The Hawks have a franchise player and not much else. Trae Young, who currently leads All-Star fan voting among East guards, has become a star in his second season in the NBA. But his team has not kept pace. Atlanta has the worst record (8-32) and net rating (minus-9.6) in the league.
General manager Travis Schlenk is in the third season of his own version of the Process. He blew up the team that he inherited and stripped it down for parts, putting together an interesting young core with no long-term financial commitments—and little ability to compete on some nights.
But there is one key difference between Schlenk and Sam Hinkie, his quasi-predecessor in Philadelphia. Hinkie drafted as if the odds were against him; he was looking for stars and worrying about fit later. Schlenk, who comes from a more traditional scouting background with the Warriors, has taken the opposite approach. He drafts like someone who believes he can beat the odds, selecting prospects based on how their skill sets complement each other instead of their theoretical upside. His goal has been to assemble a cohesive group better than the sum of its parts, even if it means passing on players with more talent in a vacuum. The question is how much longer he will get to execute his plan if it doesn’t start to show progress.
The decision that will define his tenure came in last season’s draft. Schlenk could have stayed put at no. 3 and selected Luka Doncic. It was the obvious pick. But he rolled the dice, trading down with Dallas to no. 5 to take Young and acquire their lottery pick in this season’s draft, which became Cam Reddish. The two teams have gone in opposite directions since the deal. Doncic is a legitimate MVP contender and the Mavs are a near lock for the playoffs.
Young has not been the issue for the Hawks. He’s been great in his own right. He’s averaging historic numbers (28.9 points on 44.3 percent shooting and 8.4 assists per game) for a player of any age, much less a 21-year-old. The list of players to reach those marks features some of the greatest guards in NBA history, including Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and James Harden. But players earn respect in the NBA when they rack up wins, not gaudy stat lines.
It’s unfair to compare anyone to Luka. He’s a generational talent, a 6-foot-7 point forward who was the best player in Europe as a teenager. Young, like the vast majority of players his age, can’t carry a team by himself. He needs to be in the right context to succeed. He’s one of the smallest (6-foot-1 and 180 pounds) and least athletic players in the NBA, and he’s terrible defensively. Schlenk has been laser-focused on finding other young players who can complement him on both ends of the floor. The hope is not that Young will be better than Doncic. It’s that growing a young team around him instead of adding veterans like the Mavs have done will put the Hawks in a better situation when both players are near their prime.
The second most important piece of the puzzle in Atlanta is third-year big man John Collins. He missed 25 games while serving a PED suspension, effectively ending the Hawks’ season before it ever began. They were 2-3 when his suspension started in early November, and 6-24 by the time he returned right before Christmas.
The pick-and-roll between Young and Collins is the foundation of Atlanta’s offense. Collins, at 6-foot-9 and 235 pounds, is an elite athlete who can finish at the rim and average a double-double in his sleep. But the most encouraging thing about him is that he keeps adding dimensions to his game. It’s not just the points (17 per game on 49 percent shooting) and rebounds (9.7) anymore. He’s posting career highs in 3-point attempts (4.1 per game, on which he shoots 33.3 percent) and blocks (2.1).
Collins has also taken a big step forward on the defensive end. The Hawks’ defensive rating goes from 113.8 in 1,508 minutes without him (which would rank no. 28 in the league over the course of the whole season) to 105.9 in 427 minutes with him (which would be no. 8). They have held their own when Collins has played as a small-ball 5, with a defensive rating of 107.8 in 184 minutes.
But his return has done only so much for Atlanta. The Hawks are still just 2-8 in games when both Young and Collins have played this season. They need more from the other three young cornerstones that Schlenk has drafted in the first round: Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish.
Huerter, the no. 19 pick in the 2018 draft, has not made the same leap as his classmate Young. He has been slowed by a shoulder injury that kept him out for 11 games and has struggled at times to get into a rhythm playing next to such a ball-dominant guard. Huerter is an interesting prospect, with great size (6-foot-7 and 190 pounds) and a more diverse offensive game than most knockdown outside shooters. But Atlanta needs him to average more than 11.2 points on 41.6 percent shooting and 3.4 assists per game. The team is counting on Huerter to become a consistent third scorer and secondary playmaker who can keep everyone involved in the offense.
