Hawks got good as a team by getting smart as a front office

Hawks guard Trae Young laughs with general manager and president Travis Schlenk while testing out the bone bruise in his right ankle two hours before tip off against the Milwaukee Bucks in game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Milwaukee.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
Hawks guard Trae Young laughs with general manager and president Travis Schlenk while testing out the bone bruise in his right ankle two hours before tip off against the Milwaukee Bucks in game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Milwaukee. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

First things first. The Hawks have a permanent head coach, and he’s … well, you know who he is. There was never a real chance this club would bid adieu to the man who took them higher than they’d been in their Atlanta existence, but the Hawks have been known to mess up even the most obvious moves – though not, we say for the record, lately.

So: Nate McMillan is returning, and hooray for that. General manager Travis Schlenk was asked via Zoom on Monday how much he’d consult with his coach regarding potential player additions. “Not at all,” Schlenk said, but this was his little joke. We all laughed. Who knew TS the GM was funny?

A bit later, he was asked what Hawks player had improved the most this season. “Jon Steinberg,” Schlenk said, giving a shout-out to the team’s longstanding publicist.

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Still later, someone wondered if Schlenk’s philosophy of drafting the best player available will change. “Yeah,” he said. “We’re going to take the worst player this year.”

For one of the few times in franchise annals, all is sweetness and light with the Hawks. Even in the immediate aftermath of the eliminating Game 6, there were smiles for miles. This wasn’t the greatest Hawks season ever – everything before March 1 has been forgotten – but it was the giddiest. A team from nowhere wins 10 playoff games and two series. A team that got bad on purpose got good overnight. That this team is so young makes us believe it’s no one-shot deal.

Said Schlenk: “We had another draft workout this morning. I was talking to some of the guys, and they were talking about a player, and I said, “He doesn’t help us beat Milwaukee.’ "

The Hawks’ needs are different now. Schlenk’s three-year rebuild has worked. Yours truly asked if there were times during the past month when he’d gaze on his creation and think, “This is what I had in mind.”

Schlenk: “I don’t know that I ever had those moments in my mind, but I will say there were times during the playoffs that you take a lot of pride and a lot of joy in what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short time period. When you go through these rebuilding programs through the draft, it can take several years. To be able to get through three drafts to get where we are, I do take satisfaction in that.”

Then, regarding the March 1 switch from Lloyd Pierce to McMillan: “We had the stated goal going into this season. We wanted the games at the end of the year to matter, and we were trying at least to get to the play-ins for the playoffs. When we decided to make the change, it was to give ourselves the best chance to get in that position.”

With McMillan the proud owner of a new four-year contract, the next offseason task involves forward John Collins. He spurned an extension of $90 million over four seasons last fall. He’s set to become a restricted free agent, which means the Hawks can retain him by matching any offer sheet he signs with another club. Trouble is, the offer he gets elsewhere might be significantly more than the Hawks care to pay, in which case they’d face a difficult choice.

Said Schlenk: “We project to be a team that’s over the cap the next few years.”

Then: “Once those salaries (on the existing payroll) start adding up, you’re really limited in ways to improve your team.”

John Collins slams home one of several key baskets for the Hawks during their second-half comeback in a Game 4 victory over the 76ers at State Farm Arena.
Caption
John Collins slams home one of several key baskets for the Hawks during their second-half comeback in a Game 4 victory over the 76ers at State Farm Arena.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Of Collins, Schlenk said: “I told John yesterday I was extremely proud of how he handled this. He made the decision to go to a restricted free agency last fall, and a lot of times that can impact a player. But what you saw from John wasn’t a player who was playing for his numbers. He was playing for his team to win. With guys going into restricted free agency, a lot of times you see the opposite, and we didn’t see that at all in John. I think that speaks very highly of his character. He’s about being on a winning basketball team. I don’t have anything negative to say about John Collins.”

Is there any reason the Hawks won’t try to keep Collins? “I don’t know why there would be,” Schlenk said.

It isn’t as if Schlenk let McMillan linger on the market. The season ended Saturday night. Schlenk called McMillan’s agent on Sunday morning. The parties agreed to terms Monday morning.

Part of the reason the Hawks went so long without exciting the local populace was the silliness of their front office, which in previous manifestations matched a Jon Koncak offer sheet with Detroit that briefly made the backup center’s new contract more bountiful than Michael Jordan’s; sued itself over trading for Joe Johnson, and drafted Marvin Williams over Chris Paul. The most-discussed move made by Schlenk has been the trading of Luka Doncic’s draft rights to Dallas, and today that looks rather different than it did.

Trae Young, whom the Mavericks sent here in exchange for Doncic, rose to superstardom in these playoffs. Cam Reddish, chosen with the Round 1 pick Dallas ceded to the Hawks, nearly pulled out Game 6 against the Bucks despite having not played between February and the end of June. Even Onyeka Okongwu, last year’s Round 1 pick, blossomed in the postseason.

The Hawks haven’t just become a winning team. They’ve also become a clear-thinking organization. Will wonders never cease?

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