Schlenk rebuilt Hawks, now playoffs will help determine what’s next

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk (left) and principal owner Tony Ressler at the news conference to introduce Schlenk on June 2, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Hawks GM Travis Schlenk (left) and principal owner Tony Ressler at the news conference to introduce Schlenk on June 2, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Travis Schlenk tore down the Hawks so he could rebuild them. The general manager accelerated that process when he hit on Trae Young in Year 2. Schlenk completed the task by assembling a deeper roster around Young this season, Year 4. Now the Hawks are back in the NBA playoffs with a 50/50 shot of winning their first-round Eastern Conference series against the Knicks, which starts Sunday.

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It’s an impressive feat of team-building by Schlenk. Tanking is a perilous strategy with an uncertain payoff at some undetermined time in the future. Losing is the easiest part (and even that can backfire). A lot of other things could have gone wrong. Schlenk made most of the right moves.

In four years the Hawks went from 24-58 to 41-31 with the East’s No. 5 playoff seed.

“I don’t know that I’ve sit down and said, ‘Look at what we’ve been able to accomplish,” Schlenk said Thursday. “Maybe I will this summer. I don’t know.”

I suspect Schlenk won’t be reflecting any time soon on how he and his staff successfully rebuilt the Hawks. That’s now how it works for people in his position. NBA GMs who win championships immediately start thinking about how they can do it again. Those who build lottery teams into playoff qualifiers, like Schlenk, keep working so they one day can become a championship GM.

Schlenk will get some clues in these playoffs about what more he must do to make that happen. The Hawks have a real chance. The betting markets are giving the Hawks and Knicks about the same odds to advance. I like the Hawks to win the best-of-seven series.

The Hawks have a deeper roster, which might matter less in the playoffs, but still is an advantage. The Knicks have Julius Randle, whose size and skill as a “point forward” make him built for postseason. But there are only two or three other Knicks for the Hawks to worry about. There are four or five Hawks beyond Young for the Knicks to deal with.

Playoff experience is a wash. Randle is among three Knicks starters with zero postseason experience, and two NBA rookies are part of the rotation. The Hawks will send out four starters for their first playoff series, and two other neophytes will be key players off the bench.

“I’m excited to see how they handle it and learn from it and grow,” Schlenk said.

After that, Schlenk will have a better idea of what the Hawks need to take the next step. He’ll have some choices to make this summer.

Schlenk almost certainly will have to decide whether to match a substantial contract that John Collins signs as a restricted free agent. He’ll work on a contract extension for Young. Schlenk will make a call on interim coach Nate McMillan. He’ll have to figure out how Cam Reddish fits in the picture after he’s played in only 84 of 139 games over two seasons.

Schlenk can bring back essentially the same roster for next season. It was good enough to finish fifth in the East despite several injuries to key players.

“We obviously are extremely excited about this group,” Schlenk said. “If this same group came back, it wouldn’t bother me at all. But we will have to see how the draft and free agency play out.”

First, we’ll see what happens in the playoffs. Schlenk has built a good team around Young. This will be the first test of Schlenk’s all-in bet that Young can play the leading role for a championship contender.

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, left, celebrates a win with teammates Brandon Goodwin (0) and Nathan Knight (1) at the end of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic Thursday, May 13, 2021 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Tami Chappel)
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, left, celebrates a win with teammates Brandon Goodwin (0) and Nathan Knight (1) at the end of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic Thursday, May 13, 2021 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Tami Chappel)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Young, 22, already is one of the better offensive players in the league. He’s a master at scoring and passing out of pick-and-rolls and is a good spot-up shooter. Young is smart, skilled and competitive. That’s how he’s become a star at just shy of 6-foot-2, and somewhere around 180 pounds.

But postseason stars make things happen on their own when plays inevitably break down. When Young goes it alone, he must work harder than bigger players to create offense. He’s not shooting over defenders or barging his way to the basket. Young is very crafty at drawing fouls, but the whistles tend to be quieter in the playoffs.

The Knicks will test Young’s decision-making, especially late in games. They’ll try to force Young into being an isolation scorer or make him give up the ball. Schlenk pointed out that Young has improved his game management, but it still can get better. I think the Knicks series will further illustrate that, to take the Hawks further, Young needs a dynamic scoring guard alongside him instead of only shooters.

That was supposed to be Reddish, but he’s shown little growth on offense. Reddish won’t play against the Knicks because of a sore right Achilles. He probably wouldn’t crack McMillan’s rotation even if he were healthy. Schlenk acknowledged that Reddish needs work — he’s set to go to the next Summer League for development — while pointing out that Reddish still is only 21 years old.

The Hawks could use Reddish’s defense in this series. Their big weakness is keeping opponents from driving to the basket. That’s a trade-off with Young as point guard. He had the worst defensive rating among Hawks regulars.

De’Andre Hunter will help the perimeter defense if he can shake off the rust from a long injury absence. And the team defense has been good with Young in certain lineups. That’s largely because center Clint Capela is a defensive dynamo. The Hawks can win the series with average defense because they can score plenty.

That’s what the Hawks did in two of three regular-season games vs. New York. That will be harder as the pace slows and the scouting reports sharpen in the playoffs. It will be the space-and-pace Hawks vs the bump-and-grind Knicks. Something’s got to give.

We won’t learn everything about the Hawks in these playoffs. For those franchises that can’t form super teams, which is nearly all of them, it usually takes multiple tries with the same group to determine the ceiling. The Hawks took that too far with former GM Rick Sund. They had diminishing returns with Mike Budenholzer, another victim of LeBron’s greatness.

Now Schlenk gets his first crack at it. He’s rebuilt the Hawks into a playoff team after he tore them down. Schlenk said he hasn’t reflected on that accomplishment, and I believe him. There’s no time for that because, soon, he’ll have to decide what’s next. The playoffs will tell him a lot about that.

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