John Collins, a rising star for the Hawks, just returned after missing the first 15 games to start his second season with a left ankle injury.
Or as it became known by a faction of the fan base – a “lefT ANKle” injury.
Look closely and an all but forbidden word around the NBA is evident. The T-word.
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk doesn’t even like to label the current status of the team as a rebuild. So you certainly won’t hear anyone inside the organization publicly refer to tanking – the process of losing to get a better draft position.
However, there is a segment of the fan base that wants to see the team lose to get a top draft pick next year. Social media is abuzz with mentions such as “Tryin’ for Zion” in reference to Duke’s Zion Williamson, one of several freshman for the Blue Devils considered destined for the NBA next year. The segment didn’t mind the Hawks not rushing Collins, one of their best players, back to the court.
What is there to make about the notion of fans opening rooting for their team to lose?
“I don’t deal with anyone who wants to see us lose,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. “I don’t know who those people are. I deal with the guys in here. These guys are working. Ain’t no one in here trying to lose. These guys are working. Every single one, you look over and it’s attention to detail, extra time. This has nothing to do with losing. It has everything to do with growth and development.”
No one is suggesting Hawks players are losing on purpose as the young team continues to struggle. They have just three wins this season, the second-worst record in the NBA. They appear headed for a second consecutive draft lottery.
The Hawks’ run of 10 consecutive playoff appearances came to an end last season with a 24-win campaign. With all of those postseason trips, the Hawks advanced as far as the conference finals just once and were eliminated in the first round five times.
Schlenk and previous front offices began gathering draft picks as a method to improve the team. The current nucleus largely consists of Taurean Prince (12th overall selection), DeAndre Bembry (21st) and Collins (19th) with the additions of Trae Young (5th), Kevin Huerter (19th) and Omari Spellman (30th) this season, all first-round picks, over the past three drafts. The Hawks could have as many as three first-round picks again next year.
The Warriors, winners of three of the past four NBA championships, largely were built through the draft. They won a title before adding superstar Kevin Durant as their successful run has continued. They have become the standard and the model of NBA success.
“I think fans are willing to be bad for a few years if they know the team is going to be good,” said Carl Dukes, a host for 92.9 The Game, the flagship radio station of the Hawks. “The prime example is the Braves. We were willing to go through three seasons of 90 losses, and this year we break through. All of sudden, everyone is good with it. At the time we were going through it, it absolutely sucked.
“If I had to tell you that for the Hawks we have to go through two more years of less than 20 wins but we got three of the best players coming out of college to make this team more attractive overall to the veterans already in the NBA, it would be worth it.”
While the Hawks rebuild through the draft, there have been teams whose process can be described only as a tank. Look at the 76ers and the Kings. The 76ers finally returned to the playoffs after seasons of 19, 18, 10 and 28 wins. They stockpiled lottery picks, some of whom did not work out.
Vince Carter, entering his 21st season, said he saw it first-hand as a member of the Kings last season. He signed with the Hawks in the offseason to be a mentor for a young team. Carter is not a proponent of the strategy.
“Doing that develops bad habits,” Carter said. “There becomes a conflict the next year when you are trying to win from the bad habits of trying to lose. You are trying to develop players, but at the same time, when it becomes game time, we need you to go out there and play the right way. The next year fans are wondering why isn’t are team good. It’s because the mentality has changed from the year before when you were trying to lose. …
“As a sports fans, we have to learn to have patience for the team that we love. We want our team to succeed, win a championship. … You have to develop the talent that you have now and add pieces to what you have. Once you get to the end of the season and get in the (draft) war room, you don’t know what you are adding or what pieces you need to add.”
The NBA saw enough of the attempts of organizations to get higher draft picks by losing that it changed the draft lottery process. After next year, the worst team won’t have the best chance at the No. 1 overall pick. The teams with the three worst regular-season records will each have a 14 percent chance of winning the lottery. In the current structure, the top seed has 25 percent change, the second seed 19.9 percent and the third seed 15.6 percent. The odds for the remaining participants in the 14-team lottery will be reduced gradually.
“I think it’s a good idea in the long run but you have to be really good with your scouting so you don’t mess up those draft picks,” Hawks fan Justin Wrenn said at a recent game. “I’m prepared to lose. I also think you have to be careful when you are tanking that your young players don’t build bad habits.”
As this Hawks’ season plays out, there will likely be more losses than wins. After those wins, there will be an outcry from a segment of the fan base on social media and airwaves. It’s an odd juxtaposition.
Even for those fans willing to lose now for the prospect of a long-term championship contender, the process eventually has to yield results.
“I think they’ve stockpiled enough draft picks,” Hawks fan Anthony Pullum said. “I want to see them compete. People want to see a team that is competitive. You don’t pay to see somebody lose. … If you tank, in any sport, that’s bad business. It’s almost un-American.”