The Hawks’ draft appears to have inspired a feeling rarely – heck, almost never – inspired by a Hawks’ draft. The constituency seems almost giddy at the notion of De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in … well, whatever colors the team decides suits the latest season. (Me, I’m still wondering whence the lime green came.)
And me being loath to rain on anyone’s parade – that’s a joke; I’ve spent 35 years raining on Hawks’ parades, not there have been many – but there’s reason for tempered enthusiasm. There’s a chance this team could make the playoffs next season. There’s a chance it could win the Southeast Division. I have (almost) no quibbles with any part of this rebuild. The Hawks are on the ascent, which beats the heck out of the alternative.
But here, as faithful readers will have noted, we stress the word “tempered.” As entertaining as much of last season was, the Hawks won 29 games. Which was OK. They weren’t really trying. They finished last – by 13 games – in a division that saw only one team break .500, and then only just. Had the Hawks won 39 games, they’d still have missed the playoffs.
In no other division would the Hawks have a chance to go worst-to-first, but the Southeast is rife with mediocrity. Miami is moving on from Dwyane Wade. Charlotte might be moving on from Kemba Walker, and not by choice. Washington could claim the Knicks’ spot as the NBA’s worst team. Orlando, the reigning division champ after going 42-40, has a solid base, but Nicola Vucevic could leave and, unless Markelle Fultz gets healthy and learns to shoot, there’s no breakout talent.
Two years and one month after Travis Schlenk arrived from Golden State, the woebegone Hawks have become the most talented team in their division. They wouldn’t be the most talented team in any other division, but in basketball as in golf, you play it as it lies. Call the roll: Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Omari Spellman if he stays in shape, and now Hunter and Reddish. Those are talented young guys. (Reddish might be, after Young, the Hawks’ most gifted player.) And now for the tempering.
In the NBA, even the best young teams need a while before they do serious damage. The only recent exception is Oklahoma City, which reached the 2012 finals with three guys 23 or under. Those three were Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, each of whom has since won MVP. When the Warriors played Game 1 of the 2015 finals, Stephen Curry was 27 and in his sixth pro season; Klay Thompson was 25 and in his fourth; Draymond Green was 25 and in his third; Harrison Barnes was 23 and in his third. Andre Iguodala, an 11-year NBAer, was MVP of those finals.
The draft is followed by free agency, which almost always is the bigger deal. (This draft was a big deal only because it had Zion.) Of the major free agents – Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, Thompson, Vucevic, Walker – all but the latter graced playoff teams. It would take a mighty leap of faith for any of the above to see himself as the missing piece in a Hawks’ championship run.
A year from now, things could and maybe should be different. Let’s say the Hawks go 41-41, win the tepid Southeast and slip into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed. Let’s say that take a game or two from the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1 and make Mike Budenholzer sweat bullets. Let’s say they prove to the rest of the NBA that they’re more than just a Trae-shooting-treys/Collins-dunking-lobs highlight reel. Let’s say they advance to the point where everyone says, “These guys can play a little.”
The Hawks could have $67 million coming off the payroll after next season. They’d have a nice young team with a smart young coach and a refurbished arena and, according to Tony Ressler, the greatest practice facility in the history of sport. They’re based in the city of Atlanta, where seemingly half the NBA spends the summer. A year from now, the Hawks could be a major player in free agency. They don’t need to be just yet.
To borrow a tag from the NBA’s most famed rebuilder, they need to trust their process. They’ve drafted well. They should take a year to see what those draftees can do. They don’t need to reinsert Horford into this mix. He might be worth $35 million to a team on the brink. He’s not worth much of anything to a one that hasn’t reached the brink of the brink.
This isn’t to categorize next season as an empty exercise. On the contrary, it’s a proving ground. If these young guys are as good as advertised, they should be getting better year over year. There’s a chance Kawhi could again be available come July 2020. (Speculation holds that he might take a one-year deal to stay in Toronto before leaving.) Anthony Davis is set to be a free agent, and if things don’t go well with the Lakers – it has been a while since anything has – he could be looking for a soft landing.
Any team seeking to attract an upper-crust free agent must have a buzz around it. As it stands, the Hawks are a couple of notches north of a murmur. A playoff appearance, even if brief, could change the landscape. This team has a ways to go; the season ahead could speed the plow.