‘Nothing lasts forever.’
No matter what walk of life you’re in right now, you have learned — or will learn — that not everything lasts forever. There are exceptions, of course, like friendships, relationships and marriages to name a few — some of those things do last forever. But in sports, it’s always true: nothing lasts forever.
Seasons come and go, records are set only to broken again, trophies are raised but the teams that lift them differ, as do the players who win them, the coaches that lead them and the executives that put it all together. They all move on as time does — it’s just a part of life.
And so it is for the Atlanta Hawks heading into a new season.
The Hawks head into the season with an impressive stat, a stat accrued over the last decade — 10 straight playoff appearances. Only the San Antonio Spurs (with a whopping 20 straight playoff appearances) boast a better active playoff streak than the Atlanta Hawks.
But it’s all on the line this season for the Hawks.
A new direction
It’s no secret at this stage what the Hawks did over the summer. A lot of things changed.
They traded Dwight Howard and allowed four-time All-Star Paul Millsap and the much improved Tim Hardaway Jr. to leave in free agency, as well as defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha. In their place arrived Dewayne Dedmon, Luke Babbitt, Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee and Nicolas Brussino, as well as draft selections John Collins and Tyler Dorsey.
Let’s be real here, the Hawks — from a talent point of view — got worse over the summer, that’s just the truth, and I think everyone understands and accepts that.
Hawks GM Travis Schlenk outlined what his objectives were heading into the summer, that the Hawks achieved those (they got younger and created financial flexibility for the future) and outlined what his goals for the upcoming season (which is developing the young players).
The on-court talent may have gotten worse, but I think Hawks fans believe in Travis Schlenk and the plan he has for the Hawks’ future. But here’s the thing: Schlenk’s plan is bigger than this season and goes beyond this season.
Sometimes you have to get worse before you get better.
Here’s an example: The year the Celtics traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (2013), they (both the organisation and the fans) knew the following season (2013-14) was not going to be good. It wasn’t, and the Celtics limped to a 25-57 record — 12th in the Eastern Conference and tied for 27th in the league. The Celtics lost the coin flip for the 5th overall selection in 2014 and they selected Marcus Smart with the 6th overall pick.
After that first, rough and tough season of the rebuild, Boston made incremental gains over the next few years (winning 40 games in 2014-15 while making the playoffs, 48 wins in 2015-16 and 53 wins — the East’s number one seed — in 2016-17) while adding All-Star talent along the way such as Isaiah Thomas (later traded for Irving), Al Horford, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward along the way.
Three years after they decided to press the reset button, the Celtics are now expected to be one of the East’s best teams — and the team some expect to dethrone LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers — but their journey didn’t happen overnight, and it started with management deciding it was time to step back in order to step forward. There was that one year (2013-14) where things were going to be ugly and they knew it.
The Hawks will probably take a similar path. Things are probably going to get worse before they get better.
The best course of action for the Hawks’ future might be to write this season off, consign it as the lost season in Atlanta Hawks history, the year where they got the draft pick for ‘player-x’, a potential star of the future to partner an already encouraging young core of John Collins, DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince.
Developing young talent
It’s a big season for those three players, and if the Hawks’ front office are committing to a difficult year where they know they’re going to be bad, then player development has to be primary objective this season, not the playoffs.
Prince and Bembry will definitely see more time this season than their rookie seasons and that can only be a good thing for both the Hawks and the individual development of the two youngsters. A lot is going to be expected as these two players continue to develop and I think Hawks fans should be excited about both of these guys.
For Collins, initially things might be a bit slow but as the season goes on I think you’ll see more of Collins and he could end up in the starting lineup before the season ends if Ilyasova (who’s on a one-year deal) is traded/bought out come February. There’s a lot of hopes and expectations for Collins’ NBA career but don’t expect him to be the finished article, he’s a rookie and rookies generally aren’t fantastic in their rookie seasons. It’s a process.
For everyone else, Tyler Dorsey is an interesting player but has a lot to work on (as all rookies do) and Nicolas Brussino is a fascinating prospect in the Hawks’ offense but he is more of a project at this current moment.
Professional pride and the Eastern Conference: Will the Hawks be the worst team in the league?
