Now that the free-agency whirlwind has calmed, we can sit back and ask: So, um, what exactly did the Atlanta Hawks do?
They tried to straddle two paths at once, and ultimately fell into the netherworld between them.
The NBA is ripe for a tank job. Two to three years ago, almost a half-dozen teams raced to the bottom at once -- a backward sprint so crowded, one or two would become a sort of reverse Mary Decker Slaney and stumble into too many wins. Now, everyone is trying to win. The path from the playoffs to the No. 2 pick has never been clearer.
But tanking sounds better to those outside the game than the people who live within it. The Hawks rank in the bottom 10 in attendance, and they aren't breaking the bank with their local TV deal. Their blah attendance is a nonstop talking point. Even former Hawks star Al Horford's father, Tito, told The Boston Globe that the contrast between crowds in Boston and Atlanta factored into his son's free-agency decision.
The Hawks have to worry about butts in seats. Coach Mike Budenholzer is their top basketball decision-maker, and he has spent the past two decades winning a ridiculous number of games in San Antonio and Atlanta. Coaches with that sort of track record don't easily swallow full-on rebuilds.
But a second consecutive playoff sweep against the Cavaliers demoralized the Hawks. It laid bare that their current core would not be able to compete against LeBron James & Co., and raised internal questions about whether their pass-happy style of play had reached its zenith. Atlanta players have talked openly about catching the league by surprise two seasons ago, when they won 60 games, and how their relative struggles in the playoffs were the first sign of the league catching up.
The Hawks were juggling a lot of balls in those frantic moments before Horford bolted to Boston. They had already agreed to a three-year, $70 million deal with Dwight Howard, a decidedly un-Hawks-like player who mans the same position as Horford. They were working to re-sign Horford anyway, and arranging a trade that would jettison Paul Millsap -- their best player last season.
The Horford-Howard front line would keep Atlanta competitive, and dealing Millsap would net rebuilding assets -- young players and picks to plop atop the No. 12 pick they received from Utah in the Jeff Teague deal. They could rebuild without dropping from the postseason.
It was an interesting plan until it fell apart. Horford is gone, Millsap remains and the trade assets he'd have fetched stay in Denver, Phoenix or someplace else.
Millsap is entering the final season of his contract. He is 31, and with 10 years' experience he will be eligible next summer for the highest possible percentage of the salary cap at the exact moment the cap leaps again -- from $94 million to about $110 million. If he gets the max, Millsap's next deal will start with a salary around $35 million. Oof. (Note: The Hawks would normally be able to offer Millsap a five-year deal, but due to a quirk in the collective bargaining agreement called the over-36 rule, which is designed to limit contract length for older players, they would be capped at a four-year offer, per several league sources. The rule would also apply to LeBron James if he hits free agency again in July 2017. The union may fight to scrap it in collective bargaining talks.)
Horford has played for nine years, making him eligible for a max contract one tier below Millsap. Horford will sign with Boston under the current $94 million cap, and his starting salary will be about $26.5 million.
That ballpark $9 million-per-year difference between the starting salaries of Horford and Millsap on their next respective contracts largely explains why the Hawks had chosen Horford by the end -- and why Boston had no misgivings throwing a four-year max at him. Trading Millsap would net the Hawks some building blocks and free them from the dilemma of paying his super-max deal.
They talked about Millsap trades with Phoenix, Denver, Toronto and Houston; the Nuggets were ready to flip a players-and-picks package headlined by Kenneth Faried, according to several sources familiar with the matter.
One problem: To execute that scheme, you actually need to re-sign Horford. The Hawks didn't. There is some debate over precisely how much Atlanta offered, and what Horford demanded, but the difference in the end came down to about $5 million total. That is essentially nothing in the new cap landscape.
Blowing up a carefully crafted plan over that amount is either blind stubbornness or an indication that the Hawks are fine with their fallback of pairing Millsap and Howard. The Hawks expect Howard to thrive in a more functional locker room, and figure Dennis Schroder is ready to succeed Teague. They will be good again next season.
But Millsap now knows the Hawks tried to move him, and his trade value declines every day.
Trading a player like Millsap is painful. He emerged last season as one of the 15 or 20 best players in the league, at worst. But teams are looking ahead at the $110 million mega-cap and are thinking hard about whether age 30-ish players who will demand close to the max are worth it.
