NBA

Who Are The Keepers: Atlanta Hawks

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The 2013-14 season has been notable for the number of teams with no real hopes of contention. The first step in a rebuilding process, and one that must continue as long as the rebuild does, is to take stock of what talent the team has. There is one major question that should dominate the inquiry: Which of these players will be a part of our next good team? The player’s skill, age, contract and fit all enter into this discussion, as well as a realistic understanding of when the team can hope to be competitive again. This can generally be defined as the date a team’s young core is collectively projected to provide the greatest production. Finally, teams also need to consider the need to maintain flexibility rather than locking up a mediocre core.

The players are split into three different categories: “Buy His Jersey,” “Maybe, It Depends” and “Don’t Get Too Attached.” Players in the “Buy His Jersey” category are those who almost certainly should be in the team’s long-term plans, unless they are absolutely blown away by a trade offer for a superstar. Such players must either be under team control for quite a while longer on a cheap contract, or project to be a championship-level starter or better once their contract ends. The “Maybe, It Depends” category is reserved for players who have shown some promise, but are not necessarily locks to still be in town when the team is next ready to compete. It all depends on how these players develop and their contract situation. Many players in this category are on rookie contracts; once those end, they can become relative albatrosses if re-signed for more than their production would warrant. “Don’t Get Too Attached” is for players who are very unlikely to be a part of franchise’s next good team. In some cases it is because these players have demonstrated that they aren’t very good and don’t really have the potential to improve. But even solid players can appear on this list due to their age, contract status or fit.

The Atlanta Hawks have made the playoffs since 2007-08, but in none of those years did they have a realistic chance of winning the championship.  In the summer of 2012, newly hired GM Danny Ferry began the process of dismantling those teams, trading away Joe Johnson’s enormous contract to the Brooklyn Nets.  A year later, Ferry made no attempt to re-sign power forward* Josh Smith, instead replacing him with a short-term two-year, $19 million contract for Paul Millsap.  Ferry also re-signed Kyle Korver and matched the Milwaukee Bucks’ offer to point guard Jeff Teague.  Before Al Horford suffered a torn pectoral muscle on December 27, Atlanta was chugging along toward the de rigueur middle seed and second-round noncompete.  Now the Hawks are desperately clinging to the eighth playoff seed, but they do so while maintaining flexibility and assets for the future.

*Yes, Joe Dumars, he’s a power forward.

Ferry now presides over a roster without any bad contracts (Teague’s four-year, $32 million deal comes closest), but the long-term plan appears murky.  Without knowing that plan, determining the Hawks’ target date is difficult indeed.  They tried the cap space route with hopes of signing Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in the offseason, but never appeared to be serious contenders for their services.  With only an outside chance of luring a marquee free agent, Atlanta’s options are to 1) continue signing value free agents and hope to unearth a star drafting in the teens, or 2) blow up the roster entirely and accumulate future assets while Philips Arena lies fallow for a few years of losing.  I do not envy Ferry the difficulty of this choice, nor the ultimate unpalatability of either option.

Buy His Jersey

Al Horford

Age: 27

Contract: 2 years, $24 million

Projected New Contract: 3-5 years, $10-13 million Average Annual Value (AAV)

Horford’s second pectoral injury in three season is a bit concerning, but he remains the franchise cornerstone.  Aside from shooting midrangers he does nothing spectacularly, but everything well.  His contract remains a solid value for a versatile lower-level All-Star player.  The Hawks would be unlikely to get fair trade on a value or talent basis were he shipped out.

That said, Horford is very clearly a complementary player who in turn requires his own special complement, all the more so now that Smith toils in Detroit.  Horford is somewhat miscast as a center, but was able to backline above-average defenses with Smith.  Especially as he ages, Horford really needs a jumping jack center beside him to boost the Atlanta defense to championship levels.  It is possible that 2013 16th pick Lucas Nogueira and his 7’5 wingspan could be that player in time, but he is raw, skinny, and missed most of the year for his Spanish league team with severe knee tendinitis.

Horford’s lonely status in the Buy His Jersey category highlights the problem for Atlanta. He remains the Hawks’ best player by a considerable margin, but he is also the team’s best asset.  If Ferry concludes contention is unlikely in the next few years, Horford may be traded before his contract expires in 2016.

