"We'll be back."
Those are the words Trae Young took the liberty of typing up for Twitter in the aftermath of a hard fought six game series that came to an end Saturday night. The Atlanta Hawks surpassed just about every expectation put forth by basketball fans prior to the 2020-2021 season and even the most diehard Hawks supporters would probably tell you they did not peg their team as one of two squads representing the Eastern Conference in June/July.
For a moment, as fleeting as it may seem on the other side, the Hawks were in the mix to advance to the NBA Finals. As you may recall, Atlanta pulled off one of the most improbable blowout victories of the Playoffs in Game 4, which they led wire to wire...without their blossoming star Trae Young. The final margin of victory? A measly 22 points. Not bad for a young team going up against a true contender featuring a two time MVP. Williams, Bogdanovic, Huerter, and Capela chipped in 71 out of the total 110 points ATL put up that night.
12 more points came from an unexpected name on the Box Score sheet: Cam Reddish. He made his first appearance since February 21st during that contest and played a total of 23 minutes. It would have been perfectly acceptable if he had come out of the gates slow since he had missed a boat load of games and just been thrown into the proverbial fire. Luckily for the Hawks, Reddish wasn't content with 'acceptable.' He knew a return to game action, no matter how brief, could open the portal into to a realm of possibilities for his future. He desperately needed to boost his confidence and reputation across the league after his first season and much of his second had gone awry for a variety of reasons.
He got lost in the shuffle of one the biggest offseasons in recent Atlanta history. No, they did not secure a big fish as superstars are often called, but they did upgrade their depth in a major way by investing some dollars into high level starters. These were the price tags of their free agency acquisitions:
Bogdan Bogdanovic - 4 years/$72 million (Player Option in year 4)
Danilo Gallinari - 3 years/$61.5 million (Third year non-guaranteed)
They've both paid off in a big way during this postseason, but make no mistake, success comes with a price and it only gets steeper as the years go on. So how does Reddish factor into all this? Well if his recent play inspires confidence that he could be a real difference maker given more time and experience, then it stands to reason that his next contract could be substantially more expensive than his rookie scale deal.
Take 2017 draftee John Collins for example. He signed a 4 year rookie scale deal four years ago worth about $11 million. He's been a huge bargain during that time, emerging as a borderline All-Star level forward by adding something to his game every year. He was invaluable to the Hawks during their playoff run due to his tenacious rebounding, and three point stroke, which made him dangerous inside and out. Obviously, he is looking to cash in on that progress and secure the first big deal of his career. He reportedly turned down a four year/$90 million extension from ATL prior to the start of the season, looking for something closer to the max, which could be as much as $125 million over the lifetime of the contract term.
Reddish is a long way from commanding that kind of money in free agency, but he is already beginning to elevate his value just as Collins did before him and Huerter/Hunter did this season. If Collins returns to the Hawks, his new deal begins next season. Young will follow next season and what is sure to be a complete maximum deal. Kevin Huerter could be extended this offseason, but it's widely believed the Hawks will wait for him to reach Restricted Free Agency, as Collins is this year.
Long story short, Trae Young's claim that the team would be back was both right and wrong. The franchise will most likely be back with a force in years to come, but one or more young prospects could get pushed out due to a money squeeze.
Here's what we know for sure when it comes to the Hawks immediate future. The days of having plentiful cap space to use on free agent reinforcements are likely over. The offseason game plan for this year could go one of two ways:
1) The team renounces their rights to Brandon Goodwin, Tony Snell, Lou Williams, Solomon Hill, and John Collins, who they decide to part ways with if they decide he'd be too expensive to bring back. If Kris Dunn doesn't opt into his Player Option worth $5 million, that produces a best case scenario for the team in which they could open up maximum cap room of $17 million. Losing Collins would open up a gaping hole at forward, which could require using the entirety of their newly found cap space to shore up.
