Five burning questions and answers about the immediate future of the Atlanta Hawks in the wake of the sweep they suffered in the Eastern Conference finals at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers:
1. How much will the Hawks' lackluster performance against Cleveland change the way the front office approaches the offseason?
As badly as things went for Atlanta in its four-game drubbing at the hands of James, the Hawks' season was an undeniable success the instant the facilities staff hung the first Eastern Conference finals banner at Philips Arena. Lest we forget, the last time the Hawks played in the NBA's final four, coach Mike Budenholzer was eight months old.
This season, few had #eventheHawks to win much more than 41 games (Vegas had the over-under at 40.5) and serve as first-round kindling in the East playoff bracket. Yet despite not having a single player named to an All-NBA team, enduring the turmoil of last September surrounding Bruce Levenson and Danny Ferry, and losing Thabo Sefolosha in the events of April 8 in New York, the Hawks secured the No. 1 seed in late March.
The Hawks achieved that not with splashy, impulsive acquisitions over the past two seasons, but by carefully assembling a roster of hand-picked, high-character players with skills that could be maximized in Budenholzer's system.
The feeling in Atlanta is that this team-building strategy is working beautifully, and there's no inclination to blow up a well-crafted, long-term plan because the Hawks ran into a buzzsaw operated by James.
2. Will the Hawks sign free agents Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll and bring the band back together for 2015-16?
The Hawks' success this season has made this a slightly more difficult question to answer than it was six months ago because Millsap and Carroll are now at their peak values.
After all the accounting for cap holds and their first-round pick (No. 15 overall) in this June's draft, the Hawks figure to have approximately $23 million under the salary cap for those signings. Will that get it done? The sense both inside the Hawks and around the league is "not anymore."
Millsap, who is eligible for a max contract worth more than $18 million a year, is the rare player who spans the spectrum of opinion on what a power forward should look like in the NBA. The old school loves his physicality and work ethic, while the analytics-oriented appreciate his newfound range, versatility and the fact his teams are decisively better when he's out there. And everyone can get behind his durability and professionalism.
With the large amount of cap space available around the league -- combined with the collective belief that any contract signed this summer will look like a discount when the cap increases by as much as 30 percent in the summer of 2016 -- a "2015 max" salary doesn't seem at all outlandish for Millsap. Plus, many around the league feel someone will come calling after the LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love dominoes fall. Will it be Atlanta?
There isn't a free agent who played himself into a bigger pay raise than Carroll. Less than two years ago, he was a defensive specialist who could plug a hole at small forward on the cheap. On July 1, he'll be a bona fide starting small forward who plays lockdown perimeter defense, hits the 3 at a 40 percent clip, works tirelessly off the ball, creates for himself and makes plays for others.
Following Carroll's estimated annual salary on his next contract has been like tracking an internet stock you didn't buy soon enough. Since opening night, he's risen from a candidate for a contract in the neighborhood of the midlevel exception (which would still represent more than double his current paycheck), to someone who has a reasonable claim on an eight-figure salary. Sources say the Hawks are bracing themselves for an asking price of 4 years and $50 million -- and given the postseason Carroll put together and the interest around the league, possibly even more. If the price tag is much higher than that, there's good reason to believe the flexibility-minded Hawks could bow out, though their strong preference is to retain Carroll, who has been an essential cog in their two-way success.
All this is to say that in order to accommodate both Millsap and Carroll, the Hawks will have to move a couple of smaller contracts -- say, Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack. This shouldn't be too difficult, but the more important question for the Hawks is how proactive will they be with regard to Millsap and Carroll?
This Hawks administration has been reluctant to extend free agents lengthier deals, and you could see a scenario where they offer Millsap and/or Carroll a higher annual salary for a shorter term. But for Millsap (30 years old) and Carroll (turns 29 in July), this is likely the biggest payday of their careers, and it's hard to imagine either not evaluating offers based on their total guaranteed value. And if that's the case, do the Hawks watch the market for their two prized free agents, and then make their move, much the way they did with Jeff Teague two summers ago?
