Hawks can’t continue to have top free agents ignore them

It’s that time of year again when NBA free agency begins and everybody in Atlanta wonders: Why is everybody ignoring us?

Because for as much progress as the franchise has made on the court over the last three years, the Hawks’ haven’t been destination central for high-profile free agents. If NBA stars jet into Hartsfield-Jackson International, it’s only because they’re connecting to another city. Or the Bahamas.

Will that change? In regards to their hope of signing Kevin Durant, probably not. At best, maybe Hawks part owner Grant Hill — Durant’s good friend and the second-most powerful man in the organization behind owner Tony Ressler — can convince Durant to meet members of the organization in a room. Heck, the whole meeting can last 15 minutes, over herbal tea, at a corner table in the airport food court, while Durant is waiting for his connection to Miami.

That would at least provide the Hawks with a headline, “Hawks pitch Durant,” instead of, “Durant to Hawks: I’ll pay for my own tea.”

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer and former general manager Danny Ferry made the Hawks relevant. But to go from relevant to elite, they need help. Significant help.

This shouldn’t be taken as a slap at impending free agent Kent Bazemore, whom the Hawks would like to keep. But if Bazemore is re-signed to a contract that effectively makes him the Hawks’ third-highest paid player next season behind Al Horford and Paul Millsap, this team isn’t going anywhere. A lot of really good things can be said about Bazemore but “Big Three” player isn’t one of them.

So the Hawks need to do all they can to sell Durant. And failing that — because I suspect he’ll stay in Oklahoma City — they need to land one of a handful of other free agents who could improve them offensively. Some suggested targets: Charlotte shooting guard Nicholas Batum (unrestricted), Toronto shooting guard DeMar DeRozan (unrestricted), Golden State small forward Harrison Barnes (restricted), Washington shooting guard Bradley Beal (restricted).

Tampering rules prevented Budenholzer on Tuesday from publicly discussing targeted players (and he wouldn’t even if he could). But he agreed to speak in generalities and proceeded to sell Atlanta like a convention planner.

“I can just speak for my three years and I think our organization is in a really good place right now,” he said. “I always think of free agency in terms of keeping your own players first and then hopefully attracting players of significance. But (building) a practice facility, all of the things happening around our team, the way we play, the unselfishness and the way our group gets along, I think people would want to be a part of what we’re doing.”

OK. But in the actual/hypothetical world where the Hawks want the same player (read: Durant) that Oklahoma City, Golden State, San Antonio, Boston and Miami want, what is there to sell about the Hawks?

“Everybody’s going to have choices and every team has something to offer,” Budenholzer said. “It’s never going to be easy. We just feel like we have a hell of a roster and a hell of an opportunity when you look at everything in total. Do we want to get better and do we need to get better? Yes. But when you look at everything, we feel like we’re in a very good situation.”

My guess in how this summer goes: 1) The Hawks re-sign Horford because it would be foolish not to; 2) They lose Bazemore because another team will offer a contract far exceeding his perceived value (this year’s DeMarre Carroll); 3) They’ll try to improve at the wing positions via free agency or trades.

Horford likes Atlanta, likes Budenholzer’s system and the Hawks can offer him the most money. Even if the Hawks give him a max contract, they could still pay another free agent $25 million annually. But Horford has options and, therefore, leverage. He’ll want to know about the Hawks’ plans to improve.

Budenholzer, when asked if Horford has inquired about the team’s summer plans: “It’s important to keep those conversations private. I’ll just say Al’s very interested in being on a winning team and in a winning environment. We’ve always known that. We have similar missions.”

Their mission begins with getting help. Signing Durant is likely a fantasy. But if the Hawks whiff completely this summer, thinking they’re contenders next season also will be fantasy.

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