2) They decide to double down on Collins, which extinguishes any cap space they could have, regardless of Dunn opts in or not (he most likely will coming off a season where he didn't play a minute in the regular season). A $112 million cap for next season places Collins 2021-2022 max salary in the ballpark of $28 million with 8% raises year over year for four or five seasons. Not exactly chump change for a guy who averaged 14 PPG on 17 percent usage over the course of 18 playoff games. Young and Huerter still have one more year on their rookie deals, so the Hawks won't be up against the tax quite yet, unless they bring back most of this season's crew and use all their available exceptions for extra outside help. The non-taxpayer MLE now worth around $10 million will be particularly tempting to utilize.
The Cam Equation
They key word in the last sentence of the previous paragraph is "yet." Reddish seemed to unlock some of that mountain of potential he's been hoarding within an enticing NBA frame since he was selected with the 10th pick two years ago. The major roadblock to stardom or anything approximating it for him during his first two seasons has been his efficiency, which is a reflection of the confidence he's had in himself, or lack thereof. We can't be sure of the lengths he went to in order to be primed and ready to compete against elite talents like Middleton and Giannis, but he must have put in a ton of time in the gym and film room before returning to action against Milwaukee.
If that performance was simply a sign of things to come and he's really farther away from consistent offensive contributions than he led us to believe, then the equation gets much simpler. He could play out the entirety of his Rookie deal, reach free agency, then get a modest offer from the Hawks or just sign an offer sheet with another team. On the other hand, how might Atlanta approach Cam's development if he turns out to be a player with real star potential? He essentially plays the same position as Bodganovic and Huerter, even if he might end up spending time with them in certain lineups. Even if Huerter is brought back for something like $15 million per, that's $33 million going out annually (almost 30% of the 21-22 salary cap) to two wings. Sure, both players offer a ton of shooting and creation ability that are vital in todays NBA, but have the same weaknesses when it comes to the defensive side of the ball. Bigger wings and/or shiftier wings can give them headaches, particularly in playoff scenarios. Reddish has finished much better in defensive metrics during his short career, so he's already a much better option when the team needs a stop. He's much more shaky as a scorer, or at least we thought up until his triumphant return to action to finish the season.
The team might be better off moving away from Huerter or Bogdan if Reddish's shooting turns out to be a real weapon. Hunter already seems to have the inside track on the starting SF position after a very strong campaign on both ends, so slotting in Cam there is a non-starter at this juncture. When it comes to Huerter, they could extend him prior to the start of next season and trade him before next years deadline, or just execute a sign and trade next Summer using a sign and trade once he is a free agent. Either option could be used to shed salary as the roster gets pricier, or bring back pieces to fortify the 1 or 4 positions, two areas where they could use improvement.
Moving Bodganovic is an easier proposition from a contract perspective. He is locked in for at least two more seasons, possibly three, which is a huge selling point in trade calls. His $18 million salary could also bring back perfectly adequate help in return. He probably won't be moved for at least another season, as he's coming off an excellent 2nd half of the regular season and playoff run, but it's a conversation the team might bring to the table at some point. These wings and Gallinari were great this season, but they don't offer type of upside Reddish and Hunter possess. Their future in The A is anything but assured.
This All Depends on...
Of course, these scenarios are dependant on the amount of progress Reddish makes next season and what the team decides to do this off-season. The pressure will be on the front office to build upon their ECF berth, so don't expect them to stand pat and rely solely on growth from within. Bogdanovic acknowledged how difficult it will be to move forward while keeping the core intact in a recent piece from The Athletic:
“It’s going to be so hard to keep all of these guys here,” Bogdanovic told The Athletic. “I remember being back in Europe reading about what Draymond Green said about Golden State with how it’s going to be hard to keep this group together. I feel like something like that here. It’s going to be challenging for this group because there are so many talents and great players. The challenge is to enjoy it while we can.”
The argument could be made that the Hawks would be in the Finals right now if they had Hunter and Reddish available from the start, but that's not a sure thing. Spending power and other tools the CBA grants are definites, so the Hawks might as well use that while they have it. Evolving into a championship unti takes sacrifices on several fronts and sometimes, not everyone who helps bring a team from misery to relevance gets the chance to see it through to the end. Between Collins, Huerter, Reddish, and even the vets brought in last year, painful subtractions will need to be made.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.