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Are We Sure ... That the Hawks Know What They’re Doing?

Passing on Luka Doncic for Trae Young has put Atlanta’s rebuilding process under the microscope

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Let it be known that, for five days, the Atlanta Hawks had a superstar. Sure, Carmelo Anthony is now 34 years old and coming off a career-worst season in which his signature shoe was discontinued. He was also with the Hawks—“with the Hawks”—only as a means of obtaining both his release and his money. But for a franchise defined in recent years by its inability to land one of the NBA’s precious few game-changing, seat-filling, product-moving, face-of-the-franchise-type players, it’s a start.

Unlike their hapless predecessors in the early aughts, the past decade of Hawks basketball has been relevant beyond the ironic jersey market. As a result, Atlanta has been well-represented at the All-Star Game; in 2015, they sent four members of their starting five to New York, a feat hailed by teamwork disciples everywhere. But not since Dominique Wilkins’s departure in 1994 has a Hawks player moved an NBA-friendly fan base to do much other than tune out. Even at the peak of their success, the team struggled at the gate. The Paul Trillsap push, regrettably, did not reach mass appeal. So with new ownership and new management in place, and several 30-something mainstays due large new contracts, the Hawks let their best team since the turn of the century bleed out.

But rather than rush to win now, as new owners so often do, Atlanta took the longest view possible. This Hawks regime, led by Golden State expat Travis Schlenk, has made it clear that their ambition ends once the games begin. Atlanta accumulated 24 wins, tied for third-fewest in the NBA, in its first season without a single starter from the 60-win heyday. Now it will turn the keys of the operation over to a 19-year-old with a turnover rate as ghastly as his defense. Luckily, new head coach Lloyd Pierce, a survivor of the leanest years of the Process, isn’t squeamish.

Unlike in their very recent history, the Hawks can at least sell hope. (And if hope doesn’t do it for you, the nachos are cheap.) To that end, the front office has turned the offseason into a summer accounting course. In trading for, then waiving, Anthony, the Hawks are reportedly eating $25.5 million—or, the price of one prime Anthony Davis—in dead money this year. For its troubles, Atlanta rids itself of the final three years of Dennis Schröder’s deal, one of the last vestiges of the previous front office, and adds a lottery-protected first-round pick from the Thunder in 2022 (when the draft’s age limit could be lifted) to a growing war chest of assets. The Hawks may not play a single lineup next season with an established veteran at every position, but they may be able to draft an entirely new five-man unit next year. In addition to all of their own first-round picks and the one from OKC, the Hawks are owed two more firsts likely to convey next season, as well as five future second-rounders. Their books are equally forward-looking: Outside of a player option for Kent Bazemore (who is also very available) and Miles Plumlee’s final year, there’s nothing but rookie deals and clear cap space ahead.

The Hawks have drawn mock-comparisons to the Warriors, Schlenk’s former employer, after using their two recent first-round picks on Trae Young and Kevin Huerter, two shooters with chalk outlines kind of similar to those of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. But in taking the slow and methodical approach, the team has become the closest we’ve seen to successors of the Process Sixers. Tanking is no new discovery, and the stratagems most associated with and/or popularized by Sam Hinkie have already been seen around the league: The Nets have rented out their cap space to make up for their draft-pick debt to the Boston mafia, and the Bulls test-drove the long view before taking a $20 million flier on Jabari Parker this summer. But the legacy of the actual process behind the Process—not the cult following or the palace intrigue that sprouted around it—is in pushing the league’s flawed incentive structure to its extremes over an extended period in order to obtain as many paths to a transformative player or two as possible. The Hawks, most notably by passing up a chance to draft wunderkind Luka Doncic to instead acquire a future first from Dallas, appear in lockstep with the broad interpretation of that idea. Add in intentionally stripping a competent team down to its studs, hiring a Brett Brown lieutenant to oversee the day-to-day, and working the financial fringes, and Atlanta might as well be using Hinkie’s resignation opus as its show bible.

The upshot of following that path is obvious for any Hawks fan who managed to hold on to a 2 Chainz shirsey this long: The Process worked. The Sixers are very good, and figure to be very good for some time. The downside is it runs the risk of dredging up the same divisive opinions that turned the Process into one of the most scrutinized topics in recent league history.

Extreme decisions evoke extreme reactions, and by signaling that the offseason is the only season of any importance for now, the Hawks have invited long, hard looks at their every transaction. Unlike Hinkie, who quickly established himself as a shrewd dealmaker, Schlenk’s earlier body of work looks more curious under the microscope. The Hawks took on an extra year of Plumlee’s contract and moved down in last year’s second round to divorce themselves from Dwight Howard, and took on Jeremy Lin’s nearly $14 million deal and in the process helped Brooklyn add a first-rounder for absorbing the Nuggets’ bad deals. And while Hinkie’s moves often showed a strong analytical bent that would warm the heart of any blog boy or girl, the Hawks received the brunt of the backlash for handing over the rights to Doncic, the internet’s favorite Rorschach-test prospect, and selecting Young.

In their quest to open up extra routes to a star, it’s possible the Hawks let one slip right through their hands. That would be a major blow for any franchise, let alone one still feeling the tremors of its decision to choose Marvin Williams over Chris Paul 13 years ago. Then again, the Sixers passed up on Kristaps Porzingis, another 19-year-old overseas prodigy, to draft Jahlil Okafor and are still on track to become a title contender for the foreseeable future. That’s the beauty of thinking big picture: A miss on Doncic may ultimately look like nothing more than a bad beat if the Hawks land the superstar they’ve been searching for next year or the year after.