For their part, fans who might have treated any Hawks victory as a Pyrrhic one can relax. At this moment, this team is pretty much locked in with the NBA’s fifth-worst record. Fourth worst is Chicago, with five fewer wins than the Hawks. Just not enough time to lose enough to move up that rickety ladder.
Below them in the upside-down standings for draft primacy is Dallas, 3-1/2 games better than the Hawks with eight to play. Here, we’ll admit there is some importance to winning less, certainly less than the Mavs. The Hawks own Dallas’ first-round pick if it is not fifth overall or better (a result of the Trae Young-Luka Doncic swap). Anything reducing Dallas’ chance of getting a top-five pick helps the Hawks, who with a little luck can get two high picks in the coming draft.
I know, this place where the Hawks find themselves now is a disorienting one. Is winning good? Is it bad? Does that change depending on what Dallas does? At this stage, I’m just willing to take the chance that the Hawks aren’t good enough to close that 3 1/2-game gap on the Mavs, and leave it at that. Don’t despair should the Hawks win a few more in the next 15 days (can’t believe I just wrote that sentence).
The NBA has tried to build in some anti-tank safeguards, lowering the incentives to lose and thereby get a shot at the first available Dukie. This year the three worst teams have a 14 percent chance of landing the top pick in the lottery, the chances gradually declining from there. At No. 5, the Hawks would have a 10.5 percent chance.
“You’re talking about a 3.5 percent difference between the worst record and the fifth-worst,” Schlenk said. “It’s completely worth it to win an extra five or six games, to give these guys an opportunity to go out there and have success as opposed to having 15 wins now. It means so much more for our organization and our young guys.”
Who would have thought any franchise, the Hawks, particularly, would ever need to defend the idea of winning?
As face-of-the-future Young put it, “We want to finish out the season strong so we can head into next year with some momentum about us and some swagger about us. And make a big jump next year.”
Having the fifth-worst record in the NBA is hardly a boast worthy of a billboard. You see no states bragging about having the fifth-worst literacy rate or any restaurant advertising its fifth-worst health department grade. But that is almost encouraging in the context of a team of which, according to Vegas odds and just barbershop talk, so little was expected.
So, there’s another softball to be lofted the GM’s way: Can you define this season as a success?
“We have 26 wins, so it’s hard to say it’s a success,” Schlenk said. “But we’ve seen the growth of our young guys and I think not only the people in Atlanta but those on a national level are excited about where we are going, excited about our young group. I think people see the vision now.”
And that has been more than worth a 3.5 percent less chance in the Duke sweepstakes.