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Will the Hawks Become the New Model for NBA Rebuilds?

Atlanta just missed the Finals, but it hasn’t missed on a draft pick in years. Without Luka or luck, GM Travis Schlenk just pulled off one of the most impressive makeovers in recent memory.

AP/Ringer illustration

Travis Schlenk was on the hot seat this season. It was playoffs or bust after the Hawks general manager spent $134 million on Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic in free agency. Things hit rock bottom in March, when Atlanta dropped to 14-20 and fired head coach Lloyd Pierce. But Schlenk now looks like a visionary after his team’s surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals. The Hawks have one of the best young cores in the NBA and should contend for a long time. All the pieces of his plan have fallen into place.

Schlenk was an assistant general manager for the Warriors before he took over Atlanta’s front office in 2017 and began his own version of the Process. He blew up a middling playoff team and rebuilt through the draft. His reputation has been shaped by his decision to pass on Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft. Instead of selecting Luka at no. 3, he traded back for Trae Young at no. 5 and picked up an additional first-round pick in 2019, which became Cam Reddish. Trae has blossomed into a star in these playoffs, which is now changing the perception of the trade, but the deeper lesson is that you don’t necessarily need to have the best player in a trade to win it.

The Luka trade was part of a bigger plan. Schlenk never tried to find the best player available in the draft. He wanted prospects who would complement each other and be better than the sum of their parts. The best way to do that was by acquiring extra picks to move around the board and get the exact players that he wanted. He passed on a generational prospect in Luka in hopes of building a generational team.

His scouting background is obvious when you look at his first-round picks with the Hawks. He was never lucky in the lottery. Atlanta has moved up only once despite having one of the worst records in the league for three seasons. But it hasn’t mattered. His only miss (Omari Spellman) in four drafts was taken at no. 30:

Recent Hawks Draft Picks

Player Draft Pick Year
Player Draft Pick Year
John Collins no. 19 2017
Trae Young no. 5 2018
Kevin Huerter no. 19 2018
Omari Spellman no. 30 2018
De'Andre Hunter no. 4 2019
Cam Reddish no. 10 2019
Onyeka Okongwu no. 6 2020

But just finding talent isn’t enough. All that talent has to mesh and become a team. That’s what was so impressive about Atlanta’s playoff run. The young Hawks make sense together in a way that few teams built through the draft do.

Everything starts with Trae, who averaged 28.8 points on 41.8 percent shooting and 9.5 assists and 4.0 turnovers per game in his first postseason. He’s a prototypical pick-and-roll guard who can create his own shot from anywhere off the dribble and pick apart defenses on the move. That ability makes him an offense unto himself. All he needs is a roll man and some shooters and he will always be able to generate efficient shots for himself and his teammates. And he still has so much room to improve. He shot only 31.3 percent from 3 on 9.0 attempts per game in the playoffs. Trae doesn’t need to be Steph Curry to be successful. He can take some of the deeper 3s out of his game.

The most encouraging development this season is that Young learned to trust his teammates and not try to do everything himself. Like many young point guards who start their careers on bad teams, Trae got used to dominating the ball and having the whole offense flow through him. But the coaching switch from Pierce to Nate McMillan seems to have changed his approach. His stats went down, but the team went up, and he’s looked more comfortable playing off the ball.

The other big knock on Trae has been his defense, which always will be an issue given his size (6-foot-1 and 180 pounds). That’s where Schlenk’s plan comes into play. He prioritized size and length on the perimeter to protect his star guard, much like the Warriors did with Steph Curry. All three of the Hawks’ young wings—Kevin Huerter (6-foot-7 and 190 pounds), De’Andre Hunter (6-foot-8 and 225 pounds), and Reddish (6-foot-8 and 218 pounds)—are huge for their position. The defensive flexibility that provides allowed the Hawks to move Trae around on defense in the playoffs and hide him on players like P.J. Tucker, Reggie Bullock, and Furkan Korkmaz.

There are also offensive benefits to surrounding Trae with size. Defenses want to put longer players on him to bother his shot, forcing opposing point guards to move off the ball. But there’s nowhere to hide a smaller defender against Atlanta. That was the key to the team’s Game 7 win in its second-round series against Philadelphia, when Huerter exploded for 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting with Seth Curry primarily guarding him. The 76ers had to leave Curry (6-foot-2) on Huerter to put Ben Simmons on Young. So even though Trae struggled from the field (5-for-23), his fingerprints were all over the game.

