While less patient clubs may have seen the success Atlanta had with Trae Young and John Collins and accelerated the timeline significantly as a result, general manager Travis Schlenk and his staff are sticking to their long-term plan. They’re building slowly and solidly, without chasing the dream of major free agents signing for a team that really hasn’t proven anything yet and doesn’t have the pedigree of being a big team capable of landing big names. Instead, Schlenk and the Hawks are developing their guys and using the cap space that comes with having a roster full of rookie scale contracts to take in money other teams don’t want. Three quarters of their projected 2019 cap space has already been used in this manner, as Atlanta has agreements to open July 6 with a pair of trades, first with Brooklyn to take on Allen Crabbe’s $18.5 million for 2019-20, then with New Orleans to acquire Solomon Hill and his $12.8 million expiring contract.
Between those two additions and their three draft picks – De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, and Bruno Fernando – the Hawks are just about out of regular season roster spots. As things stand, they have 12 fully guaranteed contracts on their books, plus Jaylen Adams, who has $100,000 of his $1.4 million guaranteed until mid-July, and Bruno Fernando, their second-round pick who they presumably will sign at some point. That doesn’t leave them with a lot of roster flexibility going into July, particularly if they would like to bring back two of their three incumbent free agents in Dewayne Dedmon and Vince Carter.
Dedmon was wildly impressive during his two years in Atlanta. After spending most of his career as a rim-running big man, the Hawks let him loose to do nearly whatever he wanted, a role in which he thrived. By the midway point of his first season, then-head coach Mike Budenholzer was running plays for him to come off screens for threes. This was a player who had logged more than 3,000 minutes in four years prior to arriving in Atlanta and had attempted exactly one three-pointer, and by January of his first season with the Hawks was launching threes in spot-ups and off movement. It was a jarring change but a welcome one for Atlanta and for Dedmon, who has now differentiated himself as one of the most versatile starting centers available on the open market this offseason.
Holding onto him will be difficult for Atlanta, who can either use his Early Bird rights or sign him with their remaining available cap space. He’s a perfect fit next to John Collins, whom the coaching staff is adamant is a power forward, despite players of his physical profile making the move to center in droves these days. Their development plan for Collins makes Dedmon a very good frontcourt partner, as Dedmon’s malleability on both ends of the floor leads him to play just about whatever role the Hawks ask – he can still rim-run and catch lobs in pick-and-roll from Trae Young, or he can pop to the perimeter and space the floor for Collins to roll to the basket. Defensively, he can guard at all three levels in pick-and-roll – dropping deep to protect the rim, hedging or trapping on the perimeter, or fully switching onto opposing guards. It’s this level of two-sided versatility that will make Dedmon a very good signing for any team able to pick him up. He may not be absolutely elite in any area, though he’s probably close to an elite shooter at the 5 with his ability to shoot off movement, but he can do a little bit of everything and has exactly the sort of skillset playoff teams seek.
Given the high replacement value at center in today’s NBA and the fact that he played the last two years on a mostly really bad Hawks team, it would surprise nobody to see Dedmon fall through the cracks in favor of more famous names. This may work to Atlanta’s advantage, who want to bring him back if he’s interested in returning and would likely be willing to give him more than his market rate on a short-term contract to do so. Whether that’s another 1+1 in the $10+ million range per season or it takes all of their remaining cap space, the Hawks have very little else to do with that money in the short term and would be very well served for the development of their younger players to have Dedmon around, both on the court and in the locker room.
Should Dedmon take his talents elsewhere, Atlanta would be able to shift that money, if they so choose. The recent acquisition of Evan Turner doesn’t necessarily make it a priority for them to add at any position, as Turner can play the backup 4 defensively and backup 1 offensively with his unique skillset. Jaylen Adams will occupy the third point guard role, which makes a lot more sense for where he is in the NBA’s hierarchy. There are other options, which I covered for Peachtree Hoops here. They have a bunch of wings: Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, Allen Crabbe, and DeAndre’ Bembry are on the slightly smaller side, while De’Andre Hunter and Solomon Hill can swing between both forward spots. Collins and Turner lead the line at the 4 with Omari Spellman able to give them minutes there in addition to his center duties. Alex Len would step into the starting 5 role with Spellman, Fernando, and Miles Plumlee as rotation options. The center position is clearly the weakest in their depth chart, which is why retaining Dedmon is important, but given where the Hawks are in the competitive landscape of the league, it’s not a big deal at all to go into the regular season with the roster as it is.
If they have the roster spot for him, they’d love to have Carter back. Given their relative glut of wings and forwards on the roster, he may not want to return, as he’s been adamant throughout the latter part of his career that he wants to play in a team’s rotation. Last summer, I thought that was just a line he was feeding the media, but then he came in and played 18 minutes a game for the Hawks and was, without question, their best power forward not named John Collins. If he feels the same way this year, Atlanta may not be the place for him to find those same minutes.
Going into the season with cap space would be a nice secondary option to re-signing Dedmon, as they could still make use of that space at the trade deadline with a severely lopsided trade. The Sacramento Kings had that option last year when they retained a similar amount of space during the season and ended up essentially taking Harrison Barnes for free from the Dallas Mavericks. Atlanta may not be looking to complete a similar trade, but they could also use some of their expiring money in addition to their cap space to take on a player making a lot more money. Teams are going to be desperate at the deadline to get out of the tax and having that extra cap space will be very useful for that purpose.
Taking on money that extends into 2020-21 hasn’t been their objective to this point, but with all the expiring contracts coming off their books, they’re looking at north of $70 million in space next summer after accounting for their two first-round picks, their own and Brooklyn’s. Unless they make a run like the Nets did this past season, which seems highly unlikely, they won’t necessarily be a free agent destination quite yet. Being willing to take on a big contract that doesn’t expire until 2021 would likely net them another young player or asset for their trouble, if not multiple assets. We’ll see if those players come available in January and February, but being the last team remaining with cap space will give them an advantage in trade negotiations.
Schlenk and the Hawks are still building for the future with a five-man core of players drafted since 2017. Their patience, while not guaranteed to pay off in a few years, will net them a number of high-quality young players and gobs of cap space. Once they turn the corner and those young guys show they can compete at the highest levels, superstar free agents will take notice, but it can be a slow process that doesn’t always bear fruit. Development will once again be the most important principle within the organization in 2019-20, which will help the young players they have on the team already reach their full potential.