Before the Hawks left for their Super Bowl trip, I noted that they have something good with their young nucleus. Then they won four of seven games on that journey and the trio of John Collins, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter continued to tear it up. The Hawks came home and lost to Toronto Thursday night, but they are 12-13 since Dec. 18.
The Hawks are in a good place with their plans. They aren’t so bad as to create a toxic culture of losing for their young players, nor so good as to jeopardize their place in the draft lottery. The Hawks are a competitive team with good young talent, palpably good chemistry and a bunch of draft picks in the queue.
That’s why I think it’s fine that they essentially stood pat at Thursday’s trade deadline. Ideally, general manager Travis Schlenk would have swapped one of his veterans with expiring contracts for draft picks without adding future money. Schlenk said the Hawks couldn’t find a deal like that, so they essentially stood pat.
“Couple that with the fact we are very pleased with the direction of the team over the last 24 games, the way the group has come together, the vibe we have in the locker room,” Schlenk said. “That’s special. It’s hard to get in professional sports, especially when you go through a rocky path and get that positive momentum.”
The Hawks have just enough of that. They entered the weekend with the fifth-worst record in the NBA. The Hawks have settled into a tier of their own: better than the bottom four of New York, Cleveland, Phoenix, and Chicago but significantly worse than Memphis, which began the weekend with the NBA’s sixth-worst record (three games ahead of the Hawks).
I don’t think that pecking order will change after the trades made at the deadline.
Memphis sent away Marc Gasol but added Jonas Valanciunas and kept Mike Conley, so the Grizzlies are probably only a little worse off. After the trade FiveThirtyEight.com projected Memphis to finish 35-47, eight games better than the Hawks.
The Wizards were four games better than the Hawks before the weekend. They dumped salary by trading away Otto Porter and Markieff Morris, but added a solid rotation player (Bobby Portis) and still have All-Star Bradley Beal. FiveThirtyEight predicts a 34-48 record for the Wizards.
It’s notable that Schlenk came up empty at each of the two trade deadlines as Hawks GM despite having valuable players with expiring contracts. Last year Schlenk couldn’t get anything for Ersan Ilyasova or Marco Belinelli. This year he couldn’t find a deal for Dewayne Dedmon or Jeremy Lin.
The Hawks bought out the contracts of Ilyasova and Belinelli after last year’s trade deadline. Schlenk said he won’t approach any of his current veterans about doing the same, but he’d listen if they want to leave the Hawks and join a playoff-bound team.
So, for now, the Hawks will roll with what they have. They will focus on developing Collins, Young and Huerter. All three players have been key to the Hawks’ respectable play since their 6-23 start, and you can tell they enjoy playing with one another.
Collins is dang near an All-Star caliber player in just his second season. Young is a great pick-and-roll playmaker and is figuring out how to score more efficiently. After Thursday’s game, Huerter ranked 19th in 3-point percentage (39.1) among players with 200 or more attempts, per Basketball Reference.
Obviously, the draft lottery is an important consideration for the Hawks during their rebuild. But I think there’s also value in that trio playing competitive games, getting rewarded with a few victories and creating a synergy.
Trades could have messed with that process.
“It becomes real difficult to tinker with,” Schlenk said. “Sometimes you don’t know how you get it and when you lose it, you’re not sure how to get it back. For the growth of our young group I think it’s important to be very careful with that.”
Schlenk will have one eye on his team and another on the bottom of the NBA standings. The Hawks own a 2019 top-five protected draft pick from the Mavericks and a 2019 top-10 protected pick from the Cavaliers.
The Dallas pick should convey. The Mavericks entered the weekend with the league’s 12th-worst record and that’s about where FiveThirtyEight.com projects them to finish. In that case they would have a tiny chance of winning a pick higher than 10th.
The Hawks are unlikely to get the Cleveland pick this year because the Cavs are awful. If the Hawks don’t get it in this draft it will be top-10 protected again in 2020.
Schlenk said he wasn’t interested in acquiring more picks for the 2019 draft. The Hawks already could have as many as five rookies next season along with at least three second-year players. The Hawks are young by design, but getting too young could set them back.
The wrong trade at this deadline could have done the same. From that perspective, I get why Schlenk stood pat.