After finishing with the NBA’s fourth-worst record in 2019-20, the Atlanta Hawks went on a spending spree this offseason. But was it too much, too soon?
They weren’t kidding.
Armed with more than $40 million in salary-cap space this offseason, the Hawks went on a free-agent spending spree. They added Danilo Gallinari (three years, $61.5 million), Kris Dunn (two years, $10 million), Rajon Rondo (two years, $15 million) and signed Bogdan Bogdanovic to a four-year, $72 million offer sheet that the Sacramento Kings declined to match Tuesday evening.
Suddenly, a Hawks team that finished 20-47 last season looks like a legitimate playoff contender this season. But did they go all-in too quickly?
The Hawks’ top seven minutes-getters last year were all in their age-25 season or below. Young earned his first All-Star berth by erupting for 29.6 points, 9.3 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 3.4 triples in 35.3 minutes per game, while John Collins averaged 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds a night in 41 appearances. Along with rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish and third-year wing Kevin Huerter, the Hawks appeared to have a strong foundation around which to build.
They further bolstered that young core by adding USC center Onyeka Okongwu with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Heading into free agency, they could have continued with a gradual climb, using their cap space to acquire unwanted contracts in exchange for additional prospects and/or draft picks. (See: Thunder, Oklahoma City.)
Instead, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk hit fast-forward on their rebuild.
Is it too soon for the Atlanta Hawks to be splurging on veterans?
The 32-year-old Gallinari is fresh off a season in which he averaged 18.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.9 triples and 1.9 assists in only 29.6 minutes per game with the Thunder. He missed at least 14 games in each of the prior five seasons, and the Hawks would be wise to limit his minutes given his injury history, but he’s a potent shooter who should help alleviate some of Young’s scoring burden.
The biggest question regarding Gallinari is where he fits into the Hawks’ lineup. Collins and trade-deadline acquisition Clint Capela figure to start at the 4 and 5, respectively, so will Gallinari come off the bench as a super-sub, or do the Hawks envision him starting at the 3? Could he supplant Collins as the starting 4? Does his arrival signal Atlanta’s willingness to discuss moving Collins ahead of his restricted free agency next offseason? For the time being, it appears he’ll be the backup 4.
Bogdanovic is a far cleaner fit with the current Hawks. He can slide into the starting unit as a secondary ball-handler to alleviate some of Young’s creation responsibility, and he’s an above-average 3-point shooter (37.2 percent on 7.2 attempts per game last year) who should provide legitimate scoring punch alongside Young, Collins and Gallinari.
Bogdanovic split his minutes almost evenly between the 2 and the 3 with the Sacramento Kings last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, which gives Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce some lineup flexibility. Whether he supplants Huerter as the starting 2-guard or moves ahead of Reddish or Hunter as the starting 3, he figures to play a substantive role either way.
Rondo is a shell of his former All-Star self at this point of his career, but he again proved his value during the Los Angeles Lakers’ run to the 2020 NBA championship. The Hawks shouldn’t ask much of him as a scorer, but his passing ability and basketball IQ make him a steady ball-handler and table-setter off the bench.
Dunn, meanwhile, figures to slot in more as a wing than a point guard. Like Rondo, he provides little offensively, but he could quickly become a mainstay of the NBA’s All-Defensive team. He and Young should complement each other well, with Young shouldering a majority of the scoring burden and Dunn helping to cover his weaknesses on defense.
Add in Solomon Hill, who agreed to a one-year deal, and the Hawks suddenly have one of the NBA’s deepest teams. It’ll be challenging for Pierce to juggle his rotations and keep everyone happy with so many mouths to feed, but the Hawks have the talent to force their way back into the playoffs for the first time in four years.
But are they skipping steps in their rebuild to their long-term detriment?
“My main focus going into my third year is winning,” Young told Mark Medina of USA Today during the playoffs in September. “I think that’s always been my focus, but it is even more now than ever. Watching these games has been tough, and just being in that position. So that’s my main thing going into Year Three. Winning, and doing whatever I need to do to get us over the top and get into the playoffs.”
Young’s frustration with the Hawks’ combined 49-100 record over his first two seasons might have accelerated their rebuilding process, but nothing they did this offseason should significantly handicap them moving forward. In fact, they might have expertly toed the line between improving their short- and long-term outlook.
Whenever the Hawks decide to flip the all-in switch, they’ve quietly assembled the chips they’d need to get into trade negotiations for any star. They now have great salary-matching contracts in Gallinari, Bogdanovic and Capela, and they could dangle any combination of Collins, Huerter, Reddish, Hunter or Okongwu along with future draft picks as the main pieces going back in return.
Whether it’s Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns or another TBD star, the past few years have repeatedly demonstrated how quickly stars can grow disgruntled and force their way off their current teams. The longer Giannis Antetokounmpo goes without signing a super-max extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, the louder the chatter will grow about his long-term future. (And in Bogdanovic, the Hawks now have a player whom Antetokounmpo badly wanted to bring to Milwaukee, per Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report.)
The version of the Hawks heading into the 2020-21 season shouldn’t be considered among the title favorites. They have the inside track to a playoff spot, but it will likely take time for their new players to coalesce with the incumbent young core. A second-round playoff exit seems like their absolute best-case scenario this year.
That’s okay. Teams need to take a step forward at some point, and the Hawks chose the perfect offseason in which to do so. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the NBA’s salary cap, the Hawks were one of the few teams with legitimate spending power, and they took advantage by landing Gallinari, Bogdanovic and Dunn on reasonable deals.
If the Hawks were locked into this core moving forward, it would be fair to question whether they rushed into their pivot toward contention. They aren’t, though. They still have plenty of flexibility moving forward. And getting talented players who fit well with your current core is the entire goal of free agency, particularly if you aren’t forced to overpay them. (The Charlotte Hornets missed the memo on that last part.)
The Hawks might be hitting fast-forward on their rebuild, but they are by no means a finished product. If anything, they’ve now given themselves even more pathways to contention down the line.