The Hawks’ issue: Is it possible to win big with Trae Young?



Remember when it seemed that the Hawks had aced their rebuild? Whoops. Since July 2021, they are – counting play-ins and playoffs – 90-88. Travis Schlenk, chief rebuilder, was shoved aside in December. Nate McMillan, the coach who brought this franchise within two games of the NBA Finals, was thanked for his service in February. Owner Tony Ressler is restless.

Quin Snyder now is the coach/architect. He didn’t acquire any of these players, which means more movement is coming. The Hawks aren’t an old team – among significant contributors, only Bogdan Bogdanovic is 30 – but these players have had the chance to age together. They haven’t aged well.

The summer of ‘21 saw the Hawks upset the Knicks and 76ers and take the champs-to-be Bucks to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. The intervening 22 months have seen them win three play-in games and concoct a stunning comeback in Boston to delay elimination. That’s not nothing. Neither is it, in the grand scheme, all that much.

Four Hawks have started together for four seasons – Trae Young, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins and Clint Capela. The still-very-good Warriors have changed more than that. Not a lot more, but there’s a difference between maintaining a championship core and staying the course when the course has led nowhere.

Capela turns 29 this month and, with Onyeka Okongwu younger and cheaper, is expendable. Collins has been mentioned in trade rumors almost since he was drafted, which was six years ago. His scoring and rebounding numbers just hit career lows. The Hawks could move Hunter to power forward and make Saddiq Bey a starter, which would be in keeping with the NBA way of going small/smaller/smallest. Easier said than done, though.

Capela’s contract – he’ll make $18 million – lapses in June 2024. He’d be tempting to teams that want a center and/or could use an expiring contract. Collins is owed $25M next season and $26M in 2024-25; then there’s an option (his) for another year at $26M. He hasn’t been an All-Star. Not to be cruel, but lots of teams already have a John Collins.

The Hawks, who just set a standard for time spent within a game of .500, can’t stay the same. (We all know the loose definition of insanity, though I’m not sure it was Dr. Freud’s definition.) At issue is whether they can, by moving Capela/Collins/somebody/anybody, make a better mix. The idea behind a trade is to receive better than you give, but the Hawks have a corollary concern: What imports might fit alongside Young?

This might be Snyder’s roster, but it remains Young’s team. He’s owed $130M over the next three seasons. It’s doubtful many clubs deem him a cornerstone, seeing as how the Hawks haven’t turned any corners. It might be possible to offload him, but it would mean starting over. Say Portland would bite at dealing Damon Lillard for Young. Lillard makes more than Young, is eight years older and has the same number of championship rings.

We must ask: How many championship teams were built around a smallish guard? The Warriors have Stephen Curry, yes, but they won one playoff series over his first five seasons. It took them a while to find the proper supporting cast. Schlenk worked for Golden State in those days.

Three of Schenk’s Round 1 draftees here – Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman – are gone. Jalen Johnson, in his second season, averaged 9.3 minutes in the Boston series. A.J. Griffin, a rookie, didn’t play a minute. The Hawks’ Game 5 rally came on a night when Dejounte Murray, added at heavy cost, was suspended. It’s fair to say that Young and Murray haven’t achieved the mesh of Curry and Klay Thompson. It’s also fair to say water’s wet.

Schlenk arrived in May 2017. The components of the 60-win Hawks of 2014-15 – the team Ressler inherited – were gone or going. Coach Mike Budenholzer, defrocked of GM duty, left in April 2018. That summer brought the draft on which everything hinged. Perhaps at Ressler’s behest, Schlenk took Luka Doncic and dealt him for Young. The Hawks have won two playoff series since, both in 2021. To be fair, Young was great in both.

Schlenk rebuilt around Young. It falls to Snyder to fashion another reset. Still unknown: Is Young, never the world’s greatest teammate, part of the problem or part of the solution?