The Hawks are on their way, but it’s a long trek

Trae Young of the Hawks drives against the Spurs.

Credit: Kevin C. Cox

Credit: Kevin C. Cox

Trae Young of the Hawks drives against the Spurs.

The Hawks figured to be terrible, albeit by design. They’re not quite terrible. A week before Christmas, they were 6-23; they’re 16-25 since. They won 24 games last season; with 16 remaining, this team has won 22. That they’ve exceeded (admittedly meager) expectations has led many if not most to pronounce them – all together now – ahead of schedule.

Trae Young has a semi-realistic shot to win rookie of the year. Fellow rookie Kevin Huerter is ensconced in the starting five. In Year 2 as pro, John Collins has gone from highlight dunker to potential staple. The Hawks have only the NBA’s fifth-worst record. (The downside of that is, duh, a lesser chance to luck into Zion Williamson.)

It has been suggested that the Hawks are so enthused by their apparent gains that they’re planning to take a summer run at big-name free agents, which would have sounded laughable three months ago. At worst, they should have two lottery picks come June. (Three if the pingpong balls fall unfavorably for Cleveland.) No longer is this a franchise to be pitied if not ignored. Things are happening here.

Back to the ahead-of-schedule thing. Speaking after practice Friday, Young said: “I don’t know if we’re ahead or behind or on pace. I know a lot of people didn’t have us winning a lot of games.”

A visitor allowed that he predicted 20. Said Young: “That’s what I mean, and that was kind of high for a lot of people. I guess from what other people thought, we’re ahead of schedule. I think we’re on the right track.”

The obvious next question: What’s a reasonable expectation for 2019-20? To nuzzle up to .500? To – pause for effect – make the playoffs?

Young: “I don’t even know if we can set a bar for ourselves next year. We’ll see what happens this summer. But I’m excited. I think we’ll have a really good chance to be in the playoffs next year because of the growth we’ve shown this year. If we make that same type of leap next year, we can go as far as we want.”

We pause again, this time for a reality check. The reason clubs swallow hard before deciding to tank is that, once you get bad on purpose, getting good again can take forever. Minnesota paired Andrew Wiggins, the overall No. 1 pick in 2014, with Karl-Anthony Towns, the No. 1 of 2015. In 2017 the Timberwolves sent lottery picks Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn to Chicago for Jimmy Butler and signed Jeff Teague, of whom you’ve heard. A team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2004 rose to 47-35 last season to claim the West’s No. 8 seed, whereupon it lost in Round 1. Progress at last! But wait! The T-Wolves have since fired coach Tom Thibodeau and traded the recalcitrant Butler; they’re 30-35 and again wondering which way is up.

Butler alit in Philadelphia, where Sam Hinkie, architect of the most audacious tanking plan ever, resigned in 2016 just as the 76ers were poised, at long last, to spike upward. He was replaced by Bryan Colangelo, who made a trade that would stunt any growth: He swapped the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft (which would become Jayson Tatum) to take Markelle Fultz No. 1. Colangelo resigned last year after his wife was found to have used Twitter accounts to spill team secrets; Fultz was dumped last month having done little except hurt his shoulder and forget how to shoot. For one shining moment, Process-driven Philly appeared bang on schedule. Today, even in an Eastern Conference minus LeBron James, it’s no longer the heir apparent.

Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce knows the Process well, having worked as a Sixers assistant. Asked about being ahead of schedule, he said: “Anytime you’ve got a rookie team, you’ve got to expect the worst and hope for the best. Who knows if Omari (Spellman) is going to play 82 games? Who knew Trae was going to play every single game? All of us who have been in this business expect the rookie wall to kick in. The durability of Trae, it’s ahead of anyone’s schedule. Kevin being in the starting lineup? In preseason I had him being a G-League guy. Ahead of schedule for me is that these guys have immersed themselves into the NBA pretty quickly.”

Then: “Is there an endgame to the schedule? Do we have a final date? No, not a chance. I expect them to have rookie mistakes next year. I just expect them to have less of them.”

Was there a timetable in Philly? Said Pierce: “Joel (Embiid) got hurt – that was our schedule. As they say, you make plans and God will laugh at you. It’s the same thing (here) – to grow this thing, you need to do it through the draft and through free agency, and you’ve got to have some luck. I use Joel as a prime example. When he got hurt, whatever schedule we may have had changed. He’s a top-five player in this league. You lose a top-five player and you’re growing, your growth just took a major hit.”

Then: “We would like to be better next year. We would like to think that Trae’s more advanced and John’s more advanced and Kevin’s more advanced and Omari’s already done his rookie stuff, but then you just don’t know. There is such a thing as a sophomore slump, and there are things that occur such as injuries.”

Then: “To put yourself in position (to move upward), the whole focus is growth and development. Some things we can’t control, but are they getting better? Trae has gotten better. Kevin has gotten better. Omari has gotten better, even though he’s not going to finish the season the way we want him, healthy all the way through. There was a stretch where he got hurt, his hip gets messed up, and we’ve got to get him back in shape. He comes out and starts against Oklahoma City game and drops four 3’s. It’s like, ‘There’s improvement.’”

Conclusion: “I’m really excited about the growth of these guys, but I understand we’ve still got to weather the ups and downs.”

Well, yes. It would be downright cruel to suggest that those who’ve stuck with the Hawks in Tank Mode shouldn’t feel buoyed by what they’re seeing. This team has made a bright start on the long road back. The weightiest words in that sentence, though, weren’t “bright start” – they were “long road.” This will still take a while.

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