Their rebuild complete, the new Hawks step into the playoffs

Atlanta Hawks' Tony Snell (center) is congratulated by Kevin Huerter (3) and Trae Young after his basket at the buzzer that gave the team a 121-120 win over the Toronto Raptors Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Mike Carlson/AP)
Atlanta Hawks' Tony Snell (center) is congratulated by Kevin Huerter (3) and Trae Young after his basket at the buzzer that gave the team a 121-120 win over the Toronto Raptors Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Mike Carlson/AP)

Credit: Mike Carlson

Credit: Mike Carlson

By NBA standards, this Hawks’ rebuild has been a smooth glide. Billy Knight launched a rebuild early this century, and it took him the better part of a decade to lift the club back to the playoffs. (Though, to his credit, once those Hawks got pretty good, they stayed that way for a while.) A couple of years into his process, Knight fielded a series of semi-prosecutorial questions from this correspondent, and then he laughed.

ExploreHawks 2021 goal: No more rebuilding, just winning

“You’re getting impatient,” he said.

Impatience is among the many byproducts of rebuilding. These things never go fast; there’s no assurance they’ll ever go well. Travis Schlenk’s redo has gone exceedingly well. It took just under four years.

Schlenk was hired as Hawks general manager on May 25, 2017. He has remade this club in the image of Golden State, where he was previously employed. Four years after drafting Stephen Curry, the Warriors went 47-35 and made the playoffs as a No. 6 seed. Three years after drafting Trae Young, the Hawks went 41-31 and enter the playoffs as a No. 5 seed.

It took the Warriors several post-Curry drafts to build a supporting cast. Their Round 1 pick the next year was Ekpe Udoh, whom Golden State packaged in a trade for Andrew Bogut, who was their center when they broke big. They got Klay Thompson the draft after Udoh; they landed Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green the next year. They acquired Andre Iguodala in a three-way deal the next summer. There you have the starting five and top sub of the 2014-2015 NBA champions.

The Hawks under Schlenk have made similar progress. They got John Collins in the 2017 draft, Young and Kevin Huerter in 2018, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in 2019. A smallish guard became a franchise player. The old-school center was landed in trade. Complementary wings were add-ons. A coaching change was made. The Warriors reached the playoffs twice under Mark Jackson; they replaced him with Steve Kerr and reached the NBA finals five consecutive seasons.

The Hawks parted with coach Mike Budenholzer a year after Schlenk arrived. They parted with Lloyd Pierce 2-1/2 months ago. They were 14-20 and off the playoff grid. With Nate McMillan in charge, they’ve gone 27-11. In less than a calendar year, the Hawks went from missing the Disney bubble to within a tiebreaker of having the homecourt edge in Round 1. That’s about as good as rebuilding gets.

Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan confers with Hawks guard Trae Young (11) during the first half against the Phoenix Suns May 5, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan confers with Hawks guard Trae Young (11) during the first half against the Phoenix Suns May 5, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Sam Hinkie’s famous Process in Philadelphia took so long the architect wasn’t around to see the team he remade make the playoffs. The Hawks under Schlenk have rebuilt without insulting their audience. Hinkie’s teams lost 64, 64 and 72 games. The Hawks under Knight were 13-69 in 2004-2005, the season after they didn’t draft Chris Paul. Over their first three seasons under Schlenk, the Hawks went 24-58, 23-49 and 20-43. They were bad enough to keep landing in the lottery, not quite so bad as to make us lose interest.

Over four years, how many times has Schlenk erred? The hiring of Pierce can’t be considered a success, but he seemed the right choice — he’d apprenticed in Philly as the Sixers were beginning to win — at the right time. Omari Spellman was a draft whiff, but he was the final Round 1 pick of 2018. The Hawks will be second-guessed forever for taking Luka Doncic and trading his rights to Dallas for Trae Young, but that deal also brought the Round 1 pick, No. 10 overall, that would become Cam Reddish.

The four-way trade for Clint Capela was a masterstroke. He just led the NBA in rebounding and finished 15th — one spot ahead of LeBron James — in John Hollinger’s player efficiency ratings. The move from Pierce to McMillan is among the more expertly timed coaching changes in NBA annals. Offseason imports Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari lifted the Hawks, last among 30 teams in 3-point-percentage last season, to third.

The Hawks will face the Knicks in Round 1. For both, this marks a postseason return. (The Knicks haven’t been here since 2014.) They two tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks took the No. 4 seed by sweeping the Hawks during the regular season. Their first two games came under Pierce. The third went to overtime.

NBA playoffs brackets

Any 4-5 series is essentially a tossup. They’re the better team on offense; the Knicks are better on defense. The Hawks have gotten healthy, which is no small thing. I like the Hawks to win in seven, but I won’t be disappointed if they lose in six. They’re good again, and that’s after a rebuild that didn’t last long enough for this antsy observer to get impatient. Kudos all around.

About the Author

ajc.com

In Other News