June 2, 2017 Atlanta - New Hawks GM Travis Schlenk speaks during the press conference to officially introduce new general manager Travis Schlenk at Philips Arena on Friday, June 2, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

With worst of rebuild over, Hawks should aim for more wins next season

It looks like last season was as bad as it will get for the Hawks. Their rebuilding process won’t be like Philadelphia’s infamous Process. The Sixers purged veterans for draft picks in summer 2013 and in subsequent seasons won 19, 18 and 10 games while losing a record-tying 26 consecutive games during one of them. 

The Hawks weren’t nearly that bad in 2017-18, Year 1 of their rebuild. They are better this season. John Collins, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter are the nucleus for some better Hawks teams to come. The Hawks (29-50 entering the weekend) are climbing out the other side of the rebuild valley. 

That’s why general manager Travis Schlenk should focus less on hoarding draft picks this summer and more on keeping that momentum going. I’m not saying he should try to build a surefire playoff team of veterans. I just think the Hawks should try to win more games. 

It would be fine if the Hawks pull back on adding picks in future drafts. They already are owed a top-10 protected pick from Cleveland that won’t convey this year, but might in 2020. It wouldn’t even be so bad if the Hawks don’t get the protected lottery pick they are owed by the Mavericks in this summer’s draft. 

The early parts of that plan already are in motion. Schlenk said one reason he didn’t make any players-for-picks deals at the trade deadline was because he doesn’t want the Hawks to be too young in 2019-20. The Hawks are competitive now and playing too many rookies could change that.

The Hawks already are assured one top-10 pick in this summer’s draft by virtue of their record (or, depending on your perspective, by dishonor of it). They also own three second-round picks. Pending results over the season’s final days, the Hawks should have a roughly 65 percent chance of receiving a top-10 pick from the Mavericks (it’s protected for the top five). 

That’s potentially as many as five rookies added to a 2019-20 Hawks team that projects to have three second-year players in rotation. It more likely will be two rookies — the Hawks could unload the second-round picks, especially if they get the Dallas pick — but that still would be an awfully young team. It’s a recipe for being among the very worst teams in the league. 

That would be a step back from this season. The Hawks can’t risk that when they are on the come. They’ve got a path forward that doesn’t require more tanking because they have good young players, and first-year head coach Lloyd Pierce knows how to help them get better.

This season there’s a significant gap between the Hawks and the bottom four teams in the standings. They’ve rarely been an easy out, as some superior opponents discovered too late. The Hawks have earned 11 victories against teams aimed for the playoffs and entered this weekend with an 18-24 record since New Year’s Day. 

The Hawks finished 24-58 last season with one rookie and one second-year player among their top eight players. This season the Hawks can win 30-plus games with two rookies and one second-year player in the rotation. The Hawks found the sweet spot between being good enough to inspire hope for the future, but bad enough that they aren’t jeopardizing a high lottery pick now. 

Their player development and chemistry probably wouldn’t be so positive if they didn’t have enough wins to prove that things are getting better. I think another step forward in the standings is a good goal for the Hawks next season. Something in the range of 35-40 victories likely would keep them in the 2020 draft lottery. 

If that happens, the 2020 pick isn’t likely to be as high as this year, but Schlenk showed with Collins and Huerter that he can find good prospects later in the draft. It’s not as easy to do, but I think it’s worth it for the Hawks to slide down the lottery standings a bit to keep moving up the NBA standings. At some point you need to try to win more games. 

The Hawks are projected to have among the most salary-cap space in the league this summer. Schlenk says he won’t take on money unless he gets a “great asset,” which means a lottery pick or promising young player (or both). Schlenk likely will take a course similar to last summer, when he signed or traded for solid veterans on short-term deals to bolster his young squad. 

Making those kind of moves while not adding so many rookies is a way to prevent the Hawks from becoming the Process Sixers. Some of Philadelphia’s futility was related to injuries delaying the debuts of lottery picks Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. But even that could be viewed as part of a cynical plan because Noel and Embiid suffered serious injuries before the draft. 

There was a cloud of misery around the Process that eventually cost Sixers GM Sam Hinkie his job. The Sixers are a playoff team now, but they paid a very big cost to get there, and they still aren’t a true championship contender. it feels right that the Hawks won three of four games against the Sixers this season. 

The Hawks didn’t have to sink as low as the Sixers before beginning their climb back. They are past the worst of the rebuild. Now it’s time for them to try to win more games in 2019-20.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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