Hawks’ Schlenk on offseason moves, aiming for homecourt advantage in playoffs

070121 Milwaukee: Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young is still able to smile sharing a laugh with general manager and president Travis Schlenk while testing out the bone bruise in his right ankle two hours before tip off against the Milwaukee Bucks in game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Milwaukee.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
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070121 Milwaukee: Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young is still able to smile sharing a laugh with general manager and president Travis Schlenk while testing out the bone bruise in his right ankle two hours before tip off against the Milwaukee Bucks in game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Milwaukee. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

LAS VEGAS -- It’s not realistic to say the Hawks will make the Eastern Conference finals year after year, general manager Travis Schlenk thinks.

It’s hard to get there, and you’ve got to catch some breaks.

Instead, maintaining that competitiveness they found on last season’s stellar run, when the Hawks went from a 14-20 start to winning two playoff series, should be the goal. That, and potentially nabbing homecourt advantage this time (the Hawks were bumped down to the No. 5 seed after losing the tiebreaker to the Knicks).

“Certainly I think the goal for us is to continue to be competitive and to battle for playoff seeding deep into the season, and once we get into the playoffs, hopefully we can make noise every year,” Schlenk said Tuesday at Summer League. “That’s kind of how I see it. I think going into next year, shooting for homecourt advantage is something I think we should certainly be shooting for. It doesn’t mean we’ll get there, but I think it’s something that should be an attainable goal when you look at last year, we finished tied for the fourth seed.”

Ahead of training camp in late September, Schlenk addressed the Hawks’ offseason, moves in free agency and his thoughts on how the Hawks can build on last year’s success under Nate McMillan.

Some highlights: The Hawks hope to get an extension done with wing Kevin Huerter, and those talks should pick up next week.

Also, on the injury front, De’Andre Hunter has progressed to on-court spot-shooting and is doing great in his recover, on track to be good to go at the start of training camp. Rookie Onyeka Okongwu is rehabbing in Atlanta and is coming along fine, per Schlenk.

Some more of Schlenk’s thoughts on roster-building, rookies Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper and whether the Hawks will make any more moves in free agency:

On what he felt was the No. 1 priority this offseason, and if the Hawks achieved that:

“So we went into it obviously knowing we had (Hawks rookie Onyeka Okongwu’s) injury; we had two things we really needed to fulfill. We had a backup point guard, which has kind of been a revolving door for us, and then backup center. We went into it knowing that with Kris Dunn and Bruno (Fernando), two guys who weren’t in the rotation, if we could move those two guys and fill one of those spots, and then go out and sign one guy, that was kind of our goal. And we were able to do that obviously with Tristan (Thompson) but then flip Tristan into Delon (Wright) and then go sign Gorgui (Dieng). The center market was one of the deepest markets in free agency this year, so when we had the chance to get Delon and not get into some of those bidding wars with some of the backup point guards, which I’m sure you saw, they did really well for themselves compared to the backup centers. So we felt from a financial standpoint, besides, we like those players, it worked out well for us, that trade and being able to get Delon.”

On any more needs he wants to address in free agency:

“We’re going to hold at 14 spots for a while just because we are so close to the (luxury tax), I think we’re $1.8M underneath the tax. We are a little light at the big spot obviously with (Okongwu) being out, so maybe we’ll look to address that on a non-guaranteed deal kind of like we did with Solomon (Hill) last year for that last spot, where it gives us some flexibility going into the trade deadline. But we’re in no rush to make that decision.”

On his thoughts on Johnson and Cooper so far:

“What Jalen showed us in the first game is he just has a natural knack for the game, some of the cuts he made off the ball, to the basket, being able to put the ball on the floor, get to the basket, finish. But also the ability to pass the ball. He’s got really good ball skills for a player his size. And then obviously defensively, he’ll go rebound and you saw a couple shot blocks. So versatility on the offensive, being able to play inside, outside, and on the defensive end. (Sharife) obviously showed his playmaking ability as well, with his creativity passing the basketball, which we knew coming into it. I think what he’s going to have to learn is to not hold the ball so long and to make quicker decisions. He’s used to being able to run the clock down and being able to make a play at the shot clock, but that’s going to be harder, an adjustment for him up here. I think being able to make quicker decisions, that’s going to be important for him, and obviously working on his perimeter shot. That’s a big part of, if you’re going to be a small guard in the NBA, you’ve got to be able to score.”

On how much he anticipates Johnson and Cooper playing with the Hawks this season:

“I’ve said the night of the draft and a couple times since then, because of the depth of our roster and how we’ve transitioned from a development team to a competitive team, those guys are going to have to earn every minute they get. So I would anticipate both of them having the opportunity to go to College Park (in the G League) and play. But if they come into camp and earn their minutes, they’ll have the ability to play (with the Hawks) as well.”

On what he thinks Delon Wright adds to the roster:

“Just his versatility. Again, good size at 6-foot-5 as a guard, can play the point guard, can play off the ball, good spot-up shooter, good defensive player. Very good person. I’ve met him, a long time in Golden State we signed his brother, so I’ve known him for a long time. Not well, obviously, but I’ve met him and I know the family so just knowing it’s a really solid family, he’s a really solid person, and then the versatility he can bring to the court.”