That kind of complementary effect is what separated Atlanta from Philadelphia. There is no similar synergy between Simmons and Joel Embiid. They get in each other’s way instead of making each other better. It doesn’t matter that Simmons and Embiid were the best available talents when they were drafted. Picking talent over fit can leave a team short of its ceiling. That’s why the 76ers keep losing in the second round despite changing GMs, coaches, and supporting casts.

This year’s playoff run is just the start for the young Hawks. They did most of their damage in the playoffs without Hunter, who was knocked out with a meniscus injury before Game 1 against Philadelphia, and Reddish, who returned from an Achilles injury that had sidelined him since February in Game 2 against Milwaukee. Both have higher upside than Huerter, who established himself as a legit two-way wing this postseason.

The growth of Hunter and Reddish in their second seasons is another lesson in the power of fit. Neither was a slam dunk pick. Hunter was an older player (22 years old on draft night) with average advanced stats at Virginia, while Reddish struggled for much of his one season at Duke. Schlenk counted on Trae making up for their offensive limitations while they covered for him on defense.

Hunter started to turn the corner before getting injured, averaging 15.0 points on 48.4 percent shooting, 4.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 0.8 steals per game during the regular season. He’s one of the most well-rounded wings in the league, with the ability to create his own shot, space the floor, rebound, and defend three positions at a high level. His defense on Julius Randle was a huge part of the Hawks’ first-round win against the Knicks.

Reddish, who is two years younger than Hunter, is further away. But there’s no denying his talent. Few players his size have his combination of skill, strength, and speed. He was great in the conference finals, averaging 12.8 points on 52.8 percent shooting, 3.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 0.5 blocks in only 23.8 minutes per game off the bench. The game just comes so easy for him:

The road forward for Atlanta is clear. Its issue against Milwaukee, even after Giannis Antetokounmpo went down, was that it couldn’t stop Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. The backcourt of Trae and Bogdanovic has too many defensive issues. The best version of the future Hawks has Reddish on Holiday and Hunter on Middleton.

That leaves John Collins as the odd man out. He has improved a lot in his four seasons in the NBA, but he doesn’t fit as well with the rest of the young core. Collins is stuck between positions, without the perimeter game of a 4 or the interior defensive presence of a 5. It’s no coincidence that the Hawks’ growth this season has coincided with a huge decline in his stats. He will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and has reportedly already turned down a near–max offer from the Hawks. He’s still only 23 and could develop into a player who fits more comfortably within their system. But they can’t pay everyone. He’s the one they can most afford to lose over the long term.

And Atlanta already has its center of the future in Onyeka Okongwu. The biggest hole in Schlenk’s plan to become the Eastern Conference Warriors was the lack of a player like Draymond Green. That’s just not who Collins, an inconsistent passer and defender, is. Okongwu, who didn’t play much behind Clint Capela this season as a rookie, showed flashes against Milwaukee. He’s a small-ball big man with the speed to guard on the perimeter and enough size (6-foot-8 and 235 pounds) to protect the rim. He will never be a primary option, but he does have good touch around the basket and a feel for how to play off Trae in the pick-and-roll. There were times in the conference finals when the 20-year-old looked like the Hawks’ best option on Giannis:

The most impressive part of Atlanta’s playoff run is that this version of the team is still in training wheels. Bogdanovic, Gallinari, and Capela are solid veterans who helped stabilize the core and get them off the ground. But they shouldn’t be part of any long-term plans. The lineup of Young, Reddish, Huerter, Hunter, and Okongwu, all of whom are 23 and under, fits perfectly on both ends of the floor. Coming away from a rebuild with five talented young players who can all start together is a near miracle.

What Schlenk pulled off should be the model for the rest of the NBA. He built through the draft without getting a top-two pick, and added the right complementary pieces even though the franchise does not have a history of luring free agents. It’s the same thing he did in Golden State, where he helped GM Bob Myers put together one of the best cores in NBA history. Schlenk didn’t reinvent the wheel. He scouted well, found players who fit together, and stuck to his convictions when many had been written off. Maybe no one will write a book about him, or turn him into a cult hero. But he won’t be fired, either.