Neither Hunter (no. 4 in last year’s draft) nor Reddish (no. 10) has done much in their rookie seasons. My colleague Zach Kram ran their numbers through a statistical model on Monday and came up with an ugly list of comparable players, including lottery busts like Ben McLemore, Stanley Johnson, and Wesley Johnson. Hunter and Reddish are showing positive signs on defense, but their offense has been rough. Hunter is averaging 11.9 points per game on 40 percent shooting while Reddish is averaging 8.3 points per game on 32.5 percent shooting.
Their offensive issues were well known coming out of college. The Hawks hoped that Young would create easy looks for them while they covered for him on defense. It all makes sense on paper. Young and Collins are the high-usage offensive stars, and Hunter and Reddish are the defensive-minded role players, with Huerter somewhere in the middle. The parallels to Schlenk’s previous stint in Golden State, when he helped build a young team around elite outside shooters, long and athletic wings, and a small-ball big man, are inescapable. The plan has worked in the rare times this season when all five members of Atlanta’s young core have been available. They have a net rating of plus-25.1 in 37 minutes together this season.
The downside of building such an interconnected team is that removing one piece causes the whole thing to fall apart. The Hawks are coming off an ugly defeat on Sunday, a 108-86 loss to the Nets in Kyrie Irving’s first game back. Young was out with a hamstring injury and none of their other youngsters could pick up the slack. They all need Young to set the table for them. There isn’t another elite playmaker or shot creator in the bunch. The same thing happened when Collins was out earlier in the season. The other four complement him well, but none could fill his shoes.
Schlenk’s long-term plan could still work. For as bad as the Hawks have been this season, there’s still plenty of reason for hope. Collins and Hunter are 22. Young and Huerter are 21. And Reddish is only 20.
The biggest problem in Atlanta this season hasn’t been the young players. It has been everyone else. The Hawks were bad last season, when they had a 29-53 record and a net rating of minus-5.5, but they still had quality veterans like Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Dewayne Dedmon. Those guys are all gone, and there’s just not much talent left in their supporting cast. Look at the list of players that Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce has been forced to rely on this season: Jabari Parker, DeAndre’ Bembry, Alex Len, Damian Jones, Vince Carter, Allen Crabbe, Bruno Fernando, and Brandon Goodwin. The Hawks could take a big step forward next season just by getting competent play from the rest of their rotation.
Schlenk has to upgrade the roster, either at the trade deadline or during the offseason. The question is whether he will keep making long-term decisions or whether he will feel the pressure to make win-now moves, even if it comes at the expense of the team’s ultimate ceiling. The one thing in his favor is that he received a contract extension last summer, which gives him some measure of job security.
The most notable player whom the Hawks have been linked to in trade talks is Andre Drummond. Drummond, who is still only 26, is an elite rebounder who would be dynamic in the pick-and-roll with Young. Atlanta has all of its future first-round draft picks as well as a first-rounder from the Nets, plus enough expiring contracts to match his salary in a trade.
But trading for Drummond would be a course correction for Schlenk. What is the point of Collins on a team that has Drummond? Collins has improved enough as a shooter to make a pairing possible, but it’s hard to imagine him becoming the best version of himself as a stretch 4. They are both rim-running big men who would get in each other’s way, and Drummond might not even be a defensive upgrade at center. While he has an elite combination of size and athleticism, he has never been able to make a difference on that end of the floor. The Pistons have always been better defensively without him.
Schlenk has the flexibility to do almost anything in free agency and on the trade market. The Hawks have the cleanest cap sheet in the league, with only $33.4 million in salaries for next season. The only players under contract for 2021 are on rookie deals, although Collins is up for an extension.
Schlenk’s toughest call will be in the upcoming 2020 draft. The Hawks and Warriors are neck and neck in the race for lottery balls, but the NBA has evened the lottery odds since Hinkie’s days with the 76ers. Atlanta could easily wind up outside of the top four in a draft that most teams don’t consider particularly strong. And even if they get the no. 1 pick, there’s no obvious prize like Zion Williamson to pair with Trae.
The best available prospect might be LaMelo Ball, a ball-dominant guard with significant defensive issues of his own. In that scenario, would Schlenk stick to his principles and target the player who best fits with his core, even if it means trading down again? Or would he take LaMelo and pit him against Young? That’s what Hinkie would have done. He took traditional centers—Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor—in three consecutive drafts.
What Schlenk has done in Atlanta is a natural reaction to what happened in Philadelphia. The 76ers are now one of the most talented teams in the league, but they seem to have hit a ceiling because their best players don’t fit well together. The Hawks, for all their flaws, will never have that problem. Schlenk’s twist on the Process may not work. But it’s too early to give up on it.