I’d like to discuss.
Conley, like Horford, is also hitting the unrestricted free agency market for the first time in his career. He, like Horford, has also spent the duration of his career playing in the city that drafted him — Memphis. However, Conley’s impending free agency has a different feel about it than Horford’s impending free agency in Atlanta.
It’s always important to mention that just because Conley has spent his entire career in Memphis, that does not mean that he will necessarily re-sign with Memphis, even though he said — during the Grizzlies’ exit interviews — that in an ideal world he would like to remain in Memphis. The same goes for Al Hoford: just because he has spent his entire playing career in Atlanta, that does not mean his signature is 100% guaranteed.
While he has spoken of his desire to remain in Memphis, Conley did stipulate that he wanted to see what improvements the team were able to make before he potentially re-signs. This gives Conley leverage, and ensures the front office is proactive in their efforts to improve the team, so that Conley doesn’t re-sign for a team that isn’t headed anywhere. Conley has every right to do this, because given the current state of the Grizzlies (whose window may now be closed), they may not necessarily improve drastically, which may lead Conley to explore free agency.
“Yeah, I think that is fair to say (whether Conley’s decision hinges on the Grizzlies’ ability to attract free agents). I think that it’s no secret to think that everybody is kind of wondering if we can bring together enough guys in the off-season, because they have the right formula they have enough money, they have enough opportunity to go find somebody but will we be able to attract this person or that person. And that’s going to be one of the deciding factors if I believe they can do it or not.” — Mike Conley
Horford, on the other hand, has given far clearer indications of his intentions to remain in Atlanta right from the get-go, and it seems highly unlikely that he (unless the Hawks fail to give him the contract he desires) will leave Atlanta. He didn’t make similar remarks about wanting the team to make moves before making his decision, as Mike Conley did, but instead stated his admiration for the core that the team currently has.
Horford: "I really love this group of guys. Coach is great. I really like where this organization is headed."
— KL Chouinard (@KLChouinard) May 9, 2016
Let me put it this way: if you asked Memphis fans to pick a number on a scale of 1-10 (one being not worried at all, 10 being “I just ate at a restaurant and I’ve only now discovered I don’t have enough money to pay” worried), how worried they felt about Mike Conley leaving, I reckon a lot of the knowledgeable Memphis fans would answer in the 7-10 range. If you posed the same question to Hawks fans in relation to Al Horford, I think you would genuinely receive answers in the 1-5 range.
However, Memphis fans aren’t the only ones worried now. Fresh rumblings in Memphis report that some members of the Grizzlies’ front office are worried that Conley is leaving Memphis, which makes their draft priorities very clear — draft a point guard.
For the Hawks, I really believe Al Horford is going to re-sign (I believe that he wants to stay) and I believe the front office feels the same way too. The only way I could anticipate Horford leaving is if the Hawks do not meet his salary demands, in which case there’s no excuse for the Hawks not to meet those demands as they own Horford’s Bird Rights, meaning they can go above the salary cap to re-sign him.
If nothing else, the front office will have supreme confidence that they will be able to re-sign him. Therefore, it doesn’t make drafting a center an absolute necessity, compared to Memphis’ absolute need to draft a point guard.
I think it’s fair to say that this draft pick will not be spent on the notion that Horford is leaving. Nor should such a notion arise if the Hawks do decide to draft a big man. I repeat, just because the Hawks may draft a big man, that does not necessarily mean that Horford is leaving.
If they do decide to draft a big man, it could very well be for their bench, given that Tiago Splitter is currently rehabbing from a hip procedure that ended his season, given that Kris Humphries is also a free agent, and given Mike Scott’s current legal issues may result in a possible prison sentence.
Jeff Teague’s future
Jeff Teague’s future in Atlanta has been a topic of hot discussion, scalding hot since Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports’ “The Vertical” reported that the Sixers and the Hawks discussed a trade centering around Nerlens Noel and Teague. In fact, Teague’s future has probably been talked more than Al Horford’s future.
If the Hawks have their hearts set on trading Teague, then it’s clear that they’ll have to address their backup point guard position — since current backup point guard Dennis Schröder would more than likely be inserted into the starting lineup and Atlanta’s previous third string point guard, Shelvin Mack, now resides in Utah following his trade at deadline and his replacement, Kirk Hinrich, is a free agent.
