Coming into the 2018-19 season, most of us expected the Atlanta Hawks to be a contender for the worst team in the NBA. The biggest reason was that, by all appearances, the Hawks intended to be the worst team in the NBA. Completing a multi-year stripdown and coming off a truly bad season in 2017-18, the Hawks would be turning the squad over to rookie gunner Trae Young and rookie head coach Lloyd Pierce with no expectations to win games and a heavy reliance on time and future draft picks including Atlanta’s own.
To be sure, the Hawks are bad: 20 games under .500 bad. But instead of contending for the worst record in the league, Atlanta has 21 wins with 20 games to go, and the Hawks are actually one game closer to the No. 8 seed than they are to the bottom slot in the East. The Hawks have been substantially more competitive than anticipated, and other rebuilding teams — nearly all in the East — have been substantially worse than expected. This includes the Knicks (13 wins), Cavaliers (15), and Bulls (17).
The upshot is that by next year, assuming Young continues to play well, John Collins stays healthy, and Atlanta drafts well in June, the Hawks might be too good to tank.
The Athletic’s Sam Amick reports that Atlanta will enter free agency prepared to add talent that comes available given how (relatively) well the young team has played. But certainly any moves to bring in veteran talent have to make sense for the Hawks’ larger game plan to build around Young. Here are three moves that could make sense this summer.
1. Trade for Kevin Love
Love has returned to the lineup for tanking Cleveland and has looked great. He’ll be 31 years old before the next NBA season begins, and has $120 million due over the next four years on an extension signed last summer. But unlike the Hawks, the Cavaliers really seem to be setting up for another tank year — Cleveland doesn’t have a single young prospect as good as Atlanta’s second best, Collins. Plus, the Cavaliers actually owe a top-10 protected pick to Atlanta.
Given Love’s age, contract, and injury history, the Hawks shouldn’t have to give up much to land Love beyond Cleveland’s own pick back and maybe another asset. Love’s skill set fits Atlanta’s budding style to the hilt, and while a Love-Collins frontcourt might be deficient on defense, the offense would be potentially spectacular.
This would be an opportunity to fast-track true respectability in Atlanta.
2. Poach one of the Sixers’ big free agents
Philadelphia has three major free agents this summer: Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and J.J. Redick. Depending on what happens in the playoffs, it would seem as if the Sixers will prioritize Harris (he’s a spectacular fit with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) and will try to keep the others on shorter deals, much like Redick has signed previously with Philly.
The odds that Philadelphia keeps all three given the financial implications are low.
Redick might be the best basketball fit out of the three, but he’s already 34 and likely does not want to join another young team on the rise after doing so with the Sixers two years ago. Harris would be a great offensive fit with Young, but you run into similar defensive issues up front if you pair him with Collins long-term. But the age and overall fit are good.
Butler is an intriguing option. Everyone thinks his market will be limited because of his dramatic exit from Minnesota and the fact that Harris is so much a better fit in Philly. The wear and tear concerns are real. Young teams will be especially hesitant to roll the dice given how violently the Timberwolves locker room imploded directly because of Butler’s antics (and Tom Thibodeau’s allowance of those antics to bloom).
Yet, on the court, pairing a supplemental playmaker and shot creator like Butler — one who can defend his tail off and will expect teammates to do the same — with Young is an entrancing option. This is probably not on the table for Atlanta, but it’s fun to consider.
3. Pick up young value prospects
There are going to be about 200 free agents this summer, and most won’t draw many headlines. Some of those are smart fits for Atlanta.
Willie Cauley-Stein, who will be a restricted free agent, is one. Center is probably the Hawks’ biggest position of need, and the Kings have Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles lined up as the presumptive frontcourt of the future, meaning that Cauley-Stein could be attainable in a sign-and-trade or with a big enough offer sheet.
On the wing, Malcolm Brogdon could be a restricted free agent Atlanta might have a chance at snapping up given that Milwaukee has to deal with unrestricted free agency for Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez.
Some other restricted free agents of that ilk who Atlanta could make moves on: Maxi Kleber, Delon Wright, Rodney McGruder, Jake Layman.
Atlanta could use its considerable cap space to instead chase young players in trades, as well. As teams try to pry Anthony Davis from New Orleans, Atlanta could take on someone like Brandon Ingram (if the Pelicans don’t want him) in exchange for picks or absorbing bad contracts.