Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined the Clippers over the weekend and sportsbooks instantly made the team the favorite to win the 2020 NBA championship . The Lakers had been the favorites after Anthony Davis engineered a trade to play alongside LeBron James. The Brooklyn Nets aren’t among the top five in championship odds only because it will be a while before Kevin Durant (formerly of the Golden State Warriors) recovers from his Achilles injury and plays with Kyrie Irving (formerly of the Boston Celtics).
The NBA’s crazy summer of free agency and big trades saw several top players change teams. It confirmed that nothing has changed about their priorities. The NBA’s salary system makes it so the money is similar for superstars wherever they play, so they (rightly) flex their power to play wherever they want.
That usually means they end up with the best franchises in the biggest media markets with a real chance to win a championship. They’ll settle for two out of three. That’s how the Clippers and Nets ended up with MVP-caliber players despite being the lesser franchises in their respective cities.
That calculation leaves out the Hawks. It is a flavorless franchise in a big-ish market that’s made it as far as the conference finals just once since moving to Atlanta in 1968. That’s one big reason why the Hawks are using the draft to grow their own superstars. Maybe one (or two) emerges from the group of Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish.
If any of those players become superstars, the next step for the Hawks would be convincing them to stick around. Players drafted in the first round can become unrestricted free agents after six seasons and it can be hard for non-marquee franchises to retain the best ones. That’s still more feasible for the Hawks than trying to attract superstars here in the first place.
It’s almost always been true that elite players are necessary to win championships. There have been 70 NBA champions since 1950 and 67 had at least one player voted to one of the two All-NBA teams for the season they won the title (a third All-NBA team was added in 1988). Only 13 of the 70 NBA finals runner-up teams didn’t have a top 10 player.
The league has expanded from 10 teams to 30 but it hasn’t changed the reality that a handful of players decide which of those teams will compete for championships. The Hawks haven’t had an All-NBA player since Al Horford was voted to the third team in 2010. He was part of the “core” of two different Hawks groups with lots of good players who never sniffed the NBA finals.
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk is rebuilding the Hawks by trying to identify the draft prospects who will become great players. Trades are another way to acquire superstars, which is why the oft-mentioned salary-cap “flexibility” is important. But getting them as more than short-terms rentals brings us back to the advantage of being a winning franchise and/or in a big market.
The Raptors found this out. They traded for Leonard last summer and now watch him head to Los Angeles. Any team would swap DeMar DeRozan and a draft pick for a real chance to win a title, which Leonard delivered (with help from Danny Green, who also was part of that trade). The Raptors obviously are a well-run franchise but Leonard had been eyeing a return to Southern California, so geography might be the one big advantage for the Clippers.
Leonard also wanted to play with another superstar. He could have joined James and Davis with the Lakers. Instead he persuaded George, a fellow Californian, to angle for a trade to the Clippers. The best NBA players are so valuable they can make these things happen.
George had left Indiana to sign with Oklahoma City in 2017, when he was a very good player. He emerged as a superstar this season and now off he goes to Los Angeles. The Tunder have drafted well for years but traded away future league MVP James Harden to save cash and then saw Durant, who won an MVP with them, leave via free agency. Now OKC is left with Russell Westbrook, who may be the one MVP that can’t take a team to a title.
Durant and Irving picked the Nets. They’ve been competent with GM Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, one of Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks assistants. Meanwhile, the Knicks can’t attract any superstars because, according to reporting by the New York Times, “players would rather not deal with an organization seen as dysfunctional.”
The Hawks once were that kind of organization but have started to rehabilitate their image with Schlenk and franchise owner Tony Ressler. Atlanta isn’t New York or Los Angeles but has cachet as an epicenter for hip-hop, which is central to the NBA’s soundtrack and culture. I’m too old to know for sure what’s cool anymore, but it seems to me that Young’s entertaining playing style has made the Hawks fashionable with the youngins who are a large portion of the league’s fans and the next generation of star players.
One day the Hawks may become the kind of franchise that superstar players choose to join. If so, they’ll finally be a major player in the NBA’s summer madness. In the meantime, the Hawks are trying to grow their own franchise players.
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