Is Lou Williams Part of the Atlanta Hawks' Long-Term Future?

Dan SchultzContributor IJanuary 15, 2014

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 10:  Louis Williams #3 of the Atlanta Hawks walking off the court after a game agsint the Houston Rockets on January 10, 2014 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Knowing when and how much to invest in a player, especially one that comes off the bench, can often be tricky. Let’s face it: if his name is not Manu Ginobili, a team’s “sixth man” should probably not be one of the highest-paid players on the team.

Often players come into the NBA, develop into capable players off the bench, maybe take on “sixth man” minutes eventually, before earning a starting position and a new contract to go along with this steady improvement over time.

With the Atlanta Hawks currently in limbo after the devastating season-ending Al Horford injury late in 2013, many are wondering what the Hawks have in mind for their future. This is a team full of trade-able assets, with Lou Williams being perhaps the most intriguing piece considering his non-terrible contract and his already proven track record as an excellent teammate and human being in general.

Out of the 549 NBA games Williams has played in his career, he has started in less than one-tenth of them; 50 to be exact. This season, he will earn $5,225,000 in the second year of a three-year contract in which he is guaranteed to make $15,675,000.

With one of the deepest drafts in the history of the league approaching, and a majority of the East already pulling a “Tank-a-palooza” and just gunning it for a high draft pick, Atlanta seems committed to remain being competitive. This makes perfect sense because they do not own their first round draft pick for this year.

However, even if ATL is not going to follow this trend and go for a hot prospect in the draft, one still has to wonder how a player like Williams fits into their long-term future.

While Lou-Will has plenty of heart, as well as an uncanny ability to catch fire and sometimes take over a game single-handedly, that was in a Philadelphia 76ers offense that played to his strengths—isolating the court for him to work his magic.

Plus, Philly more or less let him shoot any shot he wanted, even if he had two consecutive seasons of barely eclipsing going 40 percent from the field, despite averaging high point totals given his sixth man role.

Now, in a heavy pick-and-roll Mike Budenholzer offense, on top of his inability to remain healthy (only playing 39 games out of 82 last year, and 25 out of 39 this year), Williams simply has not fit in thus far with his new squad. This is too bad, considering the fact that he grew up in the area, and that after signing a contract with the team, this had all the signs of a happy homecoming for him.

Given Atlanta’s contract situation, as well as a phenomenal 2014 NBA Free Agent class that includes names like Carmelo Anthony, Gordon Hayward, Evan Turner, Lance Stephenson, and Danny Granger, dealing Williams for a contract that expires at the end of this season makes a ton of sense for them.

Currently, the NBA’s salary cap is set at $58,679,000. With Williams on the roster, the Hawks would come in at $47,899,576 in team salaries for the 2014-2015 season. However, if they decided to deal Williams in exchange for an expiring contract and say a future pick, this would bring their team salaries total to $42,732,121.

This means that Atlanta would have exactly $15,946,879 in spending ability going into free agency, more than enough to offer any premier free agent a big contract.

To me, this seems like a more desirable, reasonable alternative for the Hawks. No one is considering them to contend with the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers for the East even though they are currently the third seed. Barring a season-ending injury to LeBron James or Paul George, that will probably not change either.

Losing Horford only hurt their cause to stay competitive with those teams, and slippage is likely to occur at some points in the season looking at their lack of depth at the center position.

Williams is currently 27 years old, rounding into what should be the “prime years” of his playing career. The Hawks have been patient with Williams to find his form again and become a lightning bolt off the bench for them, but will that time ever come?

The team has an interesting decision to make in the next month as the February 20th trade deadline quickly approaches.

Atlanta appears committed to Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver as their starters. DeMarre Carroll has had some bright spots starting at the small forward position for them, but the opportunity to add a Melo or a Hayward at the three-spot is certainly enticing.

So unfortunately, this makes moving Williams the most logical move for the team at this time.

As much as I loved watching him back in the day when he played for Philly, the numbers do not lie. Right now, from a field-goal percentage standpoint, he is not doing much better than when the much maligned Rudy Gay was playing for the Memphis Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors and jacking up contested long jump shots.

He is shooting a pathetic 37 percent from the field this year, and remains an average three-point shooter at a 35 percent clip. He is averaging 9.4 points per game and 3.3 assists per game, but he has clearly not been as efficient in Atlanta's system.

A possible trade idea would be to deal Williams to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Kirk Hinrich and Nazr Mohammed. Hinrich, a veteran leader on the Bulls, simply does not offer as much offense as Williams can. Both Hinrich and Mohammed come off the books this offseason, while Chicago would get the Nate Robinson type of point guard they could use now in Williams who would thrive given the opportunity to start for them.

Ever since the Hawks fired Larry Drew over the off season, in addition to losing Josh Smith to the Detroit Pistons in free agency, many analysts and fans are curious as to what the future of this team is. If the Hawks hope to become competitive in the free agency market this coming summer, moving Williams is almost a must at this point.

What would you rather have at this point—an injury prone, slightly undersized combo guard who has a somewhat questionable shot selection in Lou-Will, or have the opportunity to offer a max contract to a star like Melo, or a young stud in Stephenson, Turner or Hayward?

Williams can still definitely recover and jump start his career and reputation as one of the most feared bench spark plugs in the league, but I think he needs a fresh start somewhere else.

His stats, the Hawks' team payroll situation, and the upcoming free agency class all point to this being the best option for the Atlanta Hawks if they hope to build a championship-caliber team that can contend with Indiana and Miami in the coming years.