Atlanta Hawks Are Sleeping Giant in the East

Armed with an impressive young core, multiple first-round picks in this year’s draft, gobs of salary-cap space and no onerous long-term contracts, the Atlanta Hawks have the ingredients to become an Eastern Conference powerhouse in the coming years.

Likely Rookie of the Year runner-up Trae Young started his NBA career off slowly, but he finished his first season averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 assists in only 30.9 minutes. Second-year big man John Collins nearly put up a nightly double-double (19.5 points, 9.8 rebounds), while rookie wing Kevin Huerter emerged as a sweet-shooting complement to Young.

If the Hawks round out their supporting cast this summer and beyond, they’ll be back in the playoff race in no time.

Atlanta took a big step toward that Thursday, as it agreed to trade Taurean Prince and a 2021 second-round pick to the Brooklyn Nets for the remaining one year and $18.5 million of Allen Crabbe’s contract, this year’s No. 17 overall pick and a lottery-protected 2020 first-rounder, according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski. While the Nets are gearing up for a run at star free agents such as Kyrie Irving, according to Woj, the Hawks leveraged their cap space to acquire additional assets by taking on Crabbe’s unwanted salary.

The trade won’t become official until after the July Moratorium lifts on July 6, but Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk likely isn’t done there.

After factoring in the cap holds for the Nos. 8, 10 and 17 overall picks, the Hawks will have roughly $82.7 million on their books when the Crabbe trade finalizes. If the salary cap lands at $109 million as expected, they’ll still have as much as $26.3 million in cap space this summer if they renounce the rights to all of their incumbent free agents.

Feb 11, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Brooklyn Nets forward Allen Crabbe (33) shoots for a basket over Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in the second half at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

That gives Schlenk an array of options this offseason.

In March, Sam Amick of The Athletic reported the Hawks were “so bullish” on Young, Collins and Huerter “that they want to explore even the biggest and boldest of offseason plans.” While they’re short of the cap space they’d need to offer a max contract to Kevin Durant ($38.15 million) or Kawhi Leonard ($32.7 million), they’re one Kent Bazemore or Miles Plumlee salary-dump from making that happen.

The top-tier free agents likely won’t give Atlanta much consideration this summer, as its young core is too far removed from immediate contention. That may wind up being a blessing in disguise, as Atlanta can maintain its flexibility and continue steadily building toward long-term staying power.

Prior to Thursday’s deal, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported the Hawks “could be a destination for contract dumps,” which proved immediately prescient. Charania also noted Atlanta “has interest in potentially re-signing free-agent center Dewayne Dedmon to a balloon one-year deal … or a shorter-term contract like the two-year, $14 million deal he signed in 2017.”

The Hawks have Early Bird rights on Dedmon, which allows them to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him up to 175 percent of his previous salary (no more than $12.6 million). If they keep Dedmon’s $9.36 million cap hold on their books, they’d still have around $17 million of cap space to round their roster before turning their attention back to him.

Atlanta could also continue to use its cap space to facilitate more salary dumps. Snagging another future first-round pick or two could help the Hawks bolster their supporting cast with cheap, young talent once Collins and Young become eligible for extensions in a few years.

Before free agency arrives, the Hawks have plenty of ammunition to be draft-day movers and shakers.

If Atlanta stands pat at Nos. 8, 10 and 17, it could add three rookies on cost-controlled four-year contracts. The Hawks could target complements to Young, Collins and Huerter such as Virginia wing De’Andre Hunter or Texas center Jaxson Hayes, which would give them one of the NBA’s most promising young foundations.

As Woj noted, Atlanta could also package a handful of its picks to move up the draft board. If Texas Tech wing Jarrett Culver slips to No. 5 and the Cleveland Cavaliers are willing to slide down to pick up more draft assets, they’d make for a logical trade partner.

Apr 8, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Jarrett Culver (23) blocks a shot by Virginia Cavaliers guard De’Andre Hunter (12) during the first halfin the championship game of the 2019 men’s Final Four at US Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawks also own three second-round picks, though they’re highly unlikely to bring six rookies into training camp this fall. Whether they trade some of their picks to move up, flip them for future draft considerations or spend them on draft-and-stash prospects, they’re one of the teams to keep an eye on heading into draft night.

Having this much optionality in both the draft and free agency makes Atlanta a dark-horse power player this summer. The real fun begins in 2020, however.

If the Hawks don’t add any long-term contracts this offseason, they could have upward of $80 million in salary-cap space next July. That should give them enough room to comfortably offer two max contracts, as Collins, Young and Huerter will all still be on their seven-figure rookie deals.

Considering how well Schlenk has navigated the early portion of this rebuild, the Hawks are in a great place moving forward. This is how NBA full rebuilds were meant to be done.

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