Atlanta Hawks Own A Bleak Outlook: Best Paths Forward

The Atlanta Hawks have been stuck in an endless cycle of mediocrity with no obvious magic elixir on hand. They are currently a fringe play-in team at 12-15, rank 20th in Net Rating, and own a 5-12 record against the top eight seeds in each conference. Can Atlanta correct the course in the immediate future? Or are the Hawks doomed to a lengthy adjustment?

Atlanta Hawks Financial Crisis

Since Atlanta realized they had a special rookie in Trae Young, the front office has admirably strived to surround him with supplementary pieces. The Hawks traded for a pick-and-roll partner in Clint Capela near the 2020 trade deadline, signed veteran Bogdan Bogdanovic, acquired All-Star Dejounte Murray during the 2022 off-season, and recently extended De’Andre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu.

Atlanta’s transactions have not been completely fruitless, as Trae Young carried them to an Eastern Conference Finals berth during the 2021 playoffs. However, it’s clear that the ship has sailed in terms of realistically competing with teams like Boston, Denver, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. Plus, there are a plethora of ascending teams to fear: Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Orlando, etc.

With no championship in sight, Atlanta’s best path forward is to pivot from their current roster. Unfortunately, their eager pursuit of a title has left them crippled for the near future. Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, De’Andre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela, and Onyeka Okongwu will combine to earn about $143M next season, which is nearly $2M over the projected cap (per Spotrac).

Saddiq Bey (12.9 PPG) is a restricted free agent this summer too and probably commands around $12-15M per year, thus further burying Atlanta if they choose to keep him. Considering he has been a solid role player and is only 24-years-old, the Hawks will assuredly desire his services.

Young, Murray, Hunter, Bogdanovic, and Okongwu are all signed for the 2025-26 season at a combined $127M, so Capela’s then expired contract provides them with a little breathing room. However, rising star Jalen Johnson enters restricted free agency during the 2025 off-season, and he may command around $25-30M per year. Therefore, six players will once again sap all of Atlanta’s cap space. Meanwhile, Young, Murray, Hunter, and Okongwu are still on the books for the 2026-27 season, along with Johnson’s extension and a likely new deal for AJ Griffin.

Essentially, Atlanta possesses little to no financial flexibility for the next three seasons and subsequently cannot be active during free agency. They could attempt to clear salary by trading Bogdanovic and Capela for expiring contracts, but no team will offer them assets back due to their harsh salaries. A transaction with those two would boil down to a mere salary dump, which would strip talent without any guarantee of adding better via free agency. In fact, Atlanta may have to attach assets to move them, and they are not exactly flush with picks.

Atlanta Hawks Draft Picks

When Atlanta acquired Dejounte Murray, they boldly parted with two unprotected first round picks during the 2025 and 2027 drafts. In addition, San Antonio owns swap rights on the 2026 first. While the trade was a logical move for Atlanta, it has not produced the intended result. Across the 1607 minutes with Young and Murray on the court together last season, Atlanta outscored opponents by a slim 0.3 points per 100 possessions. So far this season, the Hawks are being outscored by 2.2 points per 100 possessions.

Not only did Atlanta lose valuable picks, but it also hurt their flexibility. The Stepien Rule bars franchises from being without a first round pick in two future consecutive drafts. Therefore, the Hawks cannot trade their 2026 or 2028 first rounders for the time being. At this moment, Atlanta can trade one of their two 2024 firsts along with their 2029 or 2030 first.

Best Path Forward

In summation, the Hawks cannot utilize free agency in the near future because their hefty contracts are sapping cap space. However, it’s unlikely they can go star hunting and realistically elevate themselves into the true contender category. What are their choices at this moment?

Option 1: Wait

The Hawks could sit tight this season, view their internal growth from young guys like Jalen Johnson and Kobe Bufkin, and delay a decision. While patience isn’t necessarily a bad trait, it would mean another lost season for Trae Young and company without an actionable plan moving forward.

Option 2: Salary Dump

Trae Young is still just 25-years-old, so the Hawks have time to make one more significant re-tooling before he hits his prime. This plan would entail dumping Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic in an effort to clear cap space. It likely costs them second rounders because of their contracts, but the flexibility could be worth it.

Atlanta would possess around $18M in cap space this off-season, although that includes losing Saddiq Bey to another team’s offer sheet. Plus, Bogdanovic’s $18M salary is removed for the 2025-26 season, thus further cleaning their future.

$18M is not what it used to be though, so who could the Hawks target in free agency? Jonas Valanciunas? Gary Trent Jr? Those additions are not moving the needle in the slightest for Atlanta, especially considering the lost production from Capela and Bogdanovic.

A simple salary dump assuredly opens up more doors for Atlanta, but it does not necessarily change much for the Hawks. It is probably a step in the right direction though.

Option 3: Also Trade Dejounte Murray

In addition to dumping Capela and Bogdanovic, the Hawks could claw back significant draft capital by trading Murray. The former All-Star is averaging 20 points and 5.4 assists while playing excellent defense. Considering he is locked down on a reasonable long-term deal, Atlanta should be able to get around three first round picks for him.

Through this route, Atlanta would clear roughly $65M from the books this off-season assuming the Hawks took back expiring contracts. Based on the projected salary cap, Atlanta then has roughly $46M of cap space to utilize, given a team winds up poaching Saddiq Bey. The current top names potentially on the market (excluding names like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George) are Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and DeMar DeRozan.

In an ideal world, the Hawks spend the cap space on OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. Atlanta’s new-look roster would feature a starting lineup of Young, Trent Jr, Anunoby, Johnson, and Okongwu. Leaps from young guys Kobe Bufkin and AJ Griffin subsequently bolster the bench, and the Hawks have first rounders to upgrade the roster.

However, fantasizing about free agency is a dangerous game to play because it rarely comes true. If the Hawks whiff, then it guarantees another losing season. Does management have the ability to stomach this reality, especially with Trae Young growing impatient?

Atlanta could circumvent this issue by entering into negotiations with Toronto, who is dangling Anunoby in trade talks and needs a guard. A framework involving Murray, Anunoby, and Trent Jr could aid both sides, and it’s a safer route for Atlanta than simply counting on cap space.

Option 4: Ends Of The Spectrum

If they reject the first three choices, then two other options stand out: shove the chips in, or raze it to the ground.

A package featuring De’Andre Hunter, Kobe Bufkin, AJ Griffin, Patty Mills, and picks in exchange for Pascal Siakam and Dennis Schroder would certainly upgrade the Hawks. Their playoff rotation would be the following:

  • Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, Jalen Johnson, Pascal Siakam, Clint Capela
  • Dennis Schroder, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Saddiq Bey, Onyeka Okongwu

Could this core truly compete against the titans though? Atlanta must honestly answer that question before firing on an all-in deal.

Meanwhile, completely burning down the roster is drastic to the extreme. This path would mean trading Trae Young, along with Murray, Hunter, Capela, and Bogdanovic. The Hawks then pair Jalen Johnson, Onyeka Okongwu, Kobe Bufkin, and AJ Griffin with their massive haul. It’s unknown how successful this plan could be given the unknown return from Young and Murray deals, but the Hawks are not desperate enough yet for this route.

Overall, whichever option Atlanta chooses, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. As Harvey Dent famously said, “the night is darkest just before the dawn”, but it’s unfortunately the winter solstice for the Hawks.

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Braxton has been covering the NBA for Lineups since the 2022 season. He's worked with multiple collegiate coaching staffs regarding analytics and scouting, which has allowed him to understand the game on a deeper level. Braxton is also a contributor at Thunderous Intentions.

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