The likely strategy probably lies somewhere in between. The Hawks have built a fraternal culture in Atlanta. "We are a family," Millsap said following the Game 4 loss in Cleveland. "This team is close. It will play a lot into the decision." The word from Atlanta is that its strong preference is to retain its two gritty, hard-working starting forwards, so long as the price isn't unreasonable.
But the Hawks also have a deliberate, careful front office that places a premium on financial flexibility. If the front office peers into the future and sees too much money committed to too many players in their 30s -- whose best seasons are behind them -- that could inspire the Hawks brass to look at other options. This is not a potential reality that scares or paralyzes the Hawks in any way. They'll have the resources to get what they need this summer. They'd love for that to be Millsap and Carroll, but they're confident they could be successful if it's not.
3. Who is the Hawks' point guard of the future?
The Hawks have two very good, imperfect options. The incumbent is Teague, who the Hawks drafted six summers ago during the Joe Johnson-Josh Smith-Al Horford era. His understudy, Dennis Schroder, is a 21-year-old firefly who buzzes around the floor with reckless abandon.
Teague had a breakout season and was named to his first All-Star Game in February. By his own admission, he didn't immediately take to the motion offense and high-activity defense when they were imported with Budenholzer from San Antonio, because he never instinctively read the court to the degree the systems demand. Teague has made strides, but there's still a persistent question in Atlanta as to whether he has the confidence or obsessive competitiveness to be the point guard who can grow old and prosper with the system in Atlanta.
In no way does Schroder lack for confidence and obsessive competitiveness, and the Hawks' brain trust loves him for it, even as they acknowledge he has some growing up to do. After a forgettable rookie year, Schroder emerged this season as the Hawks' backup point guard. Though he was more explosive than reliable, there were nothing but positive indicators in his stat line -- from turnovers to accuracy from deep.
At some point, Schroder will assume the starting spot in Atlanta, but that's unlikely to be next season for one primary reason: Teague's contract is simply too favorable to send away, barring extraordinary circumstance. Whether or not the Hawks feel like Teague will ever have the it to bring a championship to Atlanta, right now he's a very competent point guard making $8 million for the next two seasons.
4. What sort of role will Grant Hill take on when the transfer of team ownership takes hold? Does he want to work in the Hawks' front office?
When it was announced that the group led by Tony Ressler won the bidding for the Hawks, Hill stayed under the radar as a TV color analyst, abiding by the league's request that he and other pending owners go about their business while the world waited for the sale to be executed.
There's a natural assumption that Hill, given his reputation and acumen, would plant himself upstairs in the basketball operations lair at Philips Arena. But our best intelligence suggests Hill isn't interested in being a general manager. He's interested in being an owner.
Hill's passions are more entrepreneurial than managerial. Over the past two decades, he has compounded his basketball earnings into a fortune through a number of successful ventures from private equity to residential real estate. If ever there was someone suited to serve as a hub for a new ownership group, it's Hill, who has credibility with high rollers, basketball people, players, sponsors, broadcast entities, the Hawks' branding brigade and Atlanta's in-town constituencies.
Why would someone who can do all that want to get on a red-eye flight to Riga to scout a potential late first-rounder?
5. What else do the Hawks need?
Back in the winter, when Schroder was sprouting wings, Scott and Pero Antic were hitting shots, and Sefolosha was healthy, the Hawks looked like a team with some solid depth. But by the time the postseason rolled around, Sefolosha was out of action, while Scott and Antic were a couple of stretch bigs who played neither big nor stretchy.
As Kevin Pelton noted in his Roster Reload, the Hawks need some size to shore up the glass, where they got manhandled from the start of the season until their last whimper in Cleveland. Mike Muscala has emerged as a rotation big, but the Hawks will need a couple more bodies who can compete down low and are quick studies in defensive coverages.
The Hawks will forever be tempted by "skill bigs," as they should be, but rebounding is a skill, too, one the Hawks are deficient in.