By Keller Austin
The Atlanta Hawks were a bad basketball team in the 2017-18 season. Their 24-58 record and last-place record in the Eastern Conference proves as much. But the Hawks were designed to be a bad team last year. New general manager Travis Schlenk broke the team down by trading Dwight Howard to Charlotte, letting Paul Millsap sign with Denver as an unrestricted free agent, and declining to match Tim Hardaway Jr.’s contract from the New York Knicks. With the veterans departing Atlanta, second-year wing Taurean Prince and rookie power forward John Collins played in 82 and 74 games respectively, the most of any Hawks players.
Now the Hawks welcome in three more rookies in point guard Trae Young, wing player Kevin Huerter, and stretch four Omari Spellman. Not to mention, the Hawks welcome rookie head coach Lloyd Pierce as well after his most recent stint as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers. All three of the new players have one quality that Travis Schlenk looked for during his time as assistant GM in Golden State and has brought with him to Atlanta: shooting. In his freshman year at Oklahoma, Young led the NCAA with 27.4 points per game and 8.7 assists per game while knocking down 36 percent of his three-point attempts. Huerter, a sophomore at Maryland, averaged 14.7 points per game and 41.7 percent of his long-range shots. Meanwhile, Spellman helped Villanova to its second NCAA title in three years while averaging 10.8 points and 8 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent on three-pointers. Schlenk’s philosophy proved itself in the 2018 NBA Draft, so much so that some are comparing Young, Huerter, and Spellman to the homegrown trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green of the Warriors. And the similarities are certainly warranted, but with caution. All three of the Hawks’ first-rounders are still under 21 years old while Curry, Thompson, and Green have 22 years of collective NBA experience.
For Schlenk, the NBA Draft was just the first step in bringing the Hawks back to the playoffs and contend for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The next phase of the rebuild will come in free agency which began on July 1st. Big name, and big contract, free agents are not coming to Atlanta this year, but the new front office can still find solid players on relatively team-friendly contracts. The Hawks reportedly have interest in making an offer for Chicago Bulls’ guard Zach LaVine who is a restricted free agent. LaVine is coming off a year in which he only played 24 games due to an ACL tear in the 2016-17 season that kept him sidelined for the better part of this season, but he is a young talent with shooting upside and a great deal of explosiveness that Chicago might think twice about matching an offer sheet. Pairing LaVine in the backcourt with Young, sticking Huerter or Prince on the wing, playing Spellman as a stretch four, and allowing Collins to work around the rim as a bouncy but slightly undersized five would give the Hawks a young, athletic core with plenty of shooting ability to build around.
While young players with potential, like LaVine, should be the focus of free agency for the Hawks, the team still has decisions to make regarding veterans Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and Dewayne Dedmon. Moving these veterans would give the young core more playing time but could drop the Hawks below the salary floor. Atlanta already has $20 million worth of cap room at the start of free agency and can barter that cap space for future draft assets a team is willing to give up to rid themselves of a contract. The Hawks could absorb a contract like that of Luol Deng to pick up two first-round picks from the Lakers, allowing Los Angeles to offer another large contract, and potentially a max-deal if they relinquish some of their cap holds, to a free agent wanting to join LeBron James. Signing a young and promising player or taking on a salary dump and gaining future assets are both effective ways of using the cap space available to the Hawks, but ultimately, this offseason needs to consist of moves planning for success three or four years in the future. The Hawks will more than likely miss the playoffs again this year and add another lottery pick to the young core. Then after the 2020-21 season, Bazemore, Schröder, and Plumlee’s contracts will all be off the books and the Hawks can afford to sign a big name free agent. But the key to success this offseason will be adding new future assets, managing the cap well, and getting a decent return on any potential trades of veterans. The core of this team’s future is now here, now Schlenk, Pierce, and the rest of the Hawks decision makers need to surround the talented youth with more promising young players and allow them to just play basketball.