Danny Ferry and the Atlanta Hawks’ front office started tipping their team-specific free agency dominoes early this season by trading backup guard Louis Williams and 2013 first-round pick Lucas Nogueira to the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. By receiving John Salmons in return, the Hawks freed up approximately $4.9 million in cap space by waiving the veteran guard and his partially guaranteed contract to give them more flexibility to further improve a roster that captured the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference without star forward Al Horford last season.
The Hawks will now have more than $18 million of maximum cap space and multiple open roster spots to work with in a deep free agent class. Some of that financial pliability could be put toward Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack, both of whom were extended qualifying offers on Monday, but it’s potentially enough wiggle room to significantly upgrade coach Mike Budenholzer’s options, which were in short supply in his first year.
The appeal of adding a major piece — or multiple quality pieces — through free agency is self-evident.
The Hawks have not held a top-10 draft pick since drafting Horford in 2007, and even then the franchise, back before the Ferry Era began, whiffed on three of its four lottery picks over the past 10 years (Acie Law, Marvin Williams, Josh Childress). Since taking Horford and Law, the Hawks have found themselves in a precarious and unenviable situation: good enough to capture a playoff spot each and every season while never truly threatening to make a deep postseason run. The offseason result is the franchise is forced to try and land quality players with mid- to late first-round picks, which it did with No. 17 overall in 2009 by selecting Jeff Teague, and lure top free agents to Atlanta … which is not possible without cap space.
Hence, cap space being labeled as an asset.
It’s an asset that Ferry has worked diligently to acquire during his tenure in Atlanta, and he has it entering the July 1 free agency deadline. Last season, he brought in forward Paul Millsap on a two-year deal that paid heavy dividends last season, as the former Utah star averaged 17.9 points and 8.5 rebounds in 74 games played — good enough for 6.7 win shares, just below his output in Salt Lake City but still enough for a top-50 league ranking. As it currently stands, Millsap will join Horford, Teague, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll in the starting five next season. But changes are coming.
The only question: Where? Here’s a look at some potential pieces that Ferry and his staff could pursue (or have already begun pursuing) during the free agency period and how they could fit into Budenholzer’s system and rotation moving forward:
Last Team: Cleveland Cavaliers (unrestricted free agent)
How he fits: Deng is a natural fit at the small forward position in Atlanta, and the Hawks, according to multiple media reports, covet the 29-year-old former All-Star more than anyone else on the open market. A standout defensive stalwart who would provide an offensive upgrade on the wing in Mike Budenholzer’s offense — setting up a formidable starting five of Teague, Korver, Deng, Millsap and Horford — Deng would eat up most of the franchise’s available cap room (he’s projected at $10-12) but would also position Atlanta to immediately challenge the best teams in the East.
Though he’s coming off one of his worst NBA seasons to date after being traded from Chicago to Cleveland, the 6-foot-8 unrestricted free agent is one of the biggest names on the market. The Clippers, Heat and Mavericks have also expressed interest, according to Yahoo! Sports/FOX Sports 1 NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski. If Ferry can acquire Deng, it gives the Hawks’ excellent offensive system a third — or even fourth — scoring option and frees up DeMarre Carroll, who enjoyed his best season in 2013-14, to provide quality depth off the bench.
It’s clear that Deng is one of the top choices on the Hawks’ wish list. Now it’s a matter of drawing another significant piece to Atlanta.
Last Team: Detroit Pistons (restricted free agent)
How he fits: The Hawks’ interest in Monroe has been rumored for the past two months, and it’s not difficult to envision him flourishing in Budenholzer’s balanced system. If the Hawks somehow land the talented and versatile Detroit big man, they could very well have the deepest frontcourt in the NBA, as he would join Horford, Millsap, Pero Antic and promising first-round pick Adreian Payne in Budenholzer’s rotation. (Although bringing in Monroe could make Millsap, who is on the last year go his two-year deal, a trade piece to bring in another wing option.)
Monroe, the 6-foot-11 former Georgetown standout, has seen his production fall off in recent seasons, but he’s been saddled with an inefficient Pistons roster and he’s still averaging nearly a double-double in points and rebounds. He’s a skilled passer with the ability to run the floor and he’s improved his defensive rating each of the past three seasons. He could draw similar money to Deng, although at 24 years old some team may see him as a max contract option. There’s also the option of a sign-and-trade here, though the Hawks’ interest in such an arrangement is unclear. The Blazers, Cavaliers and Magic are also reportedly interested.
This does not exactly shore up the 3-spot in the lineup like Deng would, but, as previously mentioned, Carroll posted 5.8 win shares last season and proved to be an excellent addition as a "3-and-D" type of player. Keeping him in the starting rotation would not be a glaring weakness with Monroe added to the mix. The only question: what would Budenholzer’s frontcourt rotation look like?
Last Team: Los Angeles Lakers (unrestricted free agent)
How he fits: A veteran option in the mold of Monroe — highly skilled, strong passer, decent defender — Gasol, 33, could be finally be in the mix to play for the franchise that drafted him (before trading him in the Shareef Abdur-Rahim deal) back in 2001. Gasol is not the same player he was during the Lakers’ run from 2008-09 to 2010-11, when he averaged 12.2 win shares per season, but depending on his price tag he could be used as a starter in the post or the first player off the bench behind Millsap and Horford. Again, just like Monroe, pairing the 7-footer with the Hawks’ incumbent big men has its obvious appeal.
Gasol is obviously not a long-term option for the Hawks, but he’s drumming up plenty of interest on the market.
Last Team: Los Angeles Lakers (unrestricted free agent)
How he fits: Bazemore will not turn many heads with that stat line above, but the former undrafted free agent hit his stride after moving to the Lakers and earning more playing time last season, averaging 13.1 points on 54.3 true shooting percentage in 23 games played. He also shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range during that stretch, a decent rate for a guy playing more minutes than ever before — and certainly better than his 29.4 rookie rate. It’s no secret that Ferry and Budenholzer value 3-point shooting, and the 6-foot-5 Bazemore could provide a quality scoring option off the bench behind Korver.
The Hawks are reportedly on a list of teams including the Lakers, Celtics and Mavericks interested in Bazemore.
Other names to consider as potential fits for the Hawks (varying degrees of likelihood): Trevor Ariza, Chandler Parsons, Channing Frye and Gordon Hayward.