It’s possible that the Hawks may decide to draft a point guard that to fill the role of backup point guard, as the opportunity to sign a backup point guard in free agency is not guaranteed by any means — compared to the draft where they absolutely, 100%, will have the power (since it’s their choice) to acquire a point guard.
Unlike the possible scenario of the Hawks potentially drafting a big man (a selection that does not automatically mean that Horford is leaving) if the Hawks do draft a point guard I really do believe that would signal the end for Jeff Teague in Atlanta. And no one would be surprised in the slightest.
If the front office is preparing for life without Teague, should the Hawks consider drafting a point guard?
Kent Bazemore’s unpredictable free agency
Kent Bazemore is also headed toward free agency, after posting a career year in his second season with the Hawks. Bazemore posted averages of 11.6 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2,3 APG, 1.3 SPG, while also shooting 35% from three-point range.
The Hawks are going to run into a similar situation this summer with Kent Bazemore that they ran into with DeMarre Carroll last summer.
(You best settle in for this next point, because it needs a lot more foundation setting…)
The Hawks obviously wanted to keep both of their key free agent, Paul Millsap and Carroll, last summer. However, the Hawks did not own the full Bird Rights on either player, as both had only played two seasons in Atlanta, as opposed to the three years required to qualify for the Full Bird Rights. As such, the Hawks only owned the Early Bird Rights on Millsap and Carroll, again, since they did at least play in Atlanta for two seasons.
As briefly mentioned above with Al Horford, the Full Bird Rights allows teams to go above the salary cap to re-sign their free agents. The Early Bird Rights do not allow a team to do that. Well, sort of. They do allow teams to go over the cap to sign their free agents, but only up to 175% of the player’s previous salary, or 104.5% the NBA’s average salary — whichever figure is greater.
In this instance, 175% of Paul Millsap’s 2014-15 salary ($9.5 million) is $16,625,000. The Hawks could’ve exceeded the cap by this much (or anything below this figure) to re-sign Millsap. However, his level of play warranted a contract higher than that value and, therefore, possessing his Early Bird Rights meant nothing to the Hawks when it came to re-signing both he and Carroll.
DeMarre Carroll, on the other hand, earned $2.4 million in the 2014-15 season. 175% of this figure does not amount to a greater value than 104.5% of the average league salary for the 2014-15 season — $5.7 million per CBA expert Larry Coon’s CBA-FQA. Therefore, the Hawks could go above the cap to sign DeMarre if his contract amounted $5.4 million per (in its first season) or below. Obviously, Carroll’s level play warranted a contract much higher than that, which, again, meant possessing his Early Bird Rights meant nothing to the Hawks when it came to re-signing both he and Millsap.
The Hawks were, essentially, forced to choose between Millsap or Carroll, as they could not offer the two of them the deals they wanted and stay below the salary cap at the same time. While they could give one player the contract he desired because they did not own the Full Bird Rights of either player, they could not go above the cap to sign the other. And so, they elected to re-sign Millsap to a 3 year $60 million deal (earning roughly $19 million in the first year of that deal), while DeMarre signed a lucrative 4 year $60 million deal with the Toronto Raptors.
“But that was last year, we remember, don’t remind us that we lost Carroll. Where does Kent Bazemore fit into this?”
You might be beginning to piece this puzzle together…
Bazemore has only been with the Hawks for two seasons, meaning that the Hawks — again — only own his Early Bird Rights. Again, the Early Bird Rights allows a team to exceed the cap by up to 175% of that player’s previous wage, or the league average wage — whichever is higher. If Bazemore’s contract exceeds either of those figures, the Hawks would then have to use their cap space to re-sign him. Bazemore’s estimated earnings (per Basketball Insiders) for the 2015-16 season was less than the estimated league average salary of $5.7 million — again, per Larry Coon.
Just like Carroll, Bazemore has played to a level that warrants a contract higher than $5.7 million per year, meaning that — once again — the Early Bird Rights mean absolutely nothing to the Hawks when it comes to re-signing him.
The free agency market that Bazemore is about to head into is going to be one unlike any other in NBA history. The salary cap is rising from $70 million to roughly $94 million, meaning most teams will have near max cap space. However, this creates an issue: there’s now a ton of teams with near max space, but not a ton of quality free agents to spend it on, meaning some teams are going to miss out. As such, there’s going to be stiff competition for the better free agents out there.
