Just a few seasons ago, the Atlanta Hawks were the Spurs of the East. Mike Budenholzer was once Pop’s top assistant coach as the pair won four titles together. In his second season with the Hawks, Coach Bud engineered a situation in which a rather dreary Hawks roster won 60 games with four of five starters getting an All-Star nod. The Hawks laid out a blueprint of team success without needing one of the few superstars in the league who shift the balance of the NBA. In recent years, Atlanta was known to be a winning franchise that was desperate yet unable to land one of the icons of basketball. After a season where the Hawks actively tanked for a lottery pick, they have now pulled a complete 180 in trading down for Trae Young as they look to become the “Wannabe Warriors.”
The Hawks actually landed their first superstar since Dominque Wilkins. That came in the form of Carmelo Anthony and he was subsequently bought out after five days. The Hall-Of-Fame bound 34 year-old was coming off his worst ever season as a pro with all his offensive numbers hitting career lows. The only, and I mean the ONLY, reason he was “with the Hawks” was a means he could be released and bought out. Though for a franchise that has struggled to even get meetings with marquee free agents; maybe this was better than nothing?
The 2014-15 season is a definite outlier but back in the not so distant past, this anomaly could have become the scheme that the Hawks could use to get out of their rut in mediocrity. They were well represented in New York. Paul Milsap, Al Horford, and Jeff Teague being All-Star reserves and Kyle Korver (who admittedly looked out of place with his hustle play and resolve) looked out of play in a glorified but meaningless game. One would have hoped that this this core of 30-something year olds was at the precipice of the most fruitful period in the Hawks history since the days of Dominique Wilkins. Unsurprisingly, this was always going to be a one-off. Having several over-achieving players who were all due massive contracts was never going to happen. A new ownership group came with new management and ultimately, a new plan of action. But unlike most new owners, the group led by billionaire Tony Ressler did not succumb to their resting pulse of immediately wanting to win. They took the longest possible view and were are only now starting to see the depths of their plans. Year by year, the starters of the 14-15 team slowly departed by trade or free agency. And just this past season – in their first without any of their starters from their 60 win season – the Hawks amassed a total of 24 wins. They were the tied with the Dallas Mavericks for the third worst record in the NBA. The keys to the Hawks Franchise are now in the diminutive hands of a 19-year-old guard who is more likely to be Jonny Flynn than Stephen Curry. Luckily, their new head coach Lloyd Pierce was a survivor of the Process, and can hopefully make it through a couple of seasons of losing as Trae Young develops.
After a couple of seasons of averageness and back-to-back first round bounces, the Hawks can finally sell hope and a bright future to their fan base. Dennis Schröder immediately became an asset that needed to be traded on the night of June 21st. He was the last reminder of the previous regime. To rid of the final three years of his deal, they had to take on and waive Anthony. The Brooklyn native could not be more delighted for receiving over $25 million for being associated with them for a new days. The Hawks also acquired a 2022 first round pick from the Thunder (when the high-school players will reportedly become eligible to become pro athletes) to their grow war chest of assets. Next season will be full of tinkering and experimentation. Lloyd Pierce will continuously change his lineups and is unlikely to feature any veterans with his five-man units. The Hawks have piled up their assets as they hope to draft a new team. They are owed to a two more firsts that are likely to bear fruit in the upcoming draft along with their five future second round picks. Atlanta also has gotten their books in order. Kent Bazemore has only has two years left on his deal with 2019-20 being a player option that we will almost likely pick up (and he is very much in trade talks). Miles Plumlee is their only other player not on a rookie deal with the Hawks able to clear a ton of cap space for the summer of 2019.
There are plenty of reasons for why the Hawks have drawn comparisons to the Warriors. They used their most recent first round picks for Trae Young and Kevin Huerter – a shooting backcourt that likens to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (even though Trae Young reminds me more of Steve Nash than Curry). It will be a long rebuild for the Hawks. This will not the Process 2.0. Adam Silver and the league office will do everything in their power to ensure that Sam Hinkie’s brainchild is a one off. Tanking is not a new phenomenon in the league. The Spurs did it during the 1996-97 season in the sweepstakes for Tim Duncan. The Brooklyn Nets have opened up their books to make up for the Boston heist and Sacramento have inadvertently tanked their way to the bottom even though they have actively tried to win. The legacy of “The Process” will be its ability to exploit and push the leagues heavily flawed incentive system to its limits by trying to stack the odds in a team’s favor to obtain as many generational players as they possibly can. Trae Young may be that player but the chances are slim. They, most notably, passed up on Luka Doncic for a future first round pick from Dallas. Healthy skepticism surrounds Luka’s ability to become a MVP-Caliber player though the Hawks pick may seem antithetical to what made process of “The Process.”
The Hawks invited scrutiny on themselves ever since they decided to break up their 60 win team. Every transaction they make, every decision that their front office and ownership group make will be examined to a microscopic level. Hinkie was cold and calculating. His decisions came under fire though they were was a clear plan in place that he stuck to, no matter how toxic things got around the 76ers. And it had clearly paid off in the form of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Travis Schlenk’s decisions since taking the Hawks job are questionable at best. The Dwight Howard deal was a disaster. They had move down in the second round of the draft last year just so they could get him off the books. Miles Plumlee is owed $25 million over the next two seasons and while he can be stretched once he reaches the final year of his contract, his contract eats up their cap space that they could have used on quality veteran players. Jeremy Lin was also brought on and he is a quality role-player. That being said, he is in a contract year and he will look to prove his worth to the rest of the league. This could hinder the development of Trae Young.
It is entirely possible that the Hawks let a star slip away in pursuit of Steph Curry’s successor. This could be a decisive moment in the franchise’s history that could very well result in the firing of Schlenk and a complete obliteration of his basketball acumen. The Timberwolves twice passed up on Curry draft to subsequently draft Ricky Rubio and Johnny Flynn. The 76ers drafted Jahlil Okafor – a player who is all but out of the league – over the unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis. OKC let James Harden slip between their fingers because their owner did not want to cough up $3 million and he turned into a future MVP. This is a beauty of foresight where we can evaluate the What If’s of the world. Trade down from Doncic may seem like a blip in the radar if Trae Young is to turns into the second coming. But that is a big if.