Latest posts by Ben Stinar (see all)
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Tanking is done.
The well-known practice of building a team that is destined to lose was put to an end Tuesday night in Chicago. In front of a room full of media, NBA-hopefuls and millions watching around the world, the NBA community was stunned. The New York Knicks, who had the worst record in the NBA, would not even get a top-two pick, yet the Chicago Bulls (seventh overall pick), Phoenix Suns (sixth) and Cleveland Cavaliers (fifth), would kill to be in their position.
This was the first time the lottery odds had been altered to give everyone a fair chance at landing a top draft pick, and it worked.
Interestingly enough, the Atlanta Hawks, who garnered the eight overall pick and 10th overall pick (from Dallas), should be ecstatic. They are the only team in the NBA with two top-10 picks, and they only had the fifth-best odds to land at No. 1. Their roster was not that of a typical lottery team. They are built on players who were not going to back down when they began to lose. I consider them the most competitive sub-30 win team I have ever seen.
They even exceeded their own expectations this season.
“We projected ourselves around 25 wins,” Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said earlier this month. “We exceeded expectations.”
The Hawks finished with 29 wins, and usually that is not something to be proud of when a team is tanking. However, I am not so sure they were truly tanking.
Sure, no team goes out and tries to lose games, but that doesn’t mean that the human element of losing doesn’t start to creep in. Losing teams have always been connected to the old saying of, “They all want to start planning their vacations to Cabo.”
But that wasn’t this team.
There is something special being built in Atlanta, and not just on the court. Off the court the Hawks have a fully supportive and active ownership group, one of the best new GMs in basketball, and a rookie head coach in Lloyd Pierce who only made his team better as the season went on.
Look at the Sacramento Kings, who had their best season in 12 years. They also have a bright young core, but they still fired their coach. The Lakers, Bulls, Cavs and Suns, and all of the other young teams who missed the playoffs, all have problems that run deep through their respective organization.
The Hawks are as cohesive as any organization in the NBA right now.
”There’s a buzz around the league about our young core,” Schlenk said.
Their 20-year-old point guard, Trae Young, finished the season averaging 19 points and 8.1 assists per game, and 21-year-old John Collins averaged 19.5 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game.
That all goes without even mentioning that they have one of the newest practice facilities in the NBA, invested millions of dollars into renovations for their arena, and have a G-League team moving to Atlanta next season.
During the final stretch of this season when most losing teams fold, the Hawks played arguably their best three-game stretch of the season. They beat the 76ers and Jazz, who were both playing very meaningful games in their chase for post-season seeding. Instead, they ran into Young who was the best player on the court in both games. They then went to New Orleans capping a three-game win-streak.
It didn’t look like they had Cabo or any vacation island on their mind at that point in time.
“There’s a lot for us to play for,” Young said to reporters after he made a game-winning shot against the 76ers on March 23. “We want to continue to keep the excitement going.”
Rarely is there excitement on a team that goes 29-53, but that’s exactly what there was for this team. Especially after All-Star break when Young started playing like an All-Star himself. The continued growth throughout the season says a lot about him and the rest of his teammates, but it also says a lot about their rookie head coach, Pierce.
”He has a great ability to connect with the guys,” Schlenk said. “He did a great job at the beginning of the year keeping the mood and vibe positive when things weren’t going well.”
As bad as things started, they did not even finish in the bottom four-teams in the NBA. During the first 26 games, the Hawks were 6-20. Collins had been hurt and missed most of those games and Young was still getting adjusted to playing in the NBA.
At one point after getting their butts kicked by the Celtics, Young even stayed after a game to get shots up.
“I think that’s something that I gotta get back to, is playing with more confidence, playing like the reason why I’m known,” Young exclusively told Amico Hoops after that postgame workout.
From that point on, things changed. The Hawks went 13-19 over the final 32 games before All-Star break.
This team is light-years ahead of where it is supposed to be. Collins was drafted with the 19th overall pick in the 2017 draft, several teams passed on drafting Young last year. Yet, here they are, arguably the best player’s in each of their respective draft class. It’s also worth mentioning that Schlenk also drafted Kevin Huerter with the 19th overall pick in last year’s draft. He shot 38.5 percent from three, and has the potential to be one of the better wing defenders in the NBA.
“We have good chemistry on this team,” Collins said after a practice in March. “Guys like each other, guys want to play with each other and pass.”
So why can’t the Hawks make the playoffs next season?
No team has any reason to tank, which was clearly put on display during the NBA Draft Lottery, but this was also a team that was not built with players that would be OK with tanking. The Hawks are a decent draft class and signing a solid starter away from being a legitimate threat to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
With the No. 8 and No. 10 draft picks, they can get two promising players, or trade up to get a player they covet. Schlenk has said even though the Hawks have five draft picks, they do not see themselves adding five rookies to the team next year.
They also are in the top-10 in available cap space, for this summer’s free agent crop.
“We’re one of the few teams that can walk into a room and say, ‘Here’s $40 million,’” Schlenk said.
While they likely will not get Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler and players of that magnitude, that doesn’t mean they can’t go sign a solid starter for $20 million a year. Schlenk said that the team does not anticipate to be one of the first to make any moves.
This is a team that will be able to attract free agents, because of their young core, good coaching staff and fancy practice facility to go with playing in a good city like Atlanta.
Look at the teams that won less than 30 games; they usually have players begging to be bought out or traded. J.R. Smith basically publicly asked to be traded from the Cavs and was sent home, with full pay.
No one wanted out from the Hawks.
“We do so much to promote team,” Pierce said after a practice in March. “It’s the only thing I know.”
If they sit back and see who is still looking for work when the market has dried up, they could easily end up getting a player on a two- or three-year deal. I don’t think this is speeding up the process or hindering any player’s development, because I think Collins and Young have already proven that they are two of the top players in the NBA.
Now they just need more firepower around them.
“The more talent you put around Trae, the better he’s gonna get,” Doc Rivers told reporters after Young scored 25 points and tallied 17 assists against the Clippers on Nov. 19.
I believe one of Young or Collins will be in the conversation for being an All-Star in the Eastern Conference next season. As this season progressed, they only got better, and not only are their returning players next season going to be better, but the Hawks will have a lot more talent to play with next season.
”That’s sort of our head start for next year I feel like,” Collins told Amico Hoops in February. “We know now we can compete with these teams and beat these teams.”