With an autumn calendar featuring the Braves in the playoffs and Georgia ranked No. 3 nationally and Atlanta United readying to defend a title and the Falcons doing whatever it is the Falcons do, an NBA preseason might have gone unnoticed. The Hawks have rebuilt so fast and so well they’ve forced us to pay attention.
Theirs is the NBA’s best collection of young talent. That said, they’re so young that coach Lloyd Pierce, speaking at a Friday media convocation, differentiated before “the younger young guys” on his roster, as opposed to the older young guys. (Like Jabari Parker, the second player drafted in 2014 and a summer import. He’s 24.)
To clarify, Pierce also said: “We’re glad we have a young team. That’s not a negative.”
Nope. This was pretty much the idea. General manager Travis Schlenk was lured away from the Warriors, who won two playoff series this century before morphing into the greatest team since Russell’s Celtics. Schlenk then hired Pierce, who was an assistant coach with the Process-driven 76ers, who lost 253 games over four seasons but have won 103 the past two. With men of such backgrounds, the questions ask themselves: Can you know when a rebuilding team is about to break upward, and do these Hawks stand on the cusp of a sudden ascent?
Said Schlenk: “It’s hard to say at this point. When I was with Golden State, we felt like had a chance to be pretty good after we made that first playoff run (in 2013). Until we went through that year, I don’t think anyone was saying, ‘We have a chance to be X, Y or Z.’ You have to go through that. We had success in the playoffs that year, and we were able to go out and get a free agent in Andre Iguodala.
“I still remember when we did that sign-and-trade. I was like, ‘We’re speeding up our timeline here.’ We could continue to go with these young guys, but we have a veteran who wants to come play with our young guys. We felt like we had a chance, just by that acquisition, to become a really good team. “
As for his Hawks: “I would say we’re not going to really know until we see this young group play together. I don’t think you can sit here and say today, unless you’re (among) a handful of teams in the league, that we have a chance to be special.”
Said Pierce: “The bottom line is what I went through in Philly (where Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons missed what should have been their rookie seasons): Health is important. John Collins missed 15 to 20 games to start last year. Dewayne Dedmon missed 15 to 20 games to start last year. Taurean Prince (since traded) missed a bunch of games in December and January. It’s no excuse, but it’s hard when you’re putting a team together, especially a young team, if you can’t see them all out there together. It’s really hard to see what to expect moving forward, when you might have that breakthrough moment. Part of the reason why we’re being cautious and will remain cautious with every guy (is) we’re in no rush to advance anyone. We don’t want to skip steps.”
Back to Iguodala, who’s 35 and who was traded to Memphis and is presumably available in trade: How does a growing team know when to add a high-profile veteran to its mix?
Schlenk: “One, you have to be in a position to do that. Organizationally, we are in a position when feel like it’s the right time. We’ve got clean books moving forward. That’s a good spot to be in. We weren’t in that spot with Golden State. We had to give up two unprotected first-round picks to move the $30 million we needed to do that deal. Obviously, it paid off, but we could have looked pretty dumb had it not worked. As far as how you know, it’s funny. Before at Golden State when I was still on the coaching side, we had the ‘We Believe Warriors’ (the 2007 lightining-in-a-bottle team led by Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson that upset top-seeded Dallas in Round 1), and that team just clicked. Sometimes you can’t explain how you made that – chemistry, that vibe – and you can’t explain how you lose it, either.”
Then: “It’s not an easy thing from a roster-construction standpoint. For me, it’s going to be watching. We now have a group of five or six young guys that we’ve drafted or brought in. How they gel together and how they grow, and what that vibe is, what that chemistry is – and once they get to that point, that’s when you look to bring in that guy, whoever it is. But I think it’s real important to remember that we have five guys we just drafted, John being the oldest. He’s 22. We mentioned Jabari, who’s 24. We’re a really young group still.”
Yes indeed. That said, the NBA is in flux. LeBron James no longer works in the Eastern Conference. The Warriors aren’t a lock to make the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are Clippers. Russell Westbrook is James Harden’s backcourt partner. Brooklyn has Kevin Durant, though he won’t play this season. Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philly with Embiid/Simmons figure to be the class of the East, but there’s room to move here. Could the Hawks’ timetable be accelerated by current events?
Schlenk: “It certainly can. We always keep an eye on what’s going on around the league. But I think for us, not to sound like a broken record, we need to see what this little young core can do together. Do they fit together? Certainly the thought is that they’re going to fit together nicely.”
They might. A team with Collins, Parker, Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish has upside aplenty. The Hawks won’t top many watch lists this fall, but come the winter they’ll be the hottest game in town. How long has it been since we’ve been able to say that? Only 30 years.
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