The dominant Atlanta Hawks were gone before the world got a chance to meet them. A team that had basketball purists forecasting an easy Finals appearance just 10 weeks ago gave way to an entirely different one over the regular season’s final months and duration of the playoffs.
Atlanta was a sterling 53-14 on March 16, just a half-game behind the Golden State Warriors for basketball’s top record. It was the league’s best story: a group of unheralded impact players and valuable rotational cogs playing the game on both ends that directly aligned with modern ideals.
But the Hawks finished the season 8-8, scraped by the outmanned Brooklyn Nets and injury-riddled Washington Wizards in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and were ultimately swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a Conference Finals matchup that had been imminent for quite some time.
There are several reasons for Atlanta’s stunning demise: Thabo Sefolosha’s injury and distractions related to it; the compromised health of the overall roster; plus, perhaps the additional competitiveness of the postseason yielded results that many long-time doubters saw coming.
Was Wednesday’s night blowout and season-ending loss to Cleveland the end of these Hawks? With Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll facing free agency come July, Mike Budenholzer’s club could indeed look very different next season than it did while setting a franchise record with 60 regular-season wins and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
But there’s still a chance both re-sign in Atlanta, too, a possibility Millsap says will be hard to pass up given his current team’s unique sense of family. Via Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
“I think looking at different options, looking at this team, looking at what we’ve built thus far, in weight my options I can’t make a decision right now,” Millsap said. “It’s been a long series, a long year, for me and the team. Let things die down, cool off, relax and think about it a little bit. We are a family. This team is close. It will play a lot into the decision.”
The 30-year-old signed a two-year, $19 million deal with Atlanta in 2013 that proved to be one of the game’s biggest bargains. And coming off his second consecutive All-Star appearance, it goes without saying that Millsap will earn a hefty raise this summer.
Just how big it is, though, remains to be seen. During the Hawks’ run to the league’s best record, it appeared Millsap was in line for something close to a max-level contract. But he struggled down the stretch of the regular season and throughout the playoffs, relative to his peak performance in 2014-2015, and will play his next multi-year deal into his mid-30s.
There will always be a starting spot for a player who can create offense, make open three-pointers, and capably defend multiple positions. Millsap will have even more value going forward if he becomes a bit more consistent from beyond the arc. After a postseason letdown and owing Carroll a large financial commitment of his own, though, will Atlanta feel comfortable inking its star power forward to a deal worth approximately $15 million per year?
The team would surely eclipse the cap by retaining Millsap and Carroll at market value, too, limiting their flexibility going forward. But the Hawks also possess the 15th selection in this year’s draft and will reap the benefits of the imminent salary cap boom over the next two years. They could keep both of their free agents, sign Al Horford to a max deal next summer, and still have room to improve the substandard group surrounding their core.
Even if Millsap hadn’t spoken so glowingly of Atlanta immediately after this season ended, that he’d remain with the organization long-term always seemed the most likely scenario. And given his obvious affinity for what the close-knit Hawks have built, to see him playing elsewhere next season would be even more surprising.