This is in part the inevitable by-product of the shorter contracts the NBA and union negotiated in the 2011 collective bargaining deal. Those marathon David Lee deals used to carry players through their entire primes and spit them back out into free agency around age 32. Any team signing a player at that age knows they are paying for decline.
Under the new CBA, more players are hitting free agency in their late 20s and very early 30s, and sometimes twice in that span. Good for them. They should max out their earnings and exercise as much control over their careers as they can. For teams, the uncertainty is nerve-wracking.
We've already seen the Thunder and Bulls trade two free agents-to-be, Serge Ibaka and Derrick Rose, a year ahead of the $110 million cap. The Knicks expect Rose to bounce back in a contract season, but that expectation is precisely why Chicago traded him. Knowing what they know about Rose's knees, the Bulls did not want to trap themselves into paying Rose $100 million-plus after one good rebound season.
We might see more teams with impending free agents in this age range consider moving them. Unfortunately for tradeniks, the two most interesting potential candidates are point guards on very good teams who won't deal them: Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul. Both have player options for 2017-18 that they will almost certainly decline to dip into free agency. Paul will be 32 at that point, with knee injuries and a ton of minutes in the rearview. Lowry will be 31. Point guards do not typically age well, though perhaps Lowry playing as backup for the first half of his career bodes well for his longevity.
If they play to their normal levels this season, both will seek the max amid another summer of frenzied spending. Paying a 30-plus point guard $35 million per year during a long-term deal is fraught with downside risk. The Grizzlies at least got Mike Conley while he's 28 (he'll turn 29 in October) on the Horford-level max under the $94 million cap.
The list of guys in this sweet spot is pretty short. Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, both free agents a year from now, are just 26. Teams have concerns about giving them huge money, but age isn't one of them. Danilo Gallinari is interesting. He'll be 29 next summer, with a history of knee issues. The Nuggets extended him once. Do they want to do it again, for even more money?
These new money deals look bloated compared to contracts signed under the pre-2015 cap, but those cheapo older contracts in a way subsidize some risk on fat new ones. If you have Markieff Morris and John Wall under contracts that now look absurdly low, you can gamble on overpaying a couple of free agents this summer and next.
The league is entering a strange phase where teams will carry two types of contracts: old cap and new cap. Once the old-cap contracts cycle out, all veteran contracts will be more or less equivalent. A contract that looks ugly and risky now will be normal in two years.
In the meantime, opportunistic teams will chase guys locked into old-cap contracts. Detroit did that in trading for Tobias Harris. The Timberwolves were aggressive in chasing Khris Middleton at last season's deadline. Teams should call the Magic about Nikola Vucevic, still with three years left on his old-cap deal, now that Orlando has signed approximately 19 big men. Vucevic is a borderline All-Star making Solomon Hill money.
Faried makes a hair less than Vucevic. You can bring Faried off the bench now and not feel as if you are wasting an investment. (It's not 100 percent clear the Hawks would have kept Faried if the Denver trade had gone through).
Like Howard, Faried seems almost the opposite of a classic Budenholzer-era pace-and-space Hawk. He can't shoot, and he hasn't cracked 100 assists in any season. But he and Howard are good rebounders, and the Hawks are sick of watching Tristan Thompson shove them away like tackling dummies.
The coaching staff longed for a big man who would slice to the rim on pick-and-rolls instead of popping for jumpers. Millsap and Horford would occasionally roll hard, but it was a change-of-pace thing for them. Tiago Splitter, a capable roller, barely played. Unless Teague or Schroder penetrated into the paint, the Hawks were left to fling the ball around the outside.
Chasing Howard and Faried marks a bit of an identity crisis for a team that was set in its ways. The Hawks will play differently, on both ends, with Howard. Every team strives for roster continuity, but there is a blurry line between continuity and staleness. The Hawks decided they had crossed it.
They had an elegant plan to shake up the present while boosting the future at the same time. To execute it, they needed Horford back. They came up short on the money, and acquired Howard -- about whom Horford had major reservations, per sources close to the situation.
They could have signed another big man, kept Horford and dealt Millsap. They could have dealt Millsap, let Horford walk and bottomed out. They could have kept both, re-signed Bazemore, sloughed off bit players and signed another wing.
Juggling all of this in real time is hard. Things change fast, in unpredictable ways. But for now, it looks as if the Hawks swapped centers and missed a chance to snag some valuable future assets. If they end up a slightly worse mid-rung playoff team with an outgoing free agent they can't trade, they might regret it.