Maybe, It Depends

Kyle Korver

Age: 32

Contract: 3 years, $17.2 million

The relative hype of Korver’s NBA record three-point streak has highlighted his best season at age 32.  While his shooting should contribute to far more graceful aging than most players, and his declining contract should mirror his production, it is hard to see Korver as a part of the next Atlanta contender.  With the burgeoning value of shooting around the league, Korver would very likely glean a first-rounder or decent developmental prospect this offseason.

Ferry may wait to deal considering Korver is under contract for three more years, but he should also consider he is unlikely to quite repeat this performance and a high sell may be in order.

Jeff Teague

Age: 25

Contract: 3 years, $24 million

The Hawks swallowed hard and matched the Bucks’ offer sheet for Teague this offseason, making a Mike Conley style gamble that he might grow into the contract as he matures.  After a hot start to the season, Teague has settled in as a slightly below-average starter.  Of particular concern is his 27 percent shooting on threes despite shooting almost three per game.  Only a solid free throw rate saves his efficiency numbers.

At this point, Ferry is in much the same situation with Teague as when he decided to match.  Atlanta has no ready replacement and could not afford to lose the Wake Forest product unless they intend on Sixers-style tanking next year. Yet he remains slightly overpaid, and there is little trade market for him given the glut of point guards around the league.  There are only a few teams that might find him an upgrade.  As a result, Teague may be around for the longer haul.  If he can combine last year’s 35 percent on threes with this year’s free throw rate, he could still live up to that contract, but at almost 26 time is a wasting.

DeMarre Carroll

Age: 27

Contract: 1 year, $ 2.4 million

Once little more than a Renaldo Balkman-style energy player, Carroll has made himself into a solid complementary performer on offense while offering solid wing defense.  He has a 14.3 PER, but more importantly is hitting 38 percent of his threes while taking 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.  The Hawks’ player development staff deserves credit for teaching and/or encouraging relatively old dogs like Carroll and Millsap to shoot threes.  Of note, Carroll is 16th in the entire league in Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus (per Stats for the NBA), a plus/minus metric which purports to adjust for the quality of teammates and the opposition when a player is on the floor. Carroll’s is a value contract through next season, although he is not really a keeper with his age and 2015 expiring deal.

Dennis Schroder

Age: 20

Rookie Contract expires 2017

Schroder was listed at 6’2”, 165 in the predraft process, and it looks an accurate weight.  There was hope that Schroder could seize the backup point guard position after a strong summer league, but that fizzled immediately when the real games started.  He started as the backup point guard, but lost the position to Shelvin Mack early on and only recently began playing regular minutes again.  His statistics are among the worst of any player in the NBA, with a net rating of negative 14.9 points/100, a .459 true shooting percentage, and 5.9 PER.

Schroder has two marketable skills right now, namely his vision and ability to pressure the ball. Aside from those, he is not an NBA-quality player at this point.  His lack of strength is a particular problem. He gets bumped off his drives by even the slightest defenders, and his only finishing move is an inaccurate quick flip shot before the defense arrives.  From outside, he shoots a set shot that is not particularly versatile or accurate at this stage. Moreover, only the whimsy of opposing coaching staffs can save him from being posted up.

Schroder has talent, but he remains a lottery ticket. Counting on him as a future starting point guard would be foolish at this stage.

Don’t Get Too Attached

Paul Millsap

Age: 29

Contract: 1 year, $9.5 million

The former NCAA rebounding champion is having perhaps his best year in Atlanta.  He has made up for declining activity on the offensive glass by blossoming into a stretch four this year through tireless work on his long-range shot.  But his All-Star selection, though deserved, was more a product of a weak Eastern Conference than a marker of Millsap’s ascension to superstar status.  He will never be a stopper, and his frontcourt pairing with Horford is unlikely to bear the sort of defensive fruits that might push the Hawks to new heights.

At the expiry of his contract next season, Millsap will likely move on for one more David West style payday assuming he can duplicate this year. Such a contract could make sense for a contender, but not for the Hawks at his age.  As a result, he could well be traded in-season or over the summer if the Hawks conclude that next year will not bring contention.  Millsap is perhaps the ultimate weathervane that will reveal when Ferry will decide to bite the rebuilding bullet, and how hard.  A full season of his services on a value contract would likely fetch far more assets to that end than a move at the deadline if the Hawks are out of contention.

