Did Travis Schlenk’s rebuild fail? Of his nine Round 1 acquisitions over six years of Hawks oversight, six remain Hawks. Three are starters. Of the six, the oldest is 25 and the youngest 19. Doesn’t sound like total failure, does it?
The Hawks have made the playoffs three years running, the latest appearance coming after Schlenk was given the gate. They won two series in 2021. They went 3-0 in two play-in tournaments. They’re 41-31, 43-39 and 41-41 over the past three seasons. If not runaway success, neither was this abject oblivion.
The Hawks’ best stretch under Schlenk came in the first weeks after Lloyd Pierce was fired as coach and assistant Nate McMillan kicked upstairs. In four heady months, we saw almost everything we dreamed this team might be – quick and skilled, clever and fearless. Had Trae Young not stepped on a ref’s foot, those Hawks might have graced the 2021 NBA finals. (And, as Milwaukee proved, West champ Phoenix wasn’t unbeatable.)
Two summers later, the Hawks face the future under different management – same ownership, but different management. Schlenk and McMillan were thanked for their services. The new schemer is Quin Snyder, who did well in Utah and who serves as head coach and chief visionary here. We knew, kind of, what Schlenk was thinking. We don’t yet know about his successor.
Thursday’s draft could tell us a little something – the Hawks pick 15th, one spot out of the lottery – but the post-draft days should reveal more. Does Snyder believe the Hawks are good enough to contend for more than a seventh seed? Will different coaching draw excellence from a team that just spent half a season staring at .500?
The belief is that Snyder will seek to change some things but not all things. A coach doesn’t agree to take over a team led by Young if the intent is to dump Young. A wise coach would pick a more malleable roster. Dumping a super-max player like Young would be transactionally difficult. Nothing suggests the new administration is so inclined.
Of the nine Round 1 talents landed by Schlenk, only Omari Spellman – the last pick of 2018′s Round 1 and the Hawks’ third first-rounder that night – was a flop. Cam Reddish is trending that way, but lots of folks believed him to be a steal. Schlenk drafted good players, Young being better than good. There were moments when it appeared he’d assembled a fully functioning team. The last such moment was Game 4 of the 2021 Eastern finals.
The expected next step wasn’t taken. The Hawks backslid to non-defending ways. No young talent became a candidate for the NBA’s most improved player. The hot young team dialed down to lukewarm. We were left wondering if the East finals had been a false dawn. We’re wondering still.
A team with talent always has hope. The NBA is a superstar’s league, but it’s also a mesh game. The Hawks have their superstar. They mightn’t be far from their mesh.
Receiving immediate impact from the 15th pick is a coin flip – possible, though not probable. Snyder’s first key moves will come when free agency hits, which doesn’t mean adding a big-ticket free agent. Those available wouldn’t seem to fit here, though the mind reels at a backcourt of Young and Kyrie Irving. But the advent of free agency shakes every NBA tree. Who knows what might fall?
We assume Snyder will do something. Four starters have been Hawks since 2019. Onyeka Okongwu and/or Jalen Johnson could be ready for their moments. Those expecting a shift toward even smaller ball should recall that Snyder’s best teams in Utah had Rudy Gobert in the middle.
The East is changing. Kevin Durant is gone. James Harden could leave the Sixers. Khris Middleton could exit the Bucks. The chastened Celtics seem certain to do something. The conference champ was the No. 8 seed, a team the Hawks beat in the play-in. With strategic tweaks, the Hawks could be a contender. The question: How sagacious is Snyder?
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