The Perplexing Atlanta Hawks

Coach Bud looks over his new team at training camp (Jeremy Johnson).

Over the course of a decade, the Hawks have experienced everything but true success.

For 10 straight years, the Hawks made the playoffs, but not in any season were they considered true title contenders. There were years that appeared doomed from the start, such as the two seasons that franchise center Al Horford suffered injuries. There were years that they were the underdogs that pushed other teams to the brink, only to fall short in the end, like the 2008 team that took the eventual champion Celtics to seven games or the 2014 team that took the top seeded pacers to a Game Seven. There were even years where the Hawks gained national attention and appeared to be among the NBA’s elites, such as the 60-win 2015 team. However, despite going through the ups and downs of the NBA spectrum for a full decade, the Hawks never truly felt like contenders. And now, after being “stuck in the middle” for so long, these 2017 Atlanta Hawks start where the franchise was before Al Horford and Josh Smith became one of the NBA’s most exciting front courts, before Jeff Teague became an established veteran Point Guard, and before Paul Millsap’s four All Star appearances. These Atlanta Hawks start at the bottom.

After the Hawks exited last years playoffs following a failed Dwight Howard experiment, it was evident that a change was needed. However, in true Hawks fashion, even pressing the ‘reset’ button cannot come without its fair share of complications. These are the issues the Hawks will have to work out this season if they want to complete a successful rebuild.

The NBA is cracking down on teams ‘tanking’.

For the past few years, teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers took advantage of how bad they were on the court. For years, the worse an NBA team was, the higher the probability that that team would get a top pick in the draft. Philadelphia used this method, called “tanking”, to draft players who now look like future stars such as Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, and Ben Simmons. However, the NBA is no longer making the process of tanking that easy. In a new rule, the NBA has reduced the chances that the team with the worst record will receive the top pick. Starting in 2019, the worst three teams in the league will have the same chance at the number one pick.

A new NBA lottery rule will lessen the chance that the worst team in the NBA ends up the number one overall pick. The rule will take effect in the 2019 draft. (USATSI).

This new rule could severely affect teams like the Hawks who appear to be trying to tank. Thankfully, the rule will not be in place in this upcoming draft, which luckily for the Hawks looks to be filled with elite talent like Michael Porter, Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. However, the rule still means that the Hawks will have to speed up their rebuild because they will not be able to rely on getting the top pick while having the worst record for long, similarly to the way that Philadelphia did.

While new general manager Travis Schlenk has repeatedly refrained from using the term “rebuild” to describe the Hawks’ current situation, there is a very good chance that this team will not produce many wins and therefore it would be nice if they were able to get the highest pick available in the process.

Who is the face of the franchise?

Most Hawks fans would assume the answer to this question is point guard Dennis Schröder. It is true that Schröder is the best or at least most accomplished player on the team and he looks to be the player who does the bulk of the scoring for the Hawks this season. However, there are many well-founded questions about Schröder’s maturity and whether he is truly someone the Hawks want to build around for the future.

Although he is the best player on the team, Dennis Schroder’s maturity issues have been a cause for concern. (Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images)

Schröder was recently arrested just outside of Atlanta on a Battery charge in a situation that still remains up in the air. However, it appeared that Schröder was the one who started the incident, or at least the violent part of the incident, that left one person in the hospital. Actions like this clearly will cause some concern for the leaders in the Hawks organization.

Schröder has also shown a lack of maturity on the court at times. In a game against Golden State last year, Schröder and then-Center Dwight Howard got in a brief argument during play, leading to sharp-shooter Stephen Curry having an open three, which he promptly buried. Schröder, who had been having his best game of the season up to that point, was benched by coach Mike Budenholzer for the rest of the game for his lack of focus.

Schröder has also been known to be unwise about when he chooses to go after steals on defense. “Gambling”, as it is referred to among NBA analysts, has been a big problem for Schröder and it is something he must learn how to control if the Hawks want to remain a formidable defensive team this year.

Is it possible that the Hawks could be too good?

With a starting lineup consisting of names that would not ring a bell for most casual NBA fans, the Atlanta Hawks have been projected far and wide to finish near the bottom of the league in wins when all is said and done. However, they do have a former coach of the year, Mike Budenholzer, who has been known to develop below average NBA players (see DeMarre Carroll and Tim Hardaway, Jr.) into formidable role players. If Budenholzer could turn young players like Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry into capable NBA starters, and if other young pieces like John Collins live up to the hype they have received thus far, this could easily be a 30-35 win team.

On the surface, this appears to be a good thing. However, in the east, 35 wins might be enough to get a team like the Hawks into the playoffs, where they would surely be dismantled by the Cavaliers or Celtics. While it is nice to keep the playoff streak going, the organization came into this season needing a change. Giving up a lottery spot only for a quick playoff exit would not be a good tradeoff for the Hawks.

Is it possible that head coach Mike Budenholzer could make the Hawks “too good” to tank? (USA TODAY Sports)

This is not to say that the Hawks shouldn’t try their hardest this season. The only way that players like Collins or Prince will improve is through practice on and off the court, and they have a great coach to help them develop. However, sacrificing a spot in the lottery would only keep the Hawks entrenched in the middle of the NBA hierarchy.

But there is hope.

Lots of it, in fact. As previously mentioned, the Hawks have good young pieces to build around. Taurean Prince was one of the more consistent players for the Hawks in their playoff series against the Wizards this past spring. DeAndre’ Bembry showed a high Basketball IQ in the summer league, as well as a knack for being in the right place at the right time on defense. Also in the summer league, rookie Power Forward John Collins displayed his off-the-charts athleticism that the Hawks sorely lacked at the forward and center position last season. Make no mistake, this is a good young core.

DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince are two key pieces in the Atlanta Hawks’ young core (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

If the Hawks were to add a Marvin Bagley III or Michael Porter, Jr. to the mix, they could start to look like a formidable NBA team sooner rather than later, and it would be a short rebuild that will have been very worthwhile. However, if they do not play it smart, they could continue to be stuck in NBA mediocrity, just a lower level of NBA mediocrity, a thing which neither I nor most any Hawks fan can endure any more of.

Much of the Hawks’ struggles to get anywhere substantial over the past decade was due to poor vision by the front office. The franchise has been hounded for much of recent memory by poor decisions. Now as it looks forward to the next generation of basketball, right where it started ten years ago, it’s time to start making the right ones.

Jackson Stone



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