Chicago drafted Michael Jordan in 1984. Six years into his pro career, people wondered if the GOAT would ever be part of an NBA championship. That sounds ludicrous in hindsight, but the question didn’t go away until 1991, when his Bulls won it all. Then they won five times more. Jordan was good at hammering home a point.
LeBron James entered the NBA in 2002. He has played 19 seasons. His first championship came with Miami in 2012. His third came with Cleveland in 2016. His fourth came with the Lakers in 2020. He’s the greatest since Jordan, but he needed to take his talents elsewhere – three times – to collect his rings.
The point being: Winning an NBA title is hard. Kevin Durant had to hook up with Golden State to be part of a championship; the Warriors had won one before he arrived, and they just added another. The NBA’s greatest truth is that a team can’t win it all without a superstar, but a colder truth is that, every blessed year, most superstars end up without a trophy.
The Hawks have a superstar. They’ve made the playoffs twice in Trae Young’s four seasons. They reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2021, a sign their rebuilding process might yield fruit. They slipped into the postseason via the play-in tournament this spring and were gone after Round 1. This has led the Hawks to re-evaluate their process.
In public comments, owner Tony Ressler and president Travis Schlenk labeled the 2021-22 season a misfire, if not an abject miscalculation. Full credit to them for making no excuses, but the depth of the Hawks’ disappointment led us to wonder if they’re disgruntled enough to tear down a building on which the paint is barely dry.
That the Hawks didn’t execute a major maneuver in Thursday’s draft – they made a slight positional modification in Round 2 – strikes me as evidence they mightn’t feel as woebegone as they’ve sounded. Rebuilds are never smooth. It wasn’t until Stephen Curry’s fourth NBA season that his Warriors made the playoffs. They won a round. They made the playoffs again the next season but lost in Round 1, prompting them to fire Mark Jackson as coach and hire Steve Kerr.
The Warriors who won the 2015 NBA title weren’t much different from the 2014 bunch that lost in the first round to Clippers. They augmented Curry with draftees Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. They landed veterans Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. In 2013-14, that core won 51 games. The next season, the same crew won 67 games and a championship. Not until 2020 would another NBA finals be played without Golden State.
Back to the Hawks: Do I believe that they could stand a tweak or two? Sure. Every team could. Do I believe a wholesale retooling is required? Nope. John Collins played in only 54 games, De’Andre Hunter in 53, Onyeka Okongwu in 48. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, a 26-year-old on his fifth NBA club, started 18 games. Only four Hawks – Young, Clint Capela, Kevin Huerter and Delon Wright – worked more than 66 games.
Of the major Hawks, none had a terrible season. Collins’ numbers were off, but that surely had more to do with injuries than with any loss of talent. He has been a good player since he got here, and he’s not yet 25. Capela didn’t lead the NBA in rebounding for a second season running, but he did finish fourth. Hunter might have been slightly underwhelming, but he averaged 21.2 points against Miami in the playoffs.
This isn’t to suggest that the Hawks stand pat. They need to get better. I would, however, be mindful of risk/reward. In the spring and summer of 2021, they became a good team. The only significant change made since was to dump Cam Reddish, which I’ve never understood. AJ Griffin, their Round 1 pick, could step into the rotation. They could use a better understudy for Young – Wright is a free agent – but they’ll have to go some to improve on the Collins/Capela tandem.
To these usually critical eyes, these Hawks seem a glass half-full. If there’s a sensible deal to be made, they should make it. If not, they should err on the side of caution. Left to its in-house devices, this club could make a serious run in 2023. I’d hate to see a core so lovingly assembled dismantled too soon.
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