Mike Scott

Age: 25

Restricted Free Agent

Projected New Contract: 1-3 years $1.5-2.5 million AAV

The second-year stretch four has had a breakout year of sorts, and is actually third on the team in PER on the strength of solid jump-shooting.  But he really struggles to hold up defensively and on the boards against first unit players, and the Hawks get torched when he is on the floor.  Moreover, he is a restricted free agent at the expiration of his two-year second round rookie deal this summer, and is nearing prime age already so we can’t expect as much improvement as you might expect from a second-year player.

Shelvin Mack

Age: 24

Restricted Free Agent

Projected New Contract: 1-2 years, $1-3 million AAV

It somehow seems that Mack has been around forever, but he is still relatively young.  He has proved an adequate backup point guard this year after Schroder proved unequal to the task early on, with a 13.7 PER in 19.9 minutes per game.  Mack too is a restricted free agent, and could even glean an Eric Maynor-style contract in free agency which the Hawks would likely be wise not to match.  He still lacks the athleticism to improve much beyond his current level unless he can become an elite shooter.

Elton Brand

Age: 35

Free Agent

Projected New Contract: 1 year, veterans’ minimum

Brand started the year well, but has been stretched far too thin once Horford went down.  With Millsap and Antic injured on the Hawks recent miserable road trip, Brand conclusively proved he can no longer play over 30 minutes per night. Though he still remains smart enough to hold his own as a second unit big, he lacks the quickness to play four and the explosion to play five at his height.  Brand’s contract expires after the season and one would posit he is unlikely to be in Atlanta’s plans going forward.

John Jenkins

Age: 23

Rookie Contract Expires 2016

This has been a lost season for Jenkins as he struggled through 13 miserable games, tried to rehab, and finally succumbed to back surgery in February. He will miss the remainder of the season.  The 23rd overall pick in 2012 out of Vanderbilt showed some encouraging signs as a shooter off the bench in his rookie year, but he probably lacks the height, length, athleticism, or defensive mentality to ever be more than a bench gunner even when healthy. The Hawks have guaranteed his contract for next year, but seem unlikely to pick up his fourth-year option after that unless he can prove he is healthy and effective in camp next year.

Gustavo Ayon

Age: 28

Restricted Free Agent

Projected New Contract: 1 year veterans’ minimum

Hopes were high for Ayon coming off a spectacular performance for Mexico in the FIBA Americas over the summer, but alas he has been unable to stay healthy.  He has played only 26 games this year and is out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury.  He will be a restricted free agent over the summer should the Hawks extend him a qualifying offer, and he may still be able to catch on as a fifth big man somewhere on the strength of his rebounding and effort.

Pero Antic

Age: 31

Contract: 1 year, $1.25 million team option

The 6’11, 260 lbs Macedonian has a surprisingly outside-oriented game, launching 58 percent of his shots from beyond the arc at a decent usage for a shooting specialist. He hits 38 percent from out there as a true stretch five.  Antic provides little rim protection and is a below-average rebounder, but considering his shooting he holds up well enough in traditional center duties to be a useful bench big man. At his age, Antic is unlikely to be part of the next Hawks contender, but he is a solid value contract and is under team control through 2015, after which he will be a restricted free agent.  Antic is precisely the type of player the Hawks should look to move for future assets, although it is hard to see anyone parting with a first-rounder for him.

Mike Muscala

Age: 22

Contract: Rookie minimum, team options through 2016

The Hawks’ second round pick was signed mid-season as the big man injury crisis grew, but they probably would have been better off trying someone like Carroll at power forward. Muscala has a -17.2 net rating and 6.8 PER. He gets freight-trained in the post and does nothing offensively to make up for it.  Little indicates he has an NBA future at this point.

Lou Williams

Age: 27

Contract: 1 year $5.45 million

The former Sixers draftee was once one of the league’s best bench scorers, but he has struggled to return to form following a torn ACL.  He has been out of the rotation the last few games as Coach Mike Budenholzer has gone with Mack, Schroder, and Cartier Martin off the bench instead.  Williams takes almost half his shots from three now and hits a respectable 36 percent. He also gets to the line at a reasonable rate, but will need to return his 40 percent two-point shooting to respectable levels to become a valuable contributor again.  It is appearing less likely that will be in Atlanta.

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About Nate Duncan

Nate Duncan

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.