New NBA deal helps Hawks long term, but no instant relief

NBA owners are expected to gain more than $300 million per year from players under the tentative agreement to end the 149-day lockout, and some specific provisions should help the Hawks and other lower-revenue teams.

Increased revenue sharing among franchises should boost Atlanta's operating income. Big-spending teams might balk at overpaying free agents because of a more punitive luxury tax, eventually sending better players down market to the Hawks. An “amnesty” provision provides a one-time chance for teams to shed bloated contracts from their books (though they still must pay the player) .

Two salary rules that aren't changing, however, could make it difficult for Atlanta to come up with significant improvements to its roster this season.

The salary cap is expected to remain at $58 million and the luxury-tax threshold at $70 million. With roughly $65 million in salaries committed to seven players for this season, the Hawks are stuck between lacking an easy way to get below the salary cap and no way to add higher-priced free agents without paying the tax.

Even with no major additions, the Hawks still should be a good team when the 66-game season begins on Dec. 25. They return seven legitimate rotation players who helped them advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where the Bulls beat them 4-2 in a best-of-seven series.

But unless Atlanta swings a trade, it likely will be limited to adding to its depth with signing minimum-salaried veterans when free agency opens on Dec. 9. To do more in free agency the Hawks must pay big one way or another, either through the luxury tax or the added costs of paying both a waived player and replacements.

The Hawks made their big investment when they re-signed free-agent guard Joe Johnson to the richest contract in the league last summer. Then Al Horford's five-year, $60 million extension signed last November added $12 million to the team's current payroll (with amounts prorated because of the 16 canceled games).

It's unlikely the Hawks will pay the luxury tax for the first time. For the next two seasons the tax is 100 percent on the amount of team salary above the $70 million threshold, and the penalties increase significantly in later years of the agreement.

Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. has said the team would be willing to pay the 100-percent tax for a superstar. Such a player theoretically would improve Atlanta's chances of winning an NBA championship while also increasing fan interest and team revenues.

Gearon said that before Atlanta Spirit Group's unsuccessful attempt to sale the team to Los Angeles businessman Alex Meruelo. When that deal fell apart, co-owner Bruce Levenson announced the Hawks are no longer for sale, and the team's financial strategy going forward is unclear.

Hawks officials aren't allowed to comment on league matters until the new labor agreement is officially ratified by players and owners. The process was expected to take seven to 10 days after the tentative agreement was reached on Saturday.

The Hawks could choose to use the amnesty clause now. It allows teams to waive one player over the course of the new labor agreement, which is for 10 years with either side allowed to opt out after six.

But the Hawks almost certainly won't waive Johnson now because they still would owe him $107 million over the next five seasons (with prorated amounts for this season). Waiving Marvin Williams or Kirk Hinrich, two other potential amnesty candidates, would provide little or no salary-cap relief.

Barring a trade, it appears likely the Hawks will take another shot at making their first East finals with largely the same group from last season. That might be a reasonable goal if the Hawks can find value among low-priced free agents to add to their returning talent.

Johnson and Horford have earned multiple All-Star selections at their respective positions and Smith is a dynamic defender. All three players should be healthier after extended time off from injuries suffered last season.

Hinrich  appeared to be hitting his stride until an injury prevented him from playing in the East semifinals. Jeff Teague, Atlanta's first-round draft pick in 2009, replaced Hinrich in the lineup and was impressive while facing league MVP Derrick Rose.

Reserve center Zaza Pachulia is valuable as an aggressive defender and is among the few Hawks players always looking to drive to the basket. Williams' offensive production remained stagnant last season but he's a solid defender and showed flashes of excelling in a bench role.

Hawks coach Larry Drew has said the team needed defensive toughness and outside shooting. The Hawks might be forced to fill those needs with free-agent bargains. They were hit and miss in doing so last season: Jason Collins and Damien Willkins made valuable contributions, but Etan Thomas and Josh Powell never earned major roles.

Before the lockout, Hawks general manager Rick Sund said the team would try to re-sign free-agent guard Jamal Crawford, but couldn't commit to it until analyzing the new salary-cap rules. Crawford's market price figures to be outside of Atlanta's budget anyway.

Crawford, the NBA's Sixth Man Award winner with the Hawks in 2010, said he's open to re-signing in Atlanta. But he also wantsa significant payday for what figures to be his last big contract.

“I have interest in who has interest in me,” Crawford wrote on his Twitter page Monday.