It’s possible this rebuild could have gone faster – Omari Spellman, drafted with the last pick of Round 1 in 2018, was a whiff – but it’s hard to see how. Schlenk didn’t inherit a tanking team. The Hawks made the playoffs in their final season under Mike Budenholzer. Schlenk’s first draft didn’t carry a lottery pick. At No. 19, he took John Collins of Wake Forest. The No. 18 pick was T.J. Leaf; No. 20 was Harry Giles.
Over four seasons, Collins has averaged 16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds. Over nine Atlanta seasons, Al Horford – picked No. 3 by Billy Knight in 2007, just behind Durant – averaged 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds. In his first act as GM, Schlenk landed an instant starter with a pick where you’re hoping for an eventual contributor.
Folks will wonder forever about the 2018 draft, wherein Schlenk traded the rights to Luka Doncic to Dallas for Young and the Mavs’ No. 1 pick in 2019. As much as some tried to characterize this as choosing Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, it was no such thing. Doncic was really good from the start. Young was, too. The gap between the two was never vast. Off the strength of these playoffs, it would be tough to discern a gap at all. Also: The deal wasn’t just Young for Doncic; it would become Young and Cam Reddish for Doncic. As we were reminded in Game 6 against Milwaukee, Reddish is a talent.
Not counting Spellman, here’s what four Round 1s have wrought: Collins (starter), Young (franchise), Kevin Huerter (sixth man/playoff starter), De’Andre Hunter (starter), Reddish (key reserve at worst) and Onyeka Okongwu (rotational player as a rookie). That’s a haul. That’s as well as you can do without winning the lottery, which has proved to be beyond even Schlenk’s powers.
The Hawks haven’t just compiled a roster. They’ve built a functioning team. These guys go together. (Should Collins leave as a restricted free agent, Hunter offers cover.) Center Clint Capela was acquired last year from Houston. He led the league in rebounding. In free agency last fall, the Hawks bought wing shooter Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, who defies compartmentalization. They signed Rajon Rondo, who wasn’t a fit; they shipped him to the Clippers for Lou Williams, who was.
The striking thing about the Hawks in the playoffs – apart from the shock of them sticking around so long – was how much deeper they seemed than their opponents. The Knicks’ starters in Game 1 of Round 1 included Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock and Nerlens Noel. The 76ers have a $30 million point guard who can’t shoot; they also wound up with Furkan Korkmaz in their starting five. Yeah, the Bucks beat the Hawks in games 5 and 6 without Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Budenholzer has shrunk his bench to Pat Connaughton, Bobby Portis and sometimes Jeff Teague.
The Hawks don’t have a Giannis or a Joel Embiid. (Nor do they have a Ben Simmons, which is a good thing.) They do have Young, who became a different player under Nate McMillan, and a supporting cast capable of taking star turns. We can fault Schlenk for not firing Lloyd Pierce sooner, but given that the coach’s second and third seasons came during a pandemic, the GM surely was granted the benefit of every doubt.
No matter, though. The Hawks are where they hoped to be, having arrived faster than any reasonable observer could have dreamed. Four years, four drafts, one deft trade, one big dip into free agency, one expertly timed coaching change – and there they were, two games from the Finals. Travis Schlenk, worker of wonders.