For more than five years, I wasn’t able to (for obvious reasons) give my true thoughts on the Atlanta Hawks’ on-court product. People would always ask “what did you think of this signing? That trade?” I could never publicly comment on it, but now I can. And since many are asking for some unfiltered thoughts, I’m here to share what I think the Hawks did well, and what they didn’t do well, on the basketball side over the past few years.
If you aren’t a Hawks fan or an NBA fan, this may not interest you. If you are, or you’re just curious, I’ll lay out the timeline of events, starting from the end of the 2015-16 season.
Everything the Hawks did prior to the summer of 2016 made sense. Whether you disagreed with a trade here or a small roster move there, everything they did set themselves up to contend behind a veteran, unselfish group of players who fit Mike Budenholzer’s pace-and-space system. Some ridiculed the Tim Hardaway Jr. draft night trade of 2015, but with DeMarre Carroll’s contract expiring, THJ was supposed to be (and ultimately was) the next wing in Hawks University. Tiago Splitter was a risk but one worth taking given the team’s rebounding struggles, and they gave up next to nothing to get him.
In short, 2014-15 was magical and 2015-16 was a pretty good follow-up. Now came the hard part for the Hawks: where to go from here. The team had a solid foundation on which to build, but after consecutive playoff sweeps it was clear they weren’t able to compete with the LeBron James iteration of the Cleveland Cavaliers. With Al Horford and Kent Bazemore’s contracts expiring and Dennis Schröder lurking in Jeff Teague’s shadow, the team had two choices as they went into the summer of 2016:
- Continue to compete in the East with your current core. This would mean re-signing Horford, who had just finished his second consecutive All-Star season. He was the best center available, and because of his veteran status in the League, the incumbent team (in this case the Hawks) could legally offer him more years than any other. The way the money worked out, it would likely mean losing Bazemore, an athletic two-way wing who had just had a breakout season starting in place of the departed Carroll and was due for a big payday himself. The Hawks, if they chose this path, would have an immediate gap to fill at small forward. They could do it through the draft or through free agency. There weren’t a ton of sexy names out there, but certainly some serviceable ones, and they still had Thabo Sefolosha. The Club would then have some money remaining to improve the bench, namely with another point guard and some wing help. This path made sense because the Hawks, despite dropping to the 4 seed in the East the year before, were arguably still the second best team in the conference. Their net rating was third best, and many felt they could beat Toronto in a playoff series. Had they not lost the final game of the regular season to the lottery-bound Wizards, the Hawks may very well have faced the Cavs a round later in an Eastern Conference Finals rematch. Would getting back to the conference finals have changed how they approached the 2016 offseason? We’ll never know, but one can only wonder.
- Blow it up and rebuild. This would mean letting Horford walk, not overpaying for Bazemore and likely trying to find a landing spot for Teague in exchange for some assets. This approach would mean taking a step back in the short term to focus on landing a potential franchise-changing player in upcoming drafts. Had the Hawks gone this way, they could also have opened up doors to trade the expiring contracts of Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver for additional assets either in the summer or at the 2017 deadline. This path made sense because it would create huge financial flexibility in a market where other teams were overspending, and it would allow them to take a few years to retool the roster, all while James ages in Cleveland and other teams struggle to keep their stars.
As we know, the Hawks inexcusably went down a third path, one that was doomed from the start. They actually made a good trade prior to the draft, landing a lottery pick for Teague while turning the keys over to Schröder. In my opinion, both of the above paths were still in play after that trade, though it certainly seemed like the rebuild was more realistic.
Then came the draft, and the Hawks did exactly what they needed to: improve on the wing. They drafted “3-and-D” prospects Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry, both of whom seemed poised to crack the rotation right away. It had been a good offseason.
Then came July.
The Hawks botched free agency in pretty much the worst way possible. Feeling like they needed rebounding help (and, behind closed doors, ticket sales help), they impulsively signed Dwight Howard. The contract for Howard wasn’t terrible in the sense that it wasn’t long-term, but the money handcuffed them, and even worse, they had sent a message that Horford wasn’t good enough. But what was even more embarrassing than the Howard signing was the circus that followed. The Hawks claimed they still wanted to re-sign Horford (what!?), and let me remind you that Millsap was still on the roster. Horford, feeling slighted that the now capped-out Hawks weren’t going to give him the max deal he was looking for, rightfully chose to sign with the Celtics.
