On Monday night, the Atlanta Hawks played a hard-fought game that ultimately ended in defeat against the San Antonio Spurs. The young Hawks looked great for stretches of the game, but the team’s inexperience (and general lack of high-end talent) gave the Spurs enough margin for error to come back. In many ways, this contest fit the formula of “play well, develop talent, but still lose for a high draft pick” perfectly.
Monday night’s game was perfectly uneventful on its own, but it underscores the differences between the 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks and this year’s version. Instead of veterans like Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard, the new Hawks rely on largely unproven players like John Collins and Taurean Prince much more than before. This year’s team is unmistakably worse than it was a year ago, but the Hawks have a much brighter future than the playoff-bound 2016-17 version.
The first key difference from last year is the team’s most-used lineup. As of Tuesday morning, the most common lineup Atlanta has used consists of Luke Babbit, Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Taurean Prince, and Dennis Schroder. Last year, the most-used lineup still included Schroder and Bazemore, but subbed in Howard, Millsap, and Thabo Sefolosha (all of whom are now gone). Instead of veterans who excelled on both ends of the court (Millsap) or ranked among the best defenders in the league (Sefolosha), Atlanta relies on much younger talent this year.
This change in personnel has led to a drastic change in quality of play, and it’s roughly what one might expect given the team’s 3-14 record. This year so far, the Hawks rank 23rd in offensive rating and 26th in defensive rating. This is actually an improvement on the offensive end (compared to 27th last season), but the defensive decline has been about what one might expect after losing a player of Millsap’s quality. These numbers all come from Basketball-Reference, whose SRS metric – an overall rating based on performance and strength of schedule – lists the Hawks as only the 26th best team in the NBA.
Of course, nothing in these last few paragraphs is new. Anyone who has watched the Hawks this year knows that (A) this team is young, (B) it has several interesting players who could be valuable in two or three years, and (C) the team ranks among the worst in the league. In the aftermath of Philadelphia’s “The Process,” the team’s poor ranking will look excellent to fans in June, but it’s still a massive change from last year. Atlanta should be in line for a great draft pick, and even lottery reform in 2019 shouldn’t keep the Hawks from finishing near the top again. The cost for these future assets is a high number of losses, a price that the Hawks have paid in nearly every contest.
On Nov. 21, 2016, the Atlanta Hawks were 9-4, following back-to-back losses against Charlotte and New York. The team had started 9-2, but an extended losing streak would soon bring the team under .500 as December began. This general inconsistency would largely define the team’s season from start to finish. This year, there is no fear of inconsistency. The Hawks are not good.
The differences between last year and this year are many, but they go beyond mere talent. The Hawks of last year were completing a three-year downward trajectory that began at the end of the 2014-15 season. In 2015-16, the Hawks were an underrated defensive monster that played well enough for a fourth-place finish in the East. The team still played well in 2016-17, but a slight defensive downgrade and a massive offensive one meant that the ceiling was much lower than the second-round exit of a year before. In other words, the Hawks were taking measures to slowly get worse rather than quickly get worse.
That strategy of clinging to mediocrity works in the NBA, and it’s hard to fault a team for getting back to the playoffs again and again. However, running a slightly worse team out year and year again has to end at some point. Now that it has, the team and its fans can look to a much more exciting future.
Even though this year’s team is much worse than the 2016-17 version, the future looks much brighter for Atlanta than it did a year ago. The Hawks handled Paul Millsap’s upcoming free agency about as poorly as possible, but a new General Manager and a more definable future plan (rebuild, rebuild, rebuild) can give fans confidence that there is a concrete strategy for making the playoffs in a few years.
It’s also encouraging to see a team play with much more passion and energy than the 2016-17 version. Thanksgiving week is a good time to count the proverbial blessings and reflect upon the past, present, and future. The present for Atlanta on its own is nothing special. With that said, the mediocrity for this present actually bodes well for the future and, because of that, it’s worth being thankful for.