ATLANTA — Playing under first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer and his system, Hawks forward Paul Millsap enjoyed a career year in Atlanta, averaging 17.9 points and earning his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game.
Having signed a two-year deal last summer, Millsap’s contract will expire after next season, but general manager Danny Ferry said on Wednesday that provisions of the league’s collective bargaining agreement prevent the Hawks from re-signing Millsap to an extension before he hits unrestricted free agency next summer. Teams may only re-negotiate and re-sign players who sign four- or five-year deals.
Nonetheless, Ferry, who just completed his second season with the Hawks, remains confident about the foundation that the organization is putting down. While Millsap will have options to go elsewhere in 2015, he also will know that if he elects to remain in Atlanta, he will do so in a system that has allowed him to flourish.
"Almost a year ago, I was sitting with Bud in front of you guys and we talked about having a system-based way of playing and having competitors playing unselfishly," Ferry said. "I think that foundation has been laid this year. We were one of the leaders of assists the whole year. I think if you watched our team play there was a substance our guys played with. They competed night in and night out in a system-based way of playing. We’ve evolved as an organization over last couple of years to the point where this year, at the end of the year, you could read and play sets and do things that I think put us in the best position and the best way of playing as a basketball team in the regular season and as a basketball team in the playoffs."
Ferry said it remains incumbent on the organization to prove its "competence" and as it does it will be able to attract players.
"I do think players outside, agents outside did notice how we played," he said, "and I think it’s a positive for us. The ball’s going to move. We’re going to be able to play a certain way. They saw Bud operate for the first time and I think he gained respect throughout the league. That helps as we try to sign a minimum player or try to sign a more than minimum player. So, again, I go back to it was a year of success, in a lot of ways I believe it can be seen that way."
This offseason contrasts greatly with last year for the Hawks. Last year, they had to hire a coach and they only had four or five players under contract (including team options and the like). This year, they have 10 players under contract: Al Horford, Lou Williams, John Jenkins, Kyle Korver, Millsap, Dennis Schroder, DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Teague, Mike Muscala and Pero Antic. Shelvin Mack, Mike Scott and Gustavo Ayon are restricted free agents and Elton Brand and Cartier Martin are unrestricted.
According to the Hawks, they have between $6.3 and $10 million of cap room but that could increase if the salary cap rises, as expected. In an era of parity ushered in by the new CBA, the Eastern Conference is not poised to grow dramatically more competitive next season. As a result, it’s entirely possible that the Hawks could improve a great deal upon this past season’s No. 8 seed simply by staying healthy. Until the loss of Horford (a torn pectoral muscle back in December sidelined him for the remainder of the season) took its toll, the Hawks were in third place in the Eastern Conference as late as Feb. 3.
But the Hawks stand to make big strides on their 38-44 record because they will be far more advanced in that system-based way of playing that Ferry and Budenholzer stress so often.
"We have corporate knowledge going forward," Ferry said. "Next year’s camp won’t be ‘this word means this’ and ‘we’re going to do three-man weave this way.’ … We’re going to walk in running and that will, again, bode well for us going forward."
The Hawks will draft 15th overall and Ferry said he thinks they can get a good NBA player at that spot. He was happy with the rookie season of one of last season’s first-round picks, in Dennis Schroder, the fourth-youngest player in the league this past season at 20. Schroder needs to get stronger but stands to improve simply by growing.
Also of interest is the status of the Hawks’ other first-round pick of last year, center Lucas Nogueira. The Brazilian Nogueria played this season in Spain, which has arguably the best league in the world outside of the NBA. Nogueira’s development has been hampered by injuries so Ferry said the Hawks would have to evaluate whether to bring him to Atlanta next season.
"He’s part of the comprehensive look we have to take with our roster," Ferry said. "He’s a talented young man. He’s had some injuries this year. He’s got about four games left in his regular season. I hope he can finish the year strong. We’ll sit down and talk with him, sit down and talk with his agent. We’ll look at our roster and where we are and our situation and make decisions from there."
So unlike last season when major questions hovered around the Hawks — would Josh Smith re-sign, would they want him back — this offseason promises to be much quieter. Nonetheless, the draft and free agency will provide more clues as to the progress that will be expected next season.