The Hawks gambled in the 2013 NBA Draft – and it cost them Giannis Antetokounmpo.
They were close to a huge payout. Closer than most know.
Antetokounmpo, a relatively unknown who blossomed into an MVP candidate, one who has transformed the Bucks organization and could have done the same for the Hawks, was snatched away. The franchise-defining moment came just two selections before the Hawks were to make the first of two first-round picks, a matter of minutes, despite a top-secret draft process. A large plant and at least one beverage went flying in the inner sanctum of the Hawks’ draft room that night.
The near-miss is an example of the “organized chaos” that is the NBA draft. Teams must first identify players and then, even more difficult, acquire the franchise building blocks in a realm of a lack of control.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in a series of off-the-record interviews to ensure complete candor, has constructed an anatomy of the 2013 draft to illustrate the uncertainty of the process. The 2018 draft is Thursday, and the Hawks have four selections in the top 34 picks, including the third overall, as they search for the next franchise-altering player.
It started with a grainy video. The Hawks saw an 18-year-old Antetokounmpo playing in a second-division league in his native Greece. Then-general manager Danny Ferry went to see him play live. Assistant general manager Wes Wilcox made several trips overseas to continue the scouting process. Antetokounmpo was raw, but there was potential. The Hawks were not the only team to scout the 6-foot-11 (7-foot wingspan) youngster.
However, Antetokounmpo came to United States before the draft and worked out for one team. He was examined by doctors for medical reports for one team. That team was the Hawks.
How secret did the Hawks try to keep their interest in Antetokounmpo? Doctors in New York, and not team doctors, performed a full physical. He stayed with Ferry for the two days he spent in Atlanta. Key members of the organization did not know the extent of the team’s interest in Antetokounmpo until after the draft.
The Hawks held picks Nos. 17 and 18. They had two targets - Dennis Schroder and Antetokounmpo. The Hawks had seen Schroder at the Nike Hoop Summit and the German teenager impressed.
Antetokounmpo and Schroder. That was the plan.
The morning of the draft, June 27, 2013, the Hawks got word that the Bucks might have an interest in Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 pick. The Hawks explored the option of moving up, but ultimately decided to wait. There will be conspiracy theories to explore on the Bucks’ late interest.
“At the end of day, the thought was he could be a really good player,” one person involved in the process said. “There was some thought of could this guy be a star. But at the end of the day that just seemed so far-fetched.
“Had we thought he was an MVP, we probably should have traded the whole franchise for him.”
Hawks ownership, management and staff gathered in the old hockey locker room at Philips Arena, since converted into an ownership suite. The old trainers room, a very small room off the suite, served as the war room and limited the number of those who could be so close to the action. The inner sanctum included Ferry, Wilcox, newly hired coach Mike Budenholzer, senior advisor Rick Sund, director of basketball operations Mike McNeive and staff members Andy Birdsong and Jeff Peterson. Part-owner Bruce Levenson was a frequent visitor to the room. Assistants and other support staff remained in the larger adjoining room.
A typical draft room contains white boards with draft rankings, televisions and computers. Cellphones are plenty, but it’s one dedicated land line to the NBA that provides the communication link to the league. The draft is followed on televisions and computer screens, and team officials, like fans, watch and hear the names of the drafted often leaked before announced by the NBA commissioner. The land line rings to inform the team that it is on the clock and to wait for its selection.
The 2013 draft will be known for a bust at the top and some gems late in the first round.
The Cavaliers selected Anthony Bennett with the first pick. Victor Oladipo would go second and C.J. McCollum 10th as the bright spots of the early selections.
The Hawks’ two selections were close, as the Thunder took Steven Adams at No. 12, followed by the Kelly Olynyk to the Celtics and Shabazz Muhammed to the Timberwolves.
Here is the Hawks’ thinking on waiting on Antetokounmpo. “In theory, the chances of 15, 17 and 18 succeeding or failing in the draft are about same,” one person said. “We’d rather have two shots at hitting than one shot.”
However, the plan blew up when the Bucks selected the little-known Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 pick.
At word of the selection, a plant was thrown over in disgust in the Hawks’ draft room, sending support staff scurrying for a mop and towels.
“More disappointing than frustrating” is how one person described the mood of the room following the Bucks’ selection.
After the pick, Bucks trainers inquired of the Hawks about medical information on Antetokounmpo since they were the only team that had the examination material. The call came as a surprise to many in the Hawks organization because of the secret nature of the team’s interest and plan. What medicals? It took some time before they could be shared.
During the draft, what’s done is done. The clock starts again and the process moves forward.
After losing out on Antetokounmpo, the Hawks made a trade to move up to No. 16 with Dallas, swapping No. 18, to select Lucas Nogueira. They acquired a second-round pick which was used to select Mike Muscala. Schroder was selected with the No. 17 pick.
The Hawks had one of their two targets and an additional asset. Nogueira was the first of the two selections in a purely financial move. He had a bigger buyout of his overseas contract and a higher draft pay slot was seen as an incentive.
The Antetokounmpo pick was not received with rave reviews in Milwaukee at the time as the franchise used such an important first-round pick on a relative unknown.
“The Bucks were silent in their interest,” said a person in Milwaukee familiar with the Bucks’ draft. “A lot of people were hopeful, but wondered about the pick. Management felt they had to justify it without putting pressure on Antetokounmpo.”
Typically, NBA teams organize their draft in either a ranking of players 1-60 or a ranking by position. When one target is gone, they move onto the next. Hence the organization in a world of chaos.
Trades can further complicate the process. Teams with needs or targets can move up and spoil the best of plans.
The draft saga would not be complete without conspiracy theories. And there were plenty in the days, months and now years after the Hawks missed out on Antetokounmpo. Here are a few:
> Larry Drew was the Hawks' head coach before Budenholzer, and he was not retained after his contract expired at the end of the 2012-13 season. Budenholzer was hired May 28, just a month before the draft. Drew was hired as head coach of the Bucks on May 31. It would seem that Drew had some knowledge of the Hawks' interest in Antetokounmpo and desire to select the prospect. Might this have been a chance to stick it to his former franchise? Several other lower-level members of the front office also were suspected although the circle of trust was tight.
> A rumor circulated that Jeff Teague saw Antetokounmpo in for a workout. Teague was entering his restricted free agent year and would later sign an offer sheet from the Bucks and, immediately after, made his desire that the Hawks not match publicly known. Could Teague have tipped off the Bucks?
> Antetokounmpo and Schroder shared an agent. It seems he would know of interest from NBA teams. Could a higher selection mean more money for one client?
Those are just a few of the theories that circulated around the Hawks.
“It’s definitely not unusual to have things go not exactly as you hoped,” one person said of the draft outcome.
The Hawks missed on Nogueira who was traded to the Raptors a year after the draft. Schroder was a valuable reserve for the Hawks and eventually replaced Teague as the starting point guard. Teague was traded to the Pacers after several years of the 1-2 duo at the point. The Hawks signed Schroder to a four-year, $70 million contract extension in 2016. Whether he remains in the team’s plans moving forward remains to be seen with a new general manager one year on the job and a newly hired head coach. Schroder and Muscala are the longest-tenured Hawks players.
The Hawks ownership, front office and coaching and support staff have gone through major changes since the fateful day in 2013. Just five years later, most are gone and just a handful remain. It’s another reality of the NBA.
The Hawks are in rebuild mode. They are just two seasons removed from the team that won 60 games, was seeded first in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the conference finals. The Hawks will be on the clock again Thursday with another chance to change the fortunes of the franchise.
Let the organized chaos begin.