Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are not walking through that door. Although Howard will attend a presentation by the Hawks before he makes his final decision, the team is the longest of long shots with Houston and budding superstar James Harden in the lead. Meanwhile, the transaction that brought Doc Rivers to the Clippers was obviously brought about by Paul working behind the scenes, so we can close the book on that one as well.
The reason Houston has the advantage is because the team landed Harden, who subsequently proved that he can elevate a lottery team into the playoffs. Although Al Horford was ranked as one of the top 20 players in the league by ESPN’s #NBArank, doubts exist that the Hawks will be able to make the playoffs next season if Josh Smith departs in free agency. This really presents an opportunity for the Hawks and Horford. If the Hawks remain a playoff team with Horford as the centerpiece and no other star player added, it will elevate the profile of team and player ahead of 2014’s better free agent class.
Thus, my belief is that the Hawks should stay the course and continue to emulate GM Daryl Morey’s plan for the Rockets. Prior to landing Harden, Morey stockpiled assets. Ferry has made a good start of this by trading up to select Lucas Nogueira, then adding Dennis Schroeder, both of whom can potentially be stashed in Europe. Although HawksHoop lead writer Bo Churney speculated that the failure of the Hawks to extend a qualifying offer to Ivan Johnson today was indicative of a bad culture fit, I disagree. I believe Ferry is maintaining maximum flexibility ahead of Howard’s decision, and Johnson’s agent is well aware that the Hawks will have to spend money to meet the NBA’s salary floor if the team fails to land a star player.
I discussed options for spending the Hawks’ cap space with ESPN.com writer and NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement FAQ author Larry Coon. What I found was that the option to front-load contracts that existed in the previous CBA no longer exists. The Thunder exploited this loophole by using cap space to pay Nick Collison a signing bonus. Under the new CBA, signing bonuses are distributed evenly over the life of the contract. Therefore, if the Hawks strike out on all major free agent targets this year, the only way to spend this year’s cap space while maintaining flexibility for 2014 is to offer 1-year contracts.
Following is my list of 10 potential free agent targets. There aren’t a lot of sexy names here, but I believe that the Hawks could lure some of these players by offering a 1-year contract for a larger amount than the average salary of a multi-year deal offered by another team. For example, Matt Barnes has played for the Lakers and Clippers on veteran’s minimum contracts the last two seasons. If the Clippers are offering Barnes a 2-year deal for $2 million per season, the Hawks should be able to get him on a 1-year deal for $4 million.
1. Corey Brewer
I was initially on board with Churney in hoping the Hawks would pursue Brewer. But the more I think about it, the more I fear he will be overvalued in free agency. Brewer is not a good outside shooter and is too light to guard LeBron/Melo/Durant. His biggest asset, his ability to leak out in transition, will not translate to the half court grind-fest of the playoffs.
2. Matt Barnes
In Part II of this series, I made reference to Zach Lowe’s piece on 3-and-D players or “New Age Shane Battiers” as he called them. In that piece, Lowe referred to Barnes as, “perhaps the most undervalued player in the league.” The object here is to stockpile undervalued assets. Sure, he’s had off-court problems. But go read Danny Green’s wiki page and you will see that all sorts of people have skeletons in their closet. Barnes would combine with a re-signed Ivan Johnson to give the Hawks toughness that’s been lacking.
3. Michael Dunleavy
This is my sleeper free agent signing. Dunleavy is a liability on defense but I believe he can make up for it with effort and what he brings on the offensive end. Among players who played at least 70 postseason minutes this year, Dunleavy had the 7th-highest PER, an astonishing 24.7. Like Kyle Korver, Dunleavy is 32 and playing well in the advanced stages of his career. As with an aging soccer player who still maintains an excellent work rate, this could be another undervalued asset with good years left in him. I feel fairly confident that Dunleavy could grasp the nuances of whatever system Mike Budenholzer brings to the Hawks. I’ve said that I believe Ferry will build the Hawks to win now. Dunleavy would give the Hawks a legitimate small forward in his late prime.
4. Chris Copeland
The New York Post reports that Copeland is seeking “Steve Novak money.” The problem is that “Steve Novak money” is synonymous with “buyer’s remorse.” Copeland is a nice shooter but I prefer “Lou Williams impact” when we start approaching “Lou Williams money.”
5. Anthony Tolliver
I mentioned in Part II that Tolliver’s shooting went into video game mode in the playoffs. When the Hawks needed him most, he performed best. As with Dunleavy’s small playoff sample size, it’s easy to make too much of this. Nonetheless, if Tolliver can still be had at the veteran’s minimum I would consider that a steal.
6. Al-Farouq Aminu
Aminu is a departure from my current obsession with wing players who can defend and hit the three because he’s a poor shooter. However, I see Aminu as an undervalued asset because the Hornets/Pelicans declined his 3rd-year option and made him a free agent this off-season. Aminu is a strong rebounder and defender, is only 22 years old and played at Norcross High School. There may still be time for the Hawks’ coaching staff to fix his shot. And who would you rather have guarding Carmelo Anthony: Korver or this guy?
7. Zaza Pachulia
I wouldn’t pay Zaza much more than $2 million per season given his injury history. If the Hawks can keep him for that, it’s a steal. Assuming he completely recovers, Zaza remains one of the best backup centers in the league. If the Hawks strike out on major free agent targets and have to spend up to the cap floor, a 1-year deal for Zaza at $4 million could be the best option.
8. Timofey Mozgov
I first caught Mozgov Mania thanks to noted blogger JaeEvolution. Mozgov was caught in a bizarre situation last year when George Karl played Kosta Koufas ahead of JaVale McGee, whom the Nuggets’ front office had invested heavily in. Given Denver’s desire to retain Andre Iguodala and Mozgov’s desire for playing time, this could be a perfect player for Ferry to steal. Unlike Nogueira, who may need years to grow into his body and contribute at the NBA level, Mozgov is in his prime and ready to contribute now.
9. Ivan Johnson
Don’t write him off just yet. Ivan is a very passionate player who wants to win. He’s also a completely unique talent who can legitimately guard all three front court positions. He may be the only player in the league who can do a credible job of staying in front of Carmelo Anthony AND banging in the post with Dwight Howard. I believe Ferry is playing possum by declining to extend a qualifying offer to Johnson; he doesn’t want to get in a bidding war but he has more cap space to spend than any other GM.
10. Andre Iguodala
Iggy is the singular star player on my list. He will have plenty of suitors, but he’s an outstanding culture fit for the Hawks. A locker room led by Horford and Iguodala would be unified, professional and ready to execute Ferry and Budenholzer’s vision for the franchise.