Following their first season outside of the playoff picture since 2007-08, the Atlanta Hawks found themselves in the unfamiliar place of looking to the future in a rebuild, which began last summer when general manager Travis Schlenk was brought in to restock the team with young talent and draft assets. Dwight Howard was shipped out to Charlotte, Paul Millsap left for Denver, and the Hawks were near the bottom of the standings throughout the year. Head coach (and former president of basketball operations) Mike Budenholzer stepped down at the end of the year to take the Milwaukee Bucks job and Schlenk was able to increase his imprint on the organization, hiring Lloyd Pierce from the Philadelphia 76ers to man the Hawks’ bench for the foreseeable future. The rebuild is in full swing in Atlanta and Schlenk is constantly looking for ways to stock his war chest of future assets, a theme that we saw during Thursday’s draft and will continue through July.
Atlanta will be one of the few teams with cap space this summer, but there is no expectation throughout the league that they’ll be competitive for any of the big-name free agents. With a projected $21.9 million in cap space, the Hawks have a single focus this offseason: use their cap space to take on other teams’ bad salary and pick up future draft picks for their trouble. There are plenty of terrible contracts signed in 2016 that are still haunting teams two years later and Atlanta will attempt to take on at least one of those deals in order to pick up first-round picks.
Clearing the requisite cap space will be trivial for Schlenk and his front office staff. They only have $75.3 million in guaranteed salary on their books for next season, assuming Mike Muscala opts in to his $5 million for 2018-19. With just two incumbent free agents in Malcolm Delaney and Damion Lee, there’s very little standing between them in significant cap space. Delaney and Lee are both potential restricted free agents, but it would be surprising if either guy receives a qualifying offer ahead of next week’s deadline. Delaney was a useful player during his two years in Atlanta, but his $3.1 million qualifying offer will be too rich for their blood, even if he ends up getting similar money from another team. A solid combo guard with a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor, Delaney won’t have trouble finding an NBA job next season. Lee was kept on after completing consecutive 10-day contracts with the Hawks in 2017-18 and brought enough to the table to negotiate himself out of a non-guaranteed second year, but once again, it seems unlikely that Atlanta likes him enough to pay his $1.6 million qualifying offer to take up some of their cap space and a roster spot. With the additions of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and Omari Spellman in the draft, Atlanta already has 13 players under contract for next season, assuming late-season signings Antonius Cleveland and Jaylen Morris are eventually let go. Both Cleveland and Morris will play Summer League for the Hawks while they can keep up to 20 players during the offseason, but come cut down day in October, those guys aren’t likely to make the roster.
Two teams with whom Atlanta will be in constant communication come July are the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers. Both teams have their sights set on some very big fish, from LeBron James to Paul George to Kawhi Leonard, but fulfilling their summer dreams could require moving some money. Specifically, Philadelphia’s Jerryd Bayless and Los Angeles’s Luol Deng will be prime trade candidates this summer as those teams look to shed salary to make room for their big-name acquisitions. Bayless has just one year and $8.6 million left on his deal and the 76ers are likely reticent about losing a first-round pick for the privilege of moving his salary, but if it comes down to needing to make a move, the Hawks will be one of the teams they call about a possible deal. In the Lakers’ case, it will only make sense to trade Deng if they land two of the three major players on the market this summer, but there could be a very lucrative deal for Atlanta to make if they were to be willing to take on his salary. With two years and $36.8 million left on his contract (which is entirely dead money at this point), Los Angeles would have to part with two first-round picks to shed that much salary to a team like Atlanta. Given that the Hawks will possibly have three first-round picks in the 2019 draft and that the Lakers would only do a deal like this if they are bringing in two of the names listed above, Schlenk and his staff will push for those picks to be further out on the horizon; picking up 2021 and 2023 firsts from Los Angeles would be a perfect scenario for the Hawks. Other trade targets for Atlanta’s cap space include Kenneth Faried, Ryan Anderson, Tyler Johnson, Joakim Noah, Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, Evan Turner, Ian Mahinmi, and Marcin Gortat. All of these players are varying degrees of “dead money” at this point and would bring with them at least one first-round pick for Atlanta’s growing stable of future assets.
On their own roster, the Hawks will absolutely be looking to move point guard Dennis Schröder this summer, especially after taking Young with the fifth pick in Thursday’s draft. My thoughts on Schröder’s game and trade value are well-documented over at Peachtree Hoops, but suffice it to say that his trade value is at a similar level to some of the names Atlanta may target to bring in. A like-for-like swap of bad money with a smaller asset coming the Hawks’ way might be the way they end up with two big trades this summer—teams like Phoenix and New York are in need of a low-end starter at the point guard position and have salary in Knight and Noah to send back to Atlanta along with a first-round pick to lessen the price those teams have to pay to get off those bad deals while still netting something for the Hawks.
In a summer hailed as one of the tightest markets in recent memory, one of the only teams with cap space will not be using it to spend on this year’s free agent crop. The Hawks will instead be very active on the trade market, whether it includes moving Schröder or Kent Bazemore or just bringing in a single bad deal along with future assets. Schlenk is building toward the future with versatile offensive players, a defensive-minded young coach, and a treasure trove of future picks, to which he’d love to add this summer.