The Hawks didn’t have a great offseason by any traditional standards. They lost DeMarre Carroll to a direct competitor in the Raptors and had one of the most baffling draft nights in the league, coming away only with Tim Hardaway Jr. despite having the 15th pick. They also brought back Paul Millsap and traded for Tiago Splitter, adding long-term salary despite on paper getting worse.
Fortunately for the Atlanta faithful, they might have done exactly what they needed to remain relevant, even if it doesn’t look like that on the surface.
The Hawks were lauded when they landed Millsap and Carroll on two-year contracts because of the way it helped them maximize their cap flexibility. The way they hedged their bets ended up hurting them, especially when it came to retaining Carroll. Without full Bird rights to their starting small forward, they would’ve had to gut their roster in order to make him a competitive offer. Instead of doing that, the Hawks absorbed Splitter into their cap space and saw Carroll sign for $15 million annually with Toronto.
With a starting-quality center added to the roster but a huge loss at the wing, it wouldn’t have been shocking to see Atlanta move on from Millsap and continue to preserve cap flexibility by bringing in players in short contracts to tread water. The next step was surprising. They brought the 30-year-old power forward back on a lucrative three-year contract, signaling that they intend to continue to fight for a high seed despite missing a key piece that they didn’t really replace in any concrete way.
Essentially the Hawks decided to make up the wins they lost when Carroll walked by adding a killer third big in Splitter, likely hoping that Millsap will be able to give the team some minutes at small forward. If they can do that to open playing time for playoff rotation piece Mike Muscala and Thabo Sefolosha absorbs the majority of Carroll’s minutes, the Hawks are projected to win more games than last season according to Win Shares.
Win Shares is far from a perfect metric but added up to 55 wins last season while Pythagorean wins — a metric designed to reflect expected wins according to margin of victory — predicted Atlanta to win 56 games. As far as rudimentary predictive stats go, it’s one of the best.
Millsap barely played small forward last season and is much more comfortable as one of the two bigs in a lineup, but he’s moved down to the wing in the past. His three-point shot and Al Horford‘s ability to hit mid-range jumpers should provide enough spacing for Atlanta to survive on offense with a three-big lineup while Splitter’s and Horford’s rim protection should allow the Hawks to be effective on defense in the 10 or so minutes a game they go big.
Of course it’s always possible that’s not the way coach Mike Bundeholzer will distribute minutes. Without the Hawks going big at all and having only traditional wings play small forward and shooting guard the numbers aren’t as positive. Neither Bazemore nor Hardaway performed well last season and one of them would be getting playing time. If Hardaway receives sixth man minutes and goes back to the production he had on the not dismal 2013-14 Knicks, however, things change.
Hardaway was far from great in his rookie year but wasn’tt the train wreck he was in his sophomore season for the tanking effort in New York. If he goes back to that level, it would make a world of difference for the Hawks.
So because Splitter and Sefolosha are underrated players, the Hawks should be fine if either Millsap continues to produce while spending some time at the wing or Hardaway regains the form he showed in the past while playing 23 minutes on a decent team. Those aren’t bad odds.
Of course this is all conjecture. It’s possible Hardaway’s putrid defense becomes contagious; that Horford won’t thrive at power forward or Millsap at the wing; that Sefolosha and Kyle Korver — both coming from injuries — disappoint; that someone else misses time with an ailment and no one steps up from the deep bench. Carroll was a big part of what made Atlanta special last year and sometimes the combined production of smaller pieces fails to make up for that.
The outlook for the Hawks, however, isn’t as gloomy as it seemed after the first few days of free agency. Provided the incoming players produce as expected, Atlanta should be firmly in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round despite losing one of its key pieces.That’s a win for any front office.