You don’t need a fistful of spreadsheets and an investigation board to figure out that the Atlanta Hawks really want to build something like the next edition of the Golden State Warriors.
The Hawks’ general manager is Travis Schlenk, who spent 12 formative years in the Warriors organization as an assistant coach and front office executive. Schlenk was on the bench at the end of Mike Dunleavy-Troy Murphy-Ike Diogu era and in the front office when Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green got drafted. He’s seen some things.
Schlenk took over the Hawks in May 2017, and it’s clear that things got weird in Atlanta. He had replaced Mike Budenholzer as the personnel boss, but Budenholzer remained as the (influential, well-respected) coach. The slow-motion dismantling of the 60-win Hawks was already underway — Al Horford had waltzed out a year prior, and Budenholzer replaced him with Dwight Howard, of all people. Schlenk then let Paul Millsap slide away in free agency to complete the exit of the All-Star frontcourt.
After losing those two — Atlanta’s best players by far — in successive offseasons, it was clear the Hawks needed a full rebuild. But to really rebuild in the NBA, you have to do a couple of things: you have to get really bad in order to secure high draft picks and you have to amass assets, either young players or future draft picks.
Teams get away with half-measures only when they aren’t rebuilding from scratch, but retooling. The Pacers, for example, never really rebuild: they retool on the fly without scraping the slate clean. Giving the state of the Hawks roster in 2017 when Schlenk arrived, there was no reason for such a blueprint. As long as team ownership was on board with a Prestian lowercase-p process, it was the smart move for the Hawks.
Schlenk could do but so much to implement that strategy immediately. As Atlanta bottomed out, he drafted John Collins in the 2017 NBA Draft, added basically no free agent talent, and traded Kyle Korver to the desperate Cavaliers for a draft pick during the season. The bottoming out was the important part here: the Hawks managed to finish with the NBA’s third-worst record in a banner year for tanking. With that, they landed the No. 3 pick in the top-heavy 2018 NBA Draft.
What Schlenk did next will be debated for a decade. Faced with a chance to draft Luka Doncic, he instead traded down to pick Trae Young.
Many basketball analysts and observers think Doncic could be a future MVP. At 19, he’s already the EuroLeague MVP. But Schlenk took Young, a divisive, high-volume shooter, and a lightly protected future Mavericks pick that could be mid- to late-lottery in 2019.
One of the most common and unfair comparisons Young has received is, of course, to Steph Curry. The Warriors connection is lost on no one.
Schlenk clearly isn’t shying away from those connections. With the Hawks’ other two first-round picks, he took Kevin Huerter from Maryland and Omari Spellman from Villanova. What do all three have in common? They are all three-point shooters. Huerter and Spellman both shot better than 40 percent from deep last year in college on substantial attempts. Young was No. 4 in the nation in three-point attempts. Schlenk had three picks in the first round, and targeted shooters with all of them.
Does this sound like the early Warriors at all? Because it should.
In the Carmelo Anthony trade, Schlenk leveraged the Hawks’ cap space to get far away from Dennis Schroder’s contract and pick up a lottery-protected 2022 first from the Thunder. Could Schlenk have used Atlanta’s cap space in an ultra-tight market to pick up a better pick that the one the Hawks received? Probably. But it was clearly important to clear out Schroder, who plays the same position as Young, has a bloated contract, and seems to be a poor personality fit on a rebuilding team lacking veteran leadership. Flipping Schroder for Melo allowed Schlenk to defer current cap space to the future, clear out a potential problem, and pick up a future asset. That’s a pretty good result.
Everything the Hawks have done signals that they’re completely at ease being terrible for the near future while Young finds his way. Atlanta hired coach Lloyd Pierce away from the Sixers based on Pierce’s own merits, but the fact that the coach has experience guiding young players through losing seasons surely helps. The Hawks are in prime position to be the NBA’s worst team in 2018-19 (competing with the Kings, who don’t have the rights to their own pick, and the Suns) and possibly beyond.
If the Hawks really do want to be the Warriors, this is the Warriors circa 2009, before anyone wanted to be the Warriors. It would take Golden State four years from there to make the playoffs and six years to build a champion. You might think we’ll know whether the Hawks are on that path sooner based on Young’s early NBA performance — in other words, we’ll know whether Trae is anything like a future Steph or not — but recall that Curry didn’t win Rookie of the Year and didn’t even get a max extension after his third year in the league. Patience is required to judge Schlenk’s tribute to Golden State.
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss this task as impossible. Curry is a generational talent, Klay Thompson is a perfect partner for him in every way, and landing a player of Draymond Green’s caliber in the second round happens once a decade for the whole league. The timing of the Warriors’ rebuild was perfect, and so much has broken in just the right way for Golden State. It’s so easy to dismiss any attempt to mimic the Warriors as a fool’s errand.
But at least the Hawks are trying to copy a model worth copying. That Atlanta’s architect had a hand in building the original should give you a little more faith that the Hawks can pull it off.
And truly, isn’t that really what rebuilding in the NBA is all about — faith? Get some, and enjoy watching Trae Young and the crew figure out what they are.