In today’s modern NBA, decent/good wing players are highly coveted. A few years ago we saw Gordon Hayward sign a four year, $63 million offer sheet with the Charlotte Hornets, which Utah matched. We saw Chandler Parsons also sign an offer sheet with the Dallas Mavericks worth $45 million over just three years. And just last year, as Hawks fans remember, we saw DeMarre Carroll sign a four year, $60 million deal. There are other examples of wing players on lesser money, but still high — perhaps — when you consider the player, but the point is this: Good wings are hard to come by and, as such, they are coveted free agents who get paid well. Especially if you can shoot moderately well from three-point range and can defend. Bazemore ticks both of these boxes, and he’s going to be a well sought after free agent by many teams who want to improve their wing positions, once their Kevin Durant pipe dreams are quickly extinguished.
Bazemore was going to warrant a decent contract regardless of this cap spike, but in a summer where teams have more money than they know what to do with? His value is going to rise exponentially because of this cap spike. Money is going to be thrown around like you’ve never seen before. Heck, we’re about to live in a world where Harrison Barnes is going to earn $20 million a year. That’s how much money is going to be thrown around this summer, and you can bet that a lot of money is going to flung at Bazemore too.
So, what does that mean for the Hawks? What can they offer him?
Well, at this present moment, the Hawks have about $51.7 million in guaranteed contracts (subject to change should a trade occur) for the 2016-17 season (nearly $57 million if Mike Scott, Mike Muscala, and Lamar Patterson are all brought back too). Then you have Al Horford’s cap hold figure of $18 million. So that takes Atlanta’s spending up to, roughly, $75 million.
We’ll assume, just for this example, that the Hawks renounce Bazemore’s cap hold (since forfeiting his Early Bird Rights has zero repercussions, since we’ve already established that they mean nothing in this situation), Hinrich’s cap hold, and Humphries’ cap hold. That would leave the Hawks’ expenditure at roughly $75-77 million. With the salary cap projected to be $92 million, that leaves the Hawks with $17 million in cap space to spend, before Al Horford — who is already accounted for with that $18 million cap hold — re-signs for the max.
The demand for Bazemore is going to be high. Do not be surprised in the slightest if he receives a contract offer of $15 million (or perhaps even more) per year. The Hawks could technically (if they renounce some cap holds) offer him the same kind of money, but where do you draw the line? Do the Hawks want to be the team that overpays for Bazemore? Do you want to be the team that pays him $15 million (or more) for the next four years? At what point do you simply say, “this isn’t worth it going forward”? Atlanta may reach this road with Bazemore, and they may have to be OK with another team overpaying for his services.
From Bazemore’s perspective, he has never had stability (both in contract length or value) in his four years in the NBA. This summer presents an opportunity where both of these dreams can become realities. This security is very important to him, it’s important to all players — especially if you’ve never had such a luxury before because you weren’t a high draft pick. He will/should want to secure the best possible deal out there. No one should be angry for him for taking the highest offer on the table. If Atlanta isn’t willing to offer him what other teams are prepared to, he’s probably going to accept another offer.
You may want to sit down, Hawks fans, because what I’m about to tell you may not be easy to take. Here it goes… For those reasons discussed above, Kent Bazemore probably isn’t coming back next season.
So, for two years in a row, you’re — very realistically — looking at the possibility of losing your starting small forward, who had a career year in his contract year.
So, Bazemore is, effectively, gone but there’s good news: he is replaceable. Thabo Sefolosha will have no problem sliding into the starting lineup, but his promotion will mean that the Hawks’ bench wing depth is now cut to just Tim Hardaway Jr. and Lamar Patterson. Yeah… That’s not ideal for a playoff team with high aspirations. I mean, don’t get me wrong, those are two decent players, but they need help.
It makes the most sense for the Hawks to draft a wing player, instead of a big or a point guard for this very reason, as Bazemore’s exit should be the one the Hawks prepare for the most — not Al Horford’s. This is the area the Hawks should look to draft in, because it’s the area in the most need, whether Bazemore stays or goes.
Now that we’ve identified the area the Hawks should draft in, we’ll cover the possible wings that may be available when it’s time for the Hawks to make their selections, in Part 2.