No player, obviously, wants to lose basketball games — everyone is (or should be) wired to win. The Hawks are already rallying against the low expectations everyone has for them — they have a chip on their shoulders, an ‘us versus everybody’ kind of mentality.
A team that is driven and motivated — no matter what talent they may or may not be lacking — is dangerous and the Hawks could conceivably upset the odds when it comes to their season.
The Hawks are projected, by many, to be one of the worst teams in the league but that might be hard to achieve because the Hawks, at the end of the day, play in the Eastern Conference along with the likes of the Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets, so they’ll probably win more games than a struggling team out West will, such as the Phoenix Suns, who have to compete with the brutality of the Western Conference on an almost nightly basis.
It’s difficult to say that the Hawks will be the worst team in the league.
The Eastern Conference is not like the Western Conference. You know, for the most part, who’s going to be good in the West, and there’s more than eight teams who could make the playoffs. There’s going to be a good team that misses out.
In the East, you have 5 or 6 teams who you know are going to make the playoffs and a bunch if unknowns outside of that like the Sixers, Pistons, Hornets etc. Plus, injuries are always a possibility of upsetting the Eastern Conference. One Giannis injury and the Bucks are pretty much done for the season. That’s all it takes for a team to be in/out of the playoffs.
For all these reasons, it’s hard to say the Hawks will be the worst team in the league. Don’t get me wrong, they could be awful, be the worst team in the East, it’s definitely possible, but worse team in the league might be difficult.
That said, they could even make the playoffs if everything bounces their way, it is the Eastern Conference. The Hawks made the playoffs in 2013-14 ahead of Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks despite missing Al Horford for most of the season and took the number one seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games.
The 2013-14 Phoenix Suns also provide a constant reminder of the impossible...
Whilst the team are talking about making the playoffs (their drive and passion is certainly admirable), it might be better — for the long-term future — that the team isn’t good and that the Hawks get some ping-pong balls to go their way and that they get an opportunity at selecting a franchise player in the 2018 draft.
I expect the coaching staff and the players to try and, obviously, win as many games as possible but when/if the playoffs are beyond the team, I expect the front office to make some moves that make the team worse and for coach Mike Budenholzer to prioritise playing younger players to finish the season, to help boost their lottery chances.
What should you ultimately expect from this team? Well, don’t get your hopes up for playoff success but don’t write them completely off either, even if you want to.
League auditions and working the phones
There are three players who I would say are untouchable on this team: John Collins, DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince. Everyone else on this team is tradable and/or auditioning for other teams.
Yes, that includes Dennis Schröder — Schlenk didn’t draft him nor did he pay him and we don’t know how highly Schlenk rates Schröder. Schröder is also on a very solid contract ($15.5 million per year) for the next four years and he’s about to showcase, to the entire league, his abilities as the team’s best player. Because of that, and his movable contract, I think you might see Dennis Schröder trade rumours.
If the Hawks do begin to upset the odds and look like a playoff team, I think Schlenk will use this to his advantage and cash in on those who are in form. Guys who are on one-year deals/expiring deals like Marco Belinelli, Luke Babbitt, Ersan Ilyasova, Dewayne Dedmon...I’d be surprised if all of those guys finished the season in Atlanta.
Apart from Dedmon, all of those guys are shooters, and shooters are always wanted on playoff teams/fringe playoff teams. If those guys perform well, I think you might see some trade rumours surrounding them. Anything that nets Schlenk either assets or flexibility, I think he’ll take.
I’m sure he’d like to get out of those Kent Bazemore and Miles Plumlee contracts if he can, and if there’s interest in either of those two guys, I think Schlenk will offload those contracts at the first opportunity he gets, even if he has to attach some draft picks to do so. Plumlee will obviously be the more difficult contract to offload...
It’s going to be a very interesting season for the Atlanta Hawks, on and off the court.
The on-court results probably aren’t going to be pretty and the season could be brutal, but I think the thing to remember is that it’s ultimately not about this season. It’s about the seasons beyond this.
So, enjoy every John Collins dunk, every Ersan Ilyasova charge, every DeAndre’ Bembry assist... enjoy anything you can, because it could be a long year. But don’t be surprised if this team is sneaky good.
The NBA is an unpredictable beast. What will it throw up in the air this season?