The NBA finals are over, so it’s time for observers to start drawing conclusions about what kind of team it takes to win a championship. That exercise sometimes can lead to forced narratives about what’s necessary beyond the prerequisite All-NBA talent. But this year’s playoffs, which ended with the Raptors topping the Warriors on Thursday night, confirmed what’s become conventional NBA wisdom.
“What you see when you get to the later rounds of the playoffs, and even in the regular season, is ‘position-less’ basketball,” Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said Friday. “You have five guys out there that can space the floor (with shooting), handle the ball and defend multiple positions. Those are the kind of things we are looking for and will continue to look for.”
A player’s position classification hardly matters if he can dribble, pass, shoot and defend. Size still matters, though. That’s why the Hawks should be aggressive in getting a big, skilled wing player in Thursday’s NBA draft.
That’s the kind of player they need alongside promising point guard Trae Young, who is limited by his size. During his rookie season Young showed great potential as a playmaker, crafty scorer in the lane and spot-up shooter. But most of the NBA’s best players are big wings who can do all those things while handling a wide variety of defensive assignments.
Young has star potential at an important position, but he’s locked into that position in a position-less league. He needs to get a lot better at defending opposing point guards, and his relative lack of size makes it challenging for him to guard bigger opponents. A big backcourt partner can mitigate that situation, especially if they are skilled offensive players who can complement Young.
The Hawks have three first-round picks in this draft: Nos. 8, 10 and 17 overall. Schlenk said he’d like to use the team’s three second-round picks as part of a package to trade up. But the GM said he’s not focused on drafting a player for specific needs.
“We won 29 games, so we are still looking for the best player overall,” Schlenk said.
That makes sense. What the Hawks need most of all is an influx of talent. But that talent should come in the form of a dynamic wing player with good size to play with Young. Some top prospects in this draft fit that mold.
The best among them, Duke’s Zion Williamson, will be picked No. 1 by the Pelicans. Three others unlikely to be on the board if the Hawks stay at No. 8: Duke’s R.J. Barrett, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter and Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. Maybe that’s why Schlenk wants to trade up.
Then again, Schlenk said this draft “has a lot of depth to it” and that he would “like the opportunity to have three different stabs at it” in the first round. Schlenk’s track record in the draft shows he can find good players later in the first round. One way or another, it’s key for the Hawks come out of this draft with a long and skilled wing player to pair with Young.
The Hawks had a candidate for that role, Taurean Prince, but Schlenk delivered his verdict on Prince when he agreed to trade him to the Nets earlier this month. Kevin Huerter, the No. 19 overall draft pick last season, is a good shooter and playmaker, but isn’t long or explosive. Now the Hawks have two lottery picks they can use to find a complete wing.
No one knows for sure how the top wing players in this draft will turn out. But their profiles are similar to some of the NBA’s best: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. All those players received first-place votes for league MVP over the past five years, with Durant winning the award in 2014.
Three smaller players won league MVP awards during that time: James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry. Curry is an all-time great shooter. Harden is a big combo guard — his wingspan measures 6-11 — and he’s mastered the art of drawing fouls. Westbrook is an amazing athlete with a powerful build. Smaller players need special attributes to be among the NBA’s best.
(As for big men, 2011 was the last time a center received at least one first-place vote for MVP. That was Dwight Howard. A lot has changed in the NBA.)
Young’s physical limitations were part of the risk for Schlenk when he opted for Young over Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft. Doncic also has great court vision and passing ability while standing six inches taller than Young and weighing about 50 pounds more. Doncic is favored to beat out Young for the Rookie of the Year award.
Schlenk drafted Doncic No. 3 overall then sent him to the Mavericks for Young (drafted No. 5) and a protected draft pick. That pick ended up being No. 10 overall in this draft. Now Schlenk can use that pick and the others to acquire a wing prospect with size who can dribble, pass, shoot and defend. That’s what the NBA is about, and it’s what the Hawks need.