For better or worse, the Hawks (20-47) finally know their 2019-20 season has come to a close, unable to play their final 15 games.
Since they were more than six games out of playoff contention when the season was suspended March 11 because of the coronavirus (14th of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference), they became one of eight teams excluded from the NBA’s plan to restart the season in Orlando on July 31, which was approved by the Board of Governors and the Players Association. The tentative start date for the 2020-21 season is Dec. 1, with the draft lottery Aug. 25 and the draft Oct. 15.
So, what’s next for the Hawks, who may go about nine months without playing an NBA game?
According to general manager Travis Schlenk, the eight excluded teams are working together to come up with a proposal to present to the league to determine a plan, whether it’s loosening practice-facility restrictions or allowing organized play among themselves. However, all that would have to be approved by both the league and the Players Association.
Schlenk also mentioned that it’s possible next year’s season could be“condensed” and discussed why the Hawks decided to vote “yes” on the 22-team proposal, even though they wanted to keep playing.
“The league is working with the eight teams not going to Orlando to open up our facilities a little bit more, maybe to allow us to have some sort of competition ourselves, but all that needs to be negotiated with the (players association),” Schlenk said. “... We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to get something done, but they’re obviously some steps we’ve got to go through as well.”
Right now, with the NBA taking precautions to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, players can only work out individually at practice facilities, and only four players are allowed inside at a time. According to Schlenk, the eight excluded franchises (Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Chicago and Charlotte in the East and Minnesota and Golden State in the West) are in a bit of a time crunch, aiming to get some sort of offseason plan approved at the same time the season restart in Orlando becomes official (there are still a few details to be worked out with Disney).
Also, those eight teams understand that players who will be free agents this summer likely will have a different view on taking part in team activity, so mandating something for those players isn’t very realistic.
“We’ve tried to be very mindful of that as we’ve tried to put together a proposal to take to the league, and realizing that there’s guys in different stages of their career,” Schlenk said. “So it’s just something that we’ll have to negotiate.”
While in this gray area, the Hawks are still holding team Zoom meetings every Sunday and Thursday. Now that the season is over, players want to know guidelines for the offseason, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said.
“A lot of them are eager to know … what our next steps will be,” Pierce said. “As we all are. And it’s really about, they want it. They want the opportunity to play. They’re waiting to see what capabilities we’ll have. So we’re in this holding pattern and most of our discussion has been about that, with regard to basketball, just what our next steps will be.”
Keeping players engaged for so long without a game presents challenges, as is having a plan for team activity while the other 22 teams are competing in Orlando, which is why getting feedback from the league on what the Hawks can and can’t do will be key.
As of now, the loose schedule has the NBA Finals ending no later than Oct. 12.
“The ability to get in the gym and have that full-team capability to work out, potentially scrimmage other teams, but then we just go into kind of an extended offseason,” Pierce said. “Obviously, that would end in mid-August and the season wouldn’t start until December, so it’s still an extended period of time and we’d do what we’d normally do, come in for three weeks at a time and take a week or two off, come back for three weeks and really focus on the development, the weight room and just try to have the guys in the gym at the same time. We have an extended period of growth for our guys.
“It’s a little bit difficult, but we just have to be creative in how we go about doing that, and this is why this proposal that Travis talked about is so important. This gives us an opportunity to do something right now, similar to the other teams that are playing.”
Pierce had been vocal about his desire for the Hawks to keep playing, since that’s the best way for an exceptionally young team to continue progressing. The Hawks often started a lineup featuring no player older than 22, and leaned heavily on 20-year-old rookie Cam Reddish and 22-year-old rookie De’Andre Hunter, with 21-year-old Bruno Fernando getting a fair bit of playing time as well.
Now that they won’t get to resume the season, all the more reason to hash out a plan for the coming moments that gives them more opportunity to develop and grow.
“One of the most important things for our guys is to continue to play,” Schlenk said. “Think about last year, De’Andre Hunter in summer league only played a game and a half before he got hurt; he was able to get a ton of minutes in the regular season, which was great. Cam, last year he was on a minute restriction for the first half of the season, didn’t play in summer league. We all saw the growth he had by being able to play. Now, if we go through another summer where those guys aren’t on the court and able to play, same with Bruno, he didn’t get near the minutes those other guys got, so being able to play during the summer, pick-up games, or Summer League’s obviously not going to happen this year, all those things are important for young guys as they continue to get better.”
Even though the Hawks, from Pierce to Schlenk to owner Tony Ressler, wanted to take part in the season’s restart, Ressler ultimately decided to vote “yes” on the 22-team format when it became apparent the league wasn’t going to approve of all 30 teams returning to play.
“The league obviously knew where we stood,” Schlenk said. “They made a decision on health and safety on what they thought the best plan was going to be. We want to be a good partner, so at the end of the day, when it became clear that what we wanted wasn’t going to happen, which happens sometimes in life, so you just be supportive.”
Schlenk also added that the league has discussed condensing the schedule for the 2020-21 season, since there will be a delayed start. If that happens, it could be a change from the past few years in which the league has tried to limit back-to-backs and the strain they put on teams.
“They’ve talked to us about how it might be a condensed schedule next year, more so than in the past,” Schlenk said. “There’s been a big drive to avoid back-to-backs and certainly four (games) in five nights, but we might find ourselves in a situation next year where it’s going to be much more condensed.”
However, the league has not given any indication that next season will feature fewer than 82 games, per Schlenk.
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