'Everything Has Changed': Hawks' Surprising ECF Run Has Expensive Ripple Effects

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IJuly 5, 2021

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) celebrates with teammate forward John Collins (20) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, May 13, 2021 in Atlanta. The Hawks defeated the Magic 116-93. (AP Photo/Tami Chappell)
Tami Chappell/Associated Press

No front office would complain about being dealt this hand, but the Atlanta Hawks' surprising run to a competitive Eastern Conference Finals appearance will likely spark some expensive ripple effects. 

Atlanta stands on quite a different footing entering this offseason compared to where the Hawks were back on March 1, when they fired Lloyd Pierce amid a 14-20 start. At that time, Atlanta's decision makers were also still burdened by contentious extension talks with John Collins from last fall. At different points in this league calendar year, the Hawks widely discussed trade scenarios for Kevin Huerter and then Cam Reddish, and team executives initially viewed coach Nate McMillan as a true interim stopgap, league sources told Bleacher Report. 

"Their 180 midseason is fascinating," said one Western Conference executive. "Everything has changed for them."

Winning—especially winning in the postseason—is the most powerful ingredient in any NBA negotiation. Superstars will always land their hefty purse. For Trae Young, the question was never if he'd be offered a max extension this summer, but merely for how much. And the five-year, $168 million extension Young will likely sign with the Hawks in the next few weeks can push close to $200 million if he's named to one of the three All-NBA teams next season.

McMillan, on the other hand, may be the biggest benefactor of Atlanta's long playoff burst. After his time in Indiana ended largely due to McMillan's gruffer, old-school approach toward players, sources told B/R, the head coach has been applauded around the league for switching his tone in Atlanta, and particularly taking a patient approach with Young. He is no longer the hard-nosed 1990s point guard, but the veteran sage who has been there before, offering a guiding hand rather than a stern fist. In today's NBA, that particular dynamic seems to be gaining an increased value for head coaching posts across the league. 

"He's reinvented himself, which is rare," said one team scout. "You give him a lot of credit."

And that seems why McMillan was long rumored by league sources as a potential Brad Stevens replacement in Boston. Perhaps that whisper only emerged as a leverage play for McMillan's ensuing contract talks with Hawks brass. 

“That dude could have easily been the highest paid coach in the league,” said the Western Conference executive. 

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Or perhaps the Celtics were a potential landing spot McMillan truly welcomed. After all, when the Hawks first parted ways with Pierce and elevated McMillan to his current interim title, both Charles Lee and Kenny Atkinson, two former Atlanta assistant coaches during Mike Budenholzer's tenure, were expected to be leading candidates to fill the Hawks' vacancy, sources told B/R. Now, after coming just two wins shy of the NBA Finals, McMillan is expected to come to terms on a lucrative extension. 

Any team's march into later playoff rounds also prompts rivals searching to brain drain from a successful front office, and the rumors linking Hawks assistant general manager Landry Fields have not quieted either, sources said. Amid ongoing questions about the future structure of Boston's basketball operations, Fields very much remains a top choice of Stevens and Celtics ownership to join Boston as the team's general manager, sources told B/R. 

At just 33, Fields is widely considered a rising front-office name in the industry, known as a former pro capable of winning favor with today's players while also boasting the credentials and polish that come from a full four years at Stanford. Fields rose quickly through the San Antonio Spurs' vaunted scouting department that has already produced Sam Presti and Sean Marks, among others. 

Atlanta could simply block the Celtics' pursuit by elevating Fields to the same post underneath Hawks president Travis Schlenk, who currently holds the title of general manager. In that scenario, it's believed Boston's vice president of player development and former WNBA veteran Allison Feaster would be the leading candidate to be named general manager under Stevens. The 45-year-old was the only Celtics figure aside from ownership and Stevens who partook in Ime Udoka's final interview, sources said. “It seems like she's getting some serious traction,”  said one assistant general manager. 

The nucleus that remains in Atlanta's front office will then have to address the Hawks' unresolved negotiations with Collins. After another season shooting 40 percent from three and posting impressive rebounding rates, Collins continues to have his fair share of fans around the NBA. Yet, it appears at least a portion of Atlanta's decision makers maintain the 23-year-old forward's defensive shortcomings stand in the way of offering Collins a full max. It's believed Atlanta selected rookie big man Onyeka Okongwu No. 6 in 2020 partially as a long-term alternative alongside Clint Capela in the front court, and Okongwu showed strong flashes throughout the playoffs as well. 

Collins never seriously entertained the four-year, roughly $90 million deal that Atlanta offered prior to the season—a number that would fall about $30 million shy of his highest-possible earnings—sources said. However, Collins' penchant for converting critical buckets, making big plays, and snaring necessary rebounds this postseason could now ultimately force Atlanta's hand. And many league personnel expect Collins to resign with the Hawks this summer.

It's fair to question how hefty a cap sheet Atlanta's ownership will be willing to keep shouldering. They already levied a mandate to make the playoffs this season, and Schlenk's group splurged with over $150 million last summer. Huerter appears to be another likely recipient of a handsome pay day for his playoff performance. 

There's a belief among league personnel that the Hawks will look to work an extension with Huerter this summer to prevent the the third-year guard from reaching restricted free agency next summer. That's a notable change all these months after Atlanta was looking to package Huerter and the No. 6 pick that became Okongwu for a veteran player prior to last year's draft. 

Reddish's status in Atlanta may even be altered by his four-game stint in the Eastern Conference Finals. Only a career 30.9 percent three-point shooter before those handful of appearances, Reddish connected on a blistering 64.3% of his triples against Milwaukee. Before his sudden emergence in McMillan's postseason rotation, Reddish was a player many rival front offices were targeting as a very available buy-low trade candidate this offseason, sources said. 

Remember, De'Andre Hunter is still waiting in the wings. And Hunter—the swingman Atlanta selected six slots ahead of Reddish in the 2019 draft—was considered by many league talent evaluators to be the Hawks' second-best player this year before his season-ending meniscus surgery. There's only going to be so much money to go around for Hunter and Reddish after Young and presumably Collins and Huerter all ink their next deals. Yet, there's also a clear benefit to stocking a loaded rotation that can withstand injury to some integral players such as Hunter and still make the conference finals.

"There is a certain amount of redundancy that you like," said one general manager. "You call that insurance—or shooting." 

Again, these are cap calculations and questions any front office would love to wrestle with. The goal in this expensive business is to win. Sometimes, a franchise just happens to attain that goal a little ahead of schedule, and the math gets a little wonkier than expected. 


Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.