Moves Hawks make after draft more important than player they pick

Hawks franchise owner Tony Ressler and general manager Travis Schlenk. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Hawks franchise owner Tony Ressler and general manager Travis Schlenk. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

The season before the Hawks hired general manager Travis Schlenk they were just good enough to make the playoffs and lose. That meant Schlenk inherited a low draft pick and a topped-out roster with big contracts. Schlenk went looking for a foundational player in the next draft and found one, Trae Young, while shedding money and collecting more draft picks to build around him.

Now Schlenk has a trifecta: a talented roster with an All-Star point guard, lots of salary-cap space and a high draft pick. The Hawks have the No. 6 overall selection in Wednesday night’s draft. But for the first time during Schlenk’s tenure the most important transactions will follow the draft, with the free agency period beginning this weekend.

That’s assuming the Hawks don’t trade for a higher pick. Schlenk says it’s very unlikely he’ll do that. The consensus top 3 prospects seem to be Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman. Ball probably doesn’t fit with the Hawks. Edwards and Wiseman probably do. All three will be gone by pick No. 6.

Schlenk says this draft doesn’t have the same star-caliber depth of recent drafts, but he believes the Hawks can get a good player at No. 6. In this truncated offseason, free agency begins 48 hours after the draft. That’s when the Hawks will start adding players who will determine whether they end their playoff drought at three seasons.

The Hawks are among four teams projected to have substantial space under the salary cap. The others: Hornets, Pistons and Knicks. If Hawks backers think the team’s rebuild has been painful, consider that the Hawks have the most recent playoff win among the four. The Hawks also have the best roster of players under contract.

This will be the first real test of the Hawks’ plan to become an attractive destination for good free agents. They had the cap space last summer, but their potential and ambitions weren’t clear. Now the Hawks have an All-Star point guard and a goal of making the playoffs rather taking on bad contracts for more draft picks.

The Hawks are one of the few choices for top free agents who want to be paid market value. But the team may be hesitant to offer them long-term deals. The tricky part about building a roster with draft picks is, if those players become good, their salaries eventually balloon from rookie scale to much higher and the cap gets tighter.

The Hawks must plan for a possible extension for forward John Collins, who is a good starter. Those talks can begin this weekend. The Hawks also can’t do any deals that hurt their ability to sign Young long-term while building a good roster around him. Young is eligible for a contract extension after next season.

The Hawks might be attractive for those free agents who want to sign for a year and try again next summer. The salary cap should be higher then as league revenues rebound. In the meantime, free agents can help the Hawks go places in 2020-21. At the very least, they know Young will get them good shots.

The Hawks need as many 3-point shooters as they can get. They ranked last in accuracy last season. Four of their five so-called core players were at about league average or better (Cam Reddish was the exception). Everyone else in the playing rotation was bad shooting 3′s. That doesn’t work in the pace-and-space NBA.

Hawks players gather around center Clint Capela (15) during a huddle at team practice Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Atlanta. Hawks players went into a "bubble" environment as a team in order to hold workouts during the pandemic.
Hawks players gather around center Clint Capela (15) during a huddle at team practice Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Atlanta. Hawks players went into a "bubble" environment as a team in order to hold workouts during the pandemic.

Credit: Atlanta Hawks

Credit: Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks ranked among the league’s worst defending teams for two seasons so no surprise Schlenk wants to add “defensive-minded players.” He started that process by trading for big men Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon in February. More good defenders are needed on the perimeter to play with Young, who will have to improve from one maybe league’s worst for the Hawks to be better at that end.

Schlenk has said the positional priorities are at power forward and the wing positions. They also need a point guard to run the second team. Ideally, the Hawks would add versatile players with size who can shoot and defend. Obviously, those type of players will have plenty of suitors on the market.

During the “bubble” playoffs I saw some pending free agents who would be good fits for the Hawks. One of them, Nets forward Joe Harris, reportedly is in line for an offer from the Hawks. Another, Nuggets forward Jerami Grant, is opting out of his contract to become a free agent. My guess is that Heat guard Goran Dragic wants to join a better team than the Hawks, but money talks.

Multiple reports link the Hawks with pending free agent Rajon Rondo. (View that rumor and others with some skepticism given that so few teams have much cap space.) But Rondo isn’t big enough to play much alongside Young. Rondo also wouldn’t help their 3-point shooting and he can be indifferent defensively (bubble resurgence aside).

The Hawks might fill a need with the player they take in the draft. But if the Hawks really are a playoff team, that rookie may not play a big role. The Hawks were 20-47 when COVID-19 cut their season short. It will be difficult for a young team to go from that to the playoffs, even considering the weakened state of the Eastern Conference (which may not stay that way once trades and signings are finished).

To make a rapid rise from awful to the postseason, the Hawks require significant improvement from their incumbent players, especially on the wings, and more good veterans. Schlenk said internal progress happened between the premature end of last season and now. The external moves will come rapidly with the trade period open, the draft on Wednesday and the start of training camp on Dec. 1.

The 72-game season is set to start on Dec. 22. COVID-19 likely will impact how it goes.

“It’s going to be a wild year,” Schlenk said.

It’s going to be a different year for the Hawks. For the first year in Schlenk’s tenure, what happens after the draft is a bigger deal than which player he picks.

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