To recap: The Hawks decided to upgrade their rebounding by downgrading in every other way, and they did it by giving a middle finger to a beloved franchise player and all-around good guy in favor of a demonstrative and controversial figure with a far more limited skillset. And by leaking that they still wanted Horford after re-signing Howard, they also kinda said “f-you” to Millsap, whom they presumably would have tried to trade had they nailed down the Howard/Horford pairing. Awkward.
So now what? You can’t rebuild with a $70 million center, and both Teague and Horford are gone. The reeling Hawks decided to put the best product they could on the floor given their senseless path to date. They re-upped Bazemore, signed a competent backup point guard in Malcolm Delaney and rounded out the roster with a few veterans on minimum deals. The long and short of it was, everybody with even a mild understanding of basketball knew this was a foolish journey and that the Hawks had taken a giant step toward mediocrity. To pile on, they extended Schröder with a lucrative $15 million-a-year deal in October of 2016, before he had even played a single game in his new role.
To the surprise of no one, the season played out exactly like we all thought it would. The Hawks dipped from 7th to 19th in overall net rating, got statistically worse on both sides of the ball, Howard scuffled with teammates at times, and the Club was quietly dismissed in the first round of the playoffs. Oh, and those extra tickets the Hawks were supposed to sell as a result of getting a “superstar”? Well, Atlanta dipped four spots as attendance fell by nearly 1,000 tickets per game.
Perhaps the most telling part about the Hawks’ struggles was during a front office gaffe in January. With hopes erased about seriously contending in the East, the Club traded Korver to Cleveland for a first-round pick and took back a few minimal contracts as a result. It was by all accounts a good trade for Atlanta. Korver’s value was diminishing due to the lack of talent around him, and the Hawks got a first-round pick out of the deal. All signs pointed toward the Hawks throwing in the towel and pivoting toward acquiring assets before the deadline. But then they won seven in a row, all against horrible teams, and the front office had a change of heart. They publicly said they were not going to trade Millsap, debunking the most common rumor that began to swirl after the Korver trade. Many amongst the educated portion of the fanbase say it was the worst seven-game winning streak in franchise history because it had squashed the rebuild at that point. Others point to an internal conflict between then-President Budenholzer, who was anti-rebuild and wanted to continue putting playoff products on the floor, and recently-promoted GM Wes Wilcox, who was in favor of tearing it down and starting over. Whatever argument was had behind closed doors, I don’t know the result, but it appeared as though Budenholzer had won. Millsap was never traded, and a high-ranking member of the front office went so far as to walk around the public areas of the business office declaring that Millsap would not be traded, almost as if to reassure employees that the rumors swirling in the media were false.
The Hawks have made some bad moves, sure. But not one was as unanimously boneheaded as the signing of Howard and the impending direction they tried to take as a result. Thankfully, they hired Travis Schlenk as the new President of Basketball after that season. Keeping the core was no longer an option after the disappointing 2016-17, so Schlenk was left with only one move. He cleaned house, starting with Howard. He let Millsap walk, chose not to match Hardaway Jr.’s crazy offer from the Knicks and drafted for the future. He signed a few players on bargain deals, and the rebuild was on.
Schlenk is smart. He saw the value of rebuilding in Golden State, and he’s trying to do the same thing with the Hawks. “Tanking” as some call it, is risky, but building through the draft is far safer than taking your chances in free agency. I often get asked “do you agree with tanking?” In general, no, I don’t believe it’s the right path forward, but given how badly the Hawks screwed up 2016-17, it was really the only option.
Now Hawks fans have to wait. There are going to be a number of seasons like the one we just saw in 2017-18 before the organization gets relevant on the court again. The prospect of a potential top four pick is exciting, but Schlenk still needs to nail that pick, and it would be helpful to nail the 19th pick as well. We may not know for several years whether the 2018 draft was a success or not, but early returns on his 2017 draft suggests he knows what he’s doing.
Hawks fans – your team is finally in the hands of a capable General Manager. Yes, the franchise should be one year further along in the rebuild, but alas. You finally have a reason to be excited.