Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s Preseason Ranking, our staff’s best guess for where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 30
Last Season: 24-58 (last in Eastern Conference)
Notable Additions: Trae Young (draft), Jeremy Lin (trade), Alex Len (free agency)
Notable Subtractions: Dennis Schröder … Luka Doncic?
Vegas Over/Under: 23.5 wins
Team MVP: Taurean Prince
Best-Case Scenario: The Hawks will manage to resemble a bootleg of a Warriors bootleg, but still put together one of the worst records in the league.
The plan was obvious as soon as the Hawks hired former Golden State assistant GM Travis Schlenk in May 2017. It was reinforced this May with the hiring of rookie head coach Lloyd Pierce, the Sixers’ defensive coordinator during the Brett Brown era and a development mentor for both LeBron James and Steph Curry during his stints in Cleveland and Oakland. The Hawks are worrying about infrastructure first, talent second. And it will show on the court for the second straight season. The team has given up on all pretense, and any significant tether to the previous era that made the postseason for a straight decade: Schröder, their disgruntled starting point guard, was sent to the Thunder only one season into his four-year, $70 million deal. Their most reliable option at point guard now is Lin, who has played in 22.6 percent of available games the past two seasons; Young, their star-in-waiting, will need ample time to acclimate to the physical demands of the NBA game. It could be an awfully painful season to be a fan of well-executed basketball in Atlanta, but as the Process Trusters in Philly have shown us, there are ways to embrace (and cope with) calamity.
All eyes will be on Young and sophomore John Collins, a stretchy, springy big who figures to lock in the starting 4-spot. But I’m most looking forward to tracking the continued advancement of Prince, who made a Jimmy Butler–esque leap in Year 2, showing off most of the requisite skills you’d hope for in a power wing: confident, high-volume 3-point shooting; secondary playmaking; and stout individual defense across multiple positions. Like Butler, Prince was touted as a high-floor, low-ceiling role player coming out of college, and then took advantage of the freedoms he was given to expand his game as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. While he wasn’t particularly effective at it, having a handful of players on the floor comfortable with bringing the ball up the floor and initiating a play will make a huge difference for a team that will be sorely lacking in shot creation. His stat inflation screams good-stats-bad-team, but his core identity as a 3-and-D stalwart is one that would mesh with every championship contender.
The Hawks were seventh in the league in 3-point attempts last season; expect them to leap into the top five in 2018-19. The roster, while largely green, is stocked with perimeter threats from point guard all the way up to center. Half of the Hawks’ 24 wins last season came against playoff teams; a 3-point-shooting team keeps variance high, and it’s easy to imagine Pierce and the rest of the Hawks brain trust upping the ante. Young’s limitless range and confidence is well-documented, but fellow first-rounder Kevin Huerter has the potential to be one of the best shooters in the NBA; he has a clean, effortless stroke spotting up, but rarer still is his ability to keep his upper body aligned on his shot even as the bottom half of his body is drifting on the move. Curry and Klay Thompson’s ability to maintain accuracy from deep while in motion has been one of the keys to the Warriors’ irreplicable offense. The next 82 games will be a painful journey to figure out whether the Hawks’ new core can replicate even a sliver of what the Warriors accomplish on a possession-by-possession basis.
Worst-Case Scenario: Doncic is the unanimous Rookie of the Year winner, while none of the Hawks’ three first-round talents (Young, Huerter, and Omari Spellman) come remotely close to meeting expectations.
In a vacuum, the margins that separate the Hawks’ best- and worst-case scenarios are thin: In just about every conceivable scenario, Atlanta will be a bad NBA team next season. Despite shedding all of its Division II talent and adding three first-rounders to its roster, Vegas has Atlanta’s projected win total at 23.5, fewer games than it won last season.
Just as the best-case scenario for Atlanta does not invoke Doncic’s name once, its worst-case scenario does not escape the immense shadow he casts over not only the team’s 2018-19 season, but the lifespan of this regime. Of course, this comes with the caveat that the Hawks’ “Process” is only beginning—so much of their trajectory is still left to be determined by the choices they make in the 2019 draft—but Atlanta could not have made a bigger statement than swapping the rights to Doncic for the rights to Young. The two stand in stark contrast with one another: Doncic, an NBA-ready wing with the latitude to play just about every position in the game, could have optimized an interchangeable lineup of long-armed wings and bigs while serving as the nominal point guard and the tip of the spear. Young is a replicant in a Warriors-driven timeline, a creative on-ball maestro with the ability to stretch defenses far past their comfort zones. Both players established specific visions for Atlanta’s future, and the Hawks opted for the road already traveled.
Drafts are always a question of faith, and how long it can be sustained. Rookies foisted into marquee roles from the jump rarely change their team’s fortunes immediately. That goes triple for a player like Young, whose stylistic pedigree is full of players who not only toiled in the NBA wilderness for years before finding themselves, but also spent four years in college. Young has been ahead of the curve, but he’ll soon be in danger of getting crushed by it.
TL;DR: The Hawks will be driven by 3-pointers and either Doncic envy or schadenfreude. It’ll be a rough season.