The smart move for the Hawks is to trade down for more draft picks

Atlanta Hawks general manager Landry Fields, right, and NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum pose for photos after Tatum announced that the Hawks had won the first pick in the NBA draft, during the draft lottery in Chicago, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Atlanta Hawks general manager Landry Fields, right, and NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum pose for photos after Tatum announced that the Hawks had won the first pick in the NBA draft, during the draft lottery in Chicago, Sunday, May 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The first question about the Hawks winning the NBA draft lottery is this – does this historic achievement merit a banner in State Farm Arena?

The second question is, what should they do with it?

The pick, that is, not the banner.

Here’s one suggestion – they should do their best to trade down in exchange for additional picks. It doesn’t matter how much they go ga-ga over Alexandre Sarr, Zaccharie Risacher, Reed Sheppard or any other high-profile draft prospect. It’s a roll of the dice. They would be better off acquiring additional rolls.

And this isn’t to dismiss the Hawks’ talent-evaluation ability. Not entirely, at any rate. Even at the top of the draft, there’s practically no such thing as a guaranteed star.

Consider the first overall picks of the past 10 drafts. Of the 10, arguably five of them have turned out to be the best player in their class – Karl-Anthony Towns, Zion Williamson, Anthony Edwards, Paolo Banchero and Victor Wembanyama.

The other five – Andrew Wiggins, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, DeAndre Ayton and Cade Cunningham – are not within shouting distance of being the best player in their class. Three of them have never been selected to an All-Star game. And at least some of them probably were better prospects than any player in this year’s crop, which is said to be historically weak.

Spelling out the unreliability of the top pick in another way – if you played a game between the top overall picks and the third picks from the past decade, the No. 3′s, led by Joel Embiid, Luka Dončić, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and LaMelo Ball, would wipe the floor with the No. 1′s.

This isn’t to say that the No. 3 pick is some sort of magic superstar portal, and the No. 1 pick is a ticket for mediocrity. It’s just to make the point that identifying which player is going to be the most impactful often is really difficult.

Further, nothing against Hawks general manager Landry Fields, but are he and his team worthy of confidence that they can succeed in a process (determining which player will make the biggest long-term impact) in which half of the past 10 attempts resulted in failure? Especially this year, when there isn’t a clear-cut top choice?

Fields’ record includes two first-round picks – forward A.J. Griffin and guard Kobe Bufkin – who have shown promise but were picked ahead of players who’ve already been more productive. Fields also, of course, has his name on the trade for guard Dejounte Murray, the deal that has sunk the Hawks into their franchise-defining predicament.

And it’s not just Fields. Again, picking winners is difficult, even for the ones who’ve gotten it right.

A year after he made the selection of a lifetime – drafting likely Hall of Famer Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th selection of the 2013 draft – Bucks general manager John Hammond had the second pick of the 2014 draft. Ultimately, the class produced five All-Stars.

He chose Jabari Parker, whose career was plagued by injury and who never made All-Star in eight seasons. The player chosen after him was Embiid, a five-time All-NBA selection. The player chosen 39 picks later was Nikola Jokić, the three-time MVP.

Two years later, he used the No. 10 pick on Thon Maker, who was out of the league within five seasons.

The player picked immediately after Maker?

Domantas Sabonis, who is a three-time All-Star.

That’s why the smarter play is to trade down from No. 1 in exchange for an additional first-round pick or picks to create more chances of hitting on a player (or players) who can make the Hawks a legitimate contender, or at least get them out of the Play-In Tournament.

Somewhere out there, whether it’s a highly regarded college All-American or a relative unknown from Europe, is a player out there who can help turn around the Hawks’ fortunes. The more picks they can amass, the greater the likelihood that he becomes a Hawk and not someone whom fans bemoan as the one who got away.

The Hawks need to hope that some team not too far down the draft order decides it absolutely must have Sarr or Risacher or someone else and is willing to deal with the Hawks.

The return could be significant. In 2017, for instance, the Celtics traded their No. 1 pick to the 76ers in exchange for their third overall pick and a first-round pick in 2018 or 2019. And that was just to move down two spots.

Further, should the Hawks manage to arrange a trade with a team with one of the top 10 picks (besides Houston, which has the Nets’ pick), chances are that team won’t be strong again next year, meaning the pick again could be in the lottery.

Perhaps it doesn’t need to be mentioned, but another reason that the Hawks could use more picks is that they traded three first-rounders in the Murray trade, including next year’s.

Could the Hawks package either Trae Young or Murray with the No. 1 pick and get a bona fide star rather than future picks?

Maybe, but it probably wouldn’t be worth it.

Is there an All-Star who is worth that package that the Hawks could be sure would want to stay with them for the long term, and that the trade partner actually would be willing to trade?

“I don’t know if there’s a better All-Star (than Young that) you can get with Trae and the No. 1,” an NBA scout told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t know who’s worth that package.”

The Hawks also will have to figure out what they want to do with Young and Murray, and the outcome likely involves trading one or the other, ideally for picks. Young could bring two first-rounders and players to balance out salary, according to the scout.

But the subject at hand is the first pick in the draft, an unexpected prize that fell into Fields’ lap. The temptation may be to swing for the fences. The wiser move is to get more at-bats.