Atlanta Hawks’ Title Window May Close Sooner Than You’d Expect

Fresh off a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Atlanta Hawks have every right to be ecstatic about their future. They have most of their core under contract through the 2021-22 season, including star point guard Trae Young, which suggests they could be right back in the same place next year.

However, general manager Travis Schlenk will have to walk a tightrope to keep their championship window open beyond next season.

John Collins, Lou Williams, Tony Snell and Solomon Hill are the only four Hawks rotation members who are set to become free agents this offseason, and both Snell and Hill wouldn’t be huge losses if they sign elsewhere. Williams fueled the Hawks’ surprise win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but he had only four double-digit scoring outings in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Collins made himself some bank in the postseason.

In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Collins finished with 23 points on 11-of-16 shooting and 15 rebounds. He drilled a timely three-pointer to help the Hawks finish off their furious second-half comeback against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and he came up with timely offensive boards time and again throughout the playoffs.

According to Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick of The Athletic, Collins turned down an extension offer before the start of the season worth more than $90 million “with the hopes that he would prove worthy of much more this offseason.” Mission accomplished.

Collins will be a restricted free agent in August, so the Hawks can match any offer sheet he signs with another team if they don’t come to terms with him first. Back in March, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported the Hawks were telling teams “that they intend to match contract offers for Collins this summer.”

“They’re worried he’s getting maxed, and they’re putting it out there they are willing to pay him if he gets a max but won’t be thrilled about it,” an Eastern Conference executive told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps in March.

If the Hawks do re-sign Collins, they’ll soar far above the projected $112.4 million salary cap in 2021-22, although they should still be able to stay below the $136.6 million luxury-tax threshold. They also have Young, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Onyeka Okongwu already under contract for next season, which is a formidable eight-man rotation in and of itself.

Whether to re-sign Collins isn’t the only critical decision the Hawks need to make this offseason, though. They’ll also have to decide whether to hand out extensions to Young and Huerter, both of whom are heading into the final year of their rookie contracts.

After this playoff run, there’s no question that Young deserves a max extension. Although he remains one of the league’s weakest defenders, his three-level scoring ability makes him far more of an asset than a liability.

The Hawks will undoubtedly give Young a full five-year max with Designated Rookie language that allows him to earn up to 30 percent of the salary cap if he’s named MVP or Defensive Player of the Year (lol) or makes an All-NBA team. The negotiations with Huerter figure to be less cut-and-dry, though.

Huerter was the hero of the Hawks’ Game 7 win over the Sixers, finishing with a team-high 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting. However, he’s bounced in and out of the starting lineup all year, and the ostensible shooting specialist knocked down a career-low 36.3 percent of his triples during the regular season.

Unlike Young and perhaps Collins, Huerter should not be expecting anywhere near a max contract. His agent will likely use Joe Harris (four years, $75 million) and Davis Bertans (five years, $80 million) as a jumping-off point in extension negotiations, while Duncan Robinson’s upcoming foray into restricted free agency could serve as another useful data point for both sides.

Atlanta may decide to punt on a Huerter extension and allow him to become a restricted free agent in 2022 to see how he fares next season. That could prove costly if he has a breakout year, but another inconsistent season might drive his price down a bit, too.

Depending on what the Hawks do with Collins and Huerter over the coming months, the 2022 offseason could spell the end of their current core.

The Hawks already have $58.4 million in guaranteed salary on their books for the 2022-23 season, and that doesn’t include Young, Collins, Huerter, Danilo Gallinari or their 2021 and 2022 draft picks. If they keep Gallinari—only $5 million of his $21.5 million salary is guaranteed in 2022-23—and sign Collins and Young to max extensions, they’ll already be at $139.1 million, just shy of the projected $140.7 million luxury-tax line. If Young makes an All-NBA team and qualifies for a designated-rookie extension, he’d push Atlanta into tax territory, and that’s before factoring in a Huerter extension as well.

At that point, it comes down to how much the Hawks’ owners are willing to spend. Will they stomach going $20 million or more into the luxury tax, which would result in a tax bill of at least $45 million? Where’s the cut-off point?

If the Hawks aren’t willing to go deep into the tax, they could waive Gallinari in 2022-23 and hope Hunter and Reddish are ready to take on bigger roles. However, those two will be entering the final year of their rookie contracts, so they’ll also become eligible for extensions. If they don’t reach an agreement on a new deal before the start of that season, they’ll be restricted free agents in 2023.

The 2022-23 season is also the final year in which Capela is under contract, and Bogdanovic has a $18.0 million player option for the 2023-24 season that he could very well decline. Okongwu will also become eligible for an extension during the 2023-24 offseason, which is yet another potential headache for Atlanta to confront down the road.

The Hawks don’t need to fret about many of these decisions quite yet. Outside of Collins, they could largely run back the same core next year without making any major moves in free agency. The 2022 offseason is when their roster could become unsustainably expensive.

A consolidation trade may be their best way out of these potential landmines. If a superstar becomes available on the trade market, Atlanta has the salary-matching fodder (Gallinari, Bogdanovic, Capela) and young players (Huerter, Hunter, Reddish and Okongwu) to cobble together an intriguing offer.

Schlenk did a masterful job building the Hawks into a Finals contender. It’ll be tricky for him to keep them at that level beyond the 2021-22 season, though.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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