Oxymoron alert: The Hawks just completed the perfect bad season, which isn’t the same as being perfectly bad. They were much better than expected, though not so much better they compromised their lottery odds. They deployed young players who got better as they went, and their first-year coach proved a keeper. And, not incidentally, they were the most entertaining Hawks since the Nique/Doc/Spud crew of the late 1980s.
Even their final game was, in its way, ideal. The Hawks scored 134 points. John Collins took 25 rebounds. Trae Young did the by-now-expected Trae Young Things. And yet they lost to the playoff-bound Pacers, who used nobody of whom you’ve heard, on three free throws with 0.3 seconds remaining. Those free throws left the Hawks at 29-53, which sounds somewhat worse than 30-52, and it also served as a convenient reminder: For all the deft work done over the past year, the team itself is not yet good.
It’s getting there, though. When – and it seems more now a “when” than an “if” – the remade Hawks do become a winner, at least four members of this roster should have a hand in it. Taurean Prince was left over from the previous regime. Collins was Travis Schlenk’s first draftee. Young and Kevin Huerter were first-rounders in June. No, four men don’t constitute a team, but four men can serve as a foundation. There’s your key takeaway from 2018-19: Two years into the Schlenk rebuild, he has his foundation.
Of this Foundational Four, Young is first among not-quite-equals. He represented the big risk – Luka Doncic, whom Schlenk could have had, will surely be rookie of the year – but Young will finish no worse than second, and it remains unclear who will become the better player. Also unclear is whether the Hawks will be able to spend the Round 1 pick they got from Dallas in the deal, that pick being top-five protected, but odds favor them.
Say the Hawks land – just picking a name – Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech with the Dallas pick to go with their own selection – just picking another – of DeAndre Hunter of Virginia. That would make a perimeter platoon of Young/Huerter/Prince/Culver/Hunter. Or swap Culver or Hunter for Coby White, the jet from North Carolina. That’d be something, would it not?
Enough with lottery talk. (We’ve got the next month for that.) The Hawks met the media Wednesday morning, and the mood wasn’t of a team that had slogged through a soul-crushing season. These were players who’d glimpsed what, someday soon, could be.
Said Collins: “I see a lot of light. I can’t give you a direct line as to when it’s going to culminate, but I feel like we’re way ahead of schedule … Trae’s pushing for rookie of the year – should definitely win that award – (and) myself playing the way I’m playing, I feel like we’ve definitely thrust our names into the elite status of young guys in the NBA.”
Said Vince Carter, the 42-year-old who mightn’t be back next season: “I think (the younger Hawks) see our potential – how well we played and how we can compete with some of the best teams in the playoffs this year. We know we can compete. It’s up to these guys to have a big summer and focus in on it … Next year we hit the ground running because a lot of the things you have to go through as a young team, (we) don’t really have to start from the beginning anymore.”
No. This was the official start of the restart. Mike Budenholzer, demoted from team presidency and reluctant to rebuild, is coaching the Bucks, who just finished with the NBA’s best record. Lloyd Pierce, the career assistant imported from the famously rebuilt 76ers, took his new team and went 3-1 against his old team. The Hawks under Pierce never looked jaded, not even when they started 6-23. (They were 23-30 thereafter, that with losing their final three games.)
They were enough good moments – Young/Collins highlight moments – to keep both the “SportsCenter” viewer and the casual Atlanta sports fans interested in a franchise that had become uninteresting. Put it this way: The Hawks have recently known playoff seasons much less intriguing than the one that ended with Loss No. 53.
We pause for a reality check: The Hawks scored big – 12th among the NBA’s 30 teams – but were terrible at the other end. (Pierce conceded he hasn’t fully installed his preferred defense because his players “weren’t ready.”) Their opponents averaged an NBA-high 119.4 points, 2.5 more a game than against the league’s second-worst defensive club. This was to be expected. Schlenk put a premium on shooters in the last draft. That made sense. You can teach guys to guard; you can’t always teach them to score.
Said Pierce: “We wanted to create an identity – new staff, new ownership, new GM, new arena, all coming together in this year. We felt this was the right time to really start this transition, start this growth, start this rebuild or whatever you want to call it. It all came together, and we were able to create an identity in that year. People know what to expect out of Atlanta when you watch us play, with the excitement of our team and the growth of our team. We’re all looking at each guy and saying, ‘They’re getting better, and they’re going to continue to get better.’ ”
On their record, this was the NBA’s 26th-best team. That said, there aren’t a dozen clubs that will enter the offseason feeling better about itself than this. There’s still a ways to go, but the distance doesn’t seem nearly as long as it did a year ago.
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