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How the Hawks dismantled their 60-win team in just 2 years

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The team’s lack of vision after breaking through two years ago was astounding.

Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The final member of that infamous Atlanta Hawks 60-win starting five is gone, as Paul Millsap agreed to join the Nuggets as a free agent. DeMarre Carroll left two years ago in the immediate aftermath of Atlanta’s crowning glory -- a glory capped by a sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Jeff Teague and Al Horford followed last summer, the former traded and the latter lost in free agency. The Hawks dealt Kyle Korver before the in-season deadline, and now they have lost Millsap.

This all happened in two years.

As Kevin Arnovitz points out, the Hawks didn’t even convert those personnel losses into much in the way of talent or assets. All Atlanta has to show for the 60-win starting five is Taurean Prince and a protected Cleveland 2019 first-round pick. Turning that roster into whatever this is now is the basketball transaction equivalent of giving up a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl.

How did we get here? It took a series of front office calamities, unbearable contracts, and the shadow cast by LeBron James to turn a brief window into a missed opportunity.

The architect of that 60-win team was Danny Ferry. He inherited Horford and Teague, but acquired Korver for cash, signed Millsap in free agency, and plucked Carroll out of the fringes of the NBA. He also hired Mike Budenholzer, the long-time Gregg Popovich acolyte, as head coach. Bud installed a beautiful ball movement offense that paired perfectly with a dogged defense to make the Hawks great.

Ferry dove into some hot water with the Luol Deng scouting report scandal and actually spent the entire dream season away from the team. He resigned at the end of the season, turning the reins over to Budenholzer and a promoted Wes Wilcox. That front office re-signed Millsap but watched Carroll walk — there was no other way, as Toronto ponied up more cash than the Hawks could handle.

The offense sunk from No. 6 in the league to No. 22 despite healthy seasons for everyone in Atlanta. The Hawks fell to 48 wins, and got swept by the Cavaliers again, and faced the sure end of their run.

Horford was a free agent, and Teague, Korver, and Millsap were each one year away. Kent Bazemore, Carroll’s in-house budget replacement, was set to hit the market, too. In one of the weirdest offseasons in memory, Wilcox and Budenholzer decided to trade Teague (the youngest member of that 60-win core) to make way for Dennis Schroder. They lowballed Horford in free agency, paid big for Bazemore, and inexplicably signed Dwight Howard to pair with Millsap.

Horford joined the Celtics, who were in a similar spot in the Eastern hierarchy as the Hawks at the time, but on a much different arc. Bazemore and Schroder were disappointments after their paydays. Howard was as good as could be expected, but still ended up getting flipped for Marco Belinelli and the Plumlee brother on a horrible contract. Korver was traded midseason for that Cavs pick. In the process, Wilcox was booted out and Travis Schlenk, long of the Warriors, has taken over the front office.

Atlanta Hawks v Washington Wizards - Game Five Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Where are the Hawks now, after all of this? They are not bloody likely to be a playoff team. Atlanta snuck in by just two games this past season with Millsap. The Hawks have plenty of cap space to use, but the player pool is drying up. Next season looks like a high-potential opportunity for teams with space, but Atlanta doesn’t have an attractive base to recruit from otherwise, other than being Atlanta.

The shine has come off Budenholzer, at least in comparison to Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens, Dave Fizdale, and Quin Snyder. Ferry had a vision for how he saw the Hawks succeeding, and it worked ... for one year. If Ferry had a gameplan for how to build off that success, we never got to see it because of his exile and eventual departure.

Some have credited James with killing the Hawks, and there’s some truth to that. After all, he moved back to Cleveland just in time for Atlanta’s dream season to begin. And that dream season ended up with a dismantling at the hands of King James and crew.

The way the Cavaliers muted Horford in two straight postseasons surely impacted how Atlanta weighed his free agency in 2016, and signing Howard seemed like a direct response to Cleveland. Still, it was a bit of uninspired conventional thinking. Atlanta knew by midseason it wouldn’t work; otherwise, the Hawks wouldn’t have traded Korver to Cleveland itself!

The Hawks as we knew them had multiple factors contributing to their death, but the lack of vision on what to do once they found success is the clearest cause. After years of grinding through draft picks and huge contracts, Atlanta finally climbed higher than they had in decades. Unfortunately, they had no idea how to stay there. Now they’ve tumbled down to where they were back when Horford first arrived in 2007.

Time is cruel and unforgiving. It comes for all, some faster than others. You just didn’t expect it to ravage the Hawks this quickly.