On the next step in John Collins’ evolution as a player:

“You guys know John’s personality, he’s kind of the bubbly personality on our team, keeps everybody loose, keeps the energy going. Obviously he’ll continue that. He’s one of our best spokesmen, he’s good at talking with media, but on the court, you’ve seen his versatility. Coming into the league not known as a shooter, turning into almost a 40% (3-point shooter) the last couple years, obviously one of the best finishers in the league, and just keep giving that effort and commitment defensively that he showed this year. John, and not just John but a lot of guys, gave up personal stats for the team to be successful this year. So that sort of mentality, that unselfishness, is contagious, and that’s what we hope continues with the whole group.”

On his thoughts on potentially acquiring a star through a trade:

“I still think when you look at the depth of our roster and the young talent that we have, we don’t have draft assets like we have in the past anymore, but we now have guys under contract that you could match some of the bigger salaries. There wasn’t really those big guys, all those rumors (that) guys were going to ask for trades, and it didn’t really come to fruition. So you never really know, and in today’s NBA, those guys can kind of pick where they’re going to go, too. It’s not like the good old days where you make the best offer and you get the guy. But I think last year kind of put us back on the NBA map as far as a destination. Those who want to get traded, they want to go somewhere they think they can win. And I think now that perception of us is out there because we do have a young core that did show success in the playoffs. So the hope would be when a star player does ask to be traded, we’ll be one of the destinations he’ll be open to coming to.”

On how much of a priority is it to get a second star next to Trae Young:

“We hope to keep developing our guys so one day we do it from internally. Those are three options: draft and develop or go out and acquire through free agency or trade. Right now because there is no trade and we’re not a team that is going to have cap space moving forward, it’s got to come from internal growth. We feel good about a lot of our guys getting to that level.”

On how he approaches the luxury tax and his conversations with owner Tony Ressler about it:

“It dates back to when I got hired here. I kind of told him my philosophy is it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be in the tax if you’re not going to be a serious threat to compete for a championship. I share that belief as does Tony. It becomes part of it where you have to manage it. We hope that we can be just as successful as we were last year, and then I think if you can get that deep two times in a row, you are a serious contender. Certainly, Tony is willing to pay the tax if we are going to be a contender. I’m probably more conscious of it than Tony is, to be honest with you. It’s my job to manage his money. He’s got a lot more of it than I do, so I worry about it more than he does.”

On watching Young’s development:

“I give Trae a ton of credit. He gave up stats for the success of the team. There were times last year I think just growing to trust his teammates when he would want to be in the game. Lou would have it going, and Coach Mac would ask him to go back in the game, and he would go, ‘No, he’s got it going.’ That growth and understanding that these other guys are very talented players, too, and when they have it going, it’s OK to let them keep going if they’re going to help us win the game.”

On experience gained last season helping the team in the coming season:

“I think one of the things is the confidence, that experience and the fact we had success brings confidence into what coach McMillan is asking them to do. The NBA is so much about confidence. All of these players are good players. It’s the players that have that confidence and self belief, as opposed to a guy who has doubt, can really be the determining factor on whether they make it or don’t make it.”

On the next step for Cam Reddish:

“I think the biggest thing for Cam is going to be consistency. He’s yet to play a full season, one because of the pandemic and the other because of injury. We’ve certainly seen flashes of what he could be, but what we haven’t seen is that consistency out of him to perform at that level. That’s the next step, which is building on that consistency every night. Having more and more flashes where that becomes the baseline, and it’s not like Bitcoin. We’re looking for Microsoft stock here.”

On Reddish deciding not to play in the Summer League:

“The plan was for him to do that. Coming off that injury, we didn’t know we were going to get to the conference finals. We didn’t know he was going to come back for the playoffs. We wanted him to have a springboard going into training camp and have some competitive basketball before training camp so that would be the first time coming back from his injury. Once he was able to come back and play those games in the conference finals, he felt good about where he was. We weren’t going to force him to play, so the decision was made that based on how the conference finals went, he could just go right into training camp next season.”

On whether he anticipates using the G League Skyhawks more this season:

“Last year, I felt bad for both Nathan (Knight) and Skylar (Mays) because we didn’t have that opportunity, and they didn’t get a lot of playing time. I do think now with the depth of our roster, as we draft these guys, there’s a chance they go down there and play some. I do think you’ll see us use that more because guys develop more when they’re playing more as opposed to sitting on the bench. Having them that close where they can practice with us in the morning and go play a game that night and come back the next day and practice with us is very advantageous for us.”

On McMillan being head coach from the start, as opposed to taking over midseason:

“They obviously all know him because they spent the last three or four months with him. I think it’ll be very helpful for him to be able to establish what he wants to do. Last year, they kind of slowly pushed out little by little. Now he’ll have that opportunity to establish what he wants to do from the beginning, so it’ll be very helpful for him.”

On whether there’s such a thing as too much depth on a roster:

“Yes, there can be, if the players don’t buy into it. I think that’s one thing you saw last year. All of our guys bought into the fact that we have a lot of depth, and on any given night and somebody has it going, you’re going to have to sacrifice your own for the good of the team. I thought our guys did an unbelievable job of that last year. If you have a group that doesn’t have that ‘we’ mentality, it can be an issue.”

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