If Hawks go big with trade, Rudy Gobert is prime target

Credit: Sarah Stier

Credit: Sarah Stier

The NBA Finals ended Thursday night with the Warriors as champions for the fourth time in eight years. Soon Travis Schlenk, ex-Warriors executive, will continue his efforts to build the Hawks in Golden State’s image. Hawks president Schlenk and recently promoted general manager Landry Fields have some fixes to make. The Hawks regressed this season after becoming the first Atlanta-era Hawks team to make the Eastern Conference final.

Much of Schlenk’s work will come over the next month or so. The Hawks own the 16th pick in Thursday’s draft. Free agency begins July 1. The trade market heats up in the periods before the draft, and between the draft and free agency. Schlenk has made two major trades on previous draft days, most famously swapping Luka Doncic for Trae Young in 2016.

The Hawks have a salary-cap squeeze after committing to contract extensions for several players. That puts pressure on Schlenk to hit on drafted players, who sign rookie contracts that are below market. It’s possible Schlenk keeps the No. 16 pick and makes minor alterations to the roster. But the Hawks already have been included among the many rumors about major trades that percolate at this time of year.

Much of that buzz has centered on the Hawks inquiring about a trade for Utah center Rudy Gobert. All we know for certain is the Hawks never would give up Trae Young to acquire Gobert. A deal almost surely would include Clint Capela as a replacement for Gobert, plus the No. 16 pick in next week’s draft. The price gets steep for the Hawks if making a deal also required, say, forward John Collins and more than one first-round pick.

I don’t know what it would take to pry Gobert from Utah. The price will be high because he’s an elite defender and under contract for three more seasons. The Jazz can wait. The Hawks aren’t championship-caliber, but they have a good core of players. Breaking that up should be done strategically, not wholesale.

I do know that Gobert would be a great target for the Hawks. They need to improve their defense, and there are few better defenders than Gobert. He wouldn’t solve the Hawks’ problems with perimeter defense. But Gobert is so good at protecting the paint that it raises the level of his team’s defense.

Gobert has been voted NBA defensive player of the year three times, All-Defense six times and All-NBA four times. Gobert is longer than Capela: 7-foot-1 with a reported 7-9 wingspan vs. 6-10 and 7-5. Gobert’s length, agility and instincts translate to him being a fantastic defender and rebounder.

Gobert is the main reason the Jazz have been a great team on defense for several years. Utah’s defensive rankings since Gobert became the full-time starter: seventh, third, second, first, 11th, first and ninth. Gobert and Capela are a wash on offense, though Gobert is a better finisher because of superior touch around the rim. He’d be a great pick-and-roll partner for Young.

Schlenk frequently emphasizes that it’s less risky to build rosters through the draft than adding veterans with long-term contracts. Mistakes in the draft are mitigated by the shorter and cheaper rookie-scale contracts. If a drafted player doesn’t work out for his original team, there’s always another team that believes it can unlock his potential. See the Hawks trading Cam Reddish to the Knicks in January.

The Hawks are a good team because Schlenk hit big with Young. He’s not as good as Doncic, but he’s still a franchise cornerstone. Schlenk getting it right with Young is one reason why the team’s salary cap is tight. Young’s All-NBA selection triggered a roughly $35 million increase to the five-year, $207 million contract he signed in August. After the Hawks employed Young at a bargain price for four seasons, it’s time to pay up.

We can’t yet judge Schlenk’s attempt to build a championship team around Young. The Hawks will have up to five more seasons to do it before Young’s contract expires. The East final appearance was evidence they were on their way, but the process has hit a snag.

If things had gone according to plan the Hawks wouldn’t be in such dire need of defenders, scorers and playmakers on the perimeter. Reddish and De’Andre Hunter were supposed to provide that. Reddish is gone. Hunter has been inconsistent and prone to injury. Those are setbacks in the grand plan, but they still can end up being minor hindrances.

Schlenk has flexibility to reshape the roster. He can’t sign expensive free agents, but the draft and trades are open avenues. The Hawks have several players with trade value and no excessively burdensome contracts on the books. They got a first-round draft pick as part of the Reddish trade. There’s also internal player development. The Hawks have some big questions under that heading.

Can Hunter become a high-level, two-way wing player? Can Collins still develop a dribble, pass and shoot game? Is center Onyeka Okongwu, the No. 6 pick in 2020, ready for a bigger role that could include time at power forward? Can the Hawks rely on Bogdan Bogdanovic after he wore down at the end of the past two seasons and recently had knee surgery?

Even if the Hawks answer yes to those questions they’ll still need external help. Delon Wright is a pending free agent after he capably served as the backup point guard this season. Danilo Gallinari could be on his way out because only $5 million of his $21.5 million salary for 2022-23 is guaranteed. If so, the Hawks will need a shot creator and shooter for the bench unit.

Filling those needs and others doesn’t necessarily mean making a big trade. If the Hawks do decide to go that route, then Gobert is a great option to pursue.