With the NBA Draft just around the corner (Thursday, June 22nd), the unofficial beginning of the 2017-18 season is nearly upon us. This is an interesting time of the year for all teams but especially the Hawks, as they head into the draft with a new GM and president of basketball operations: Travis Schlenk.
However, Schlenk will not have had long as he would’ve liked to prepare for the draft. By the time the draft swings around next Thursday, Schlenk and his front office will have had roughly three weeks to identify targets and evaluate their options. Used to identifying second round steals (like that of Draymond Green and Patrick McCaw) at Golden State, Schlenk will now have to shift his primary attention to the first round of the draft rather than the second round.
Schlenk has described the main characteristics he’s looking for in a player — skill, athleticism, length and character. Schlenk has also said recently that his draft selection will not be based on team needs but selecting the best player available.
“You draft the best talent available regardless who is on your roster”, Schlenk said via Chris Vivlamore of the AJC. “...I think that’s when you get in trouble, when you draft off need not off talent. Especially the way the league is going where guys are interchangeable and guys are multi-positional, you just take the best player.”
Based on those comments, many will identify specific players that fit Schlenk’s description, but today we’re not going to focus on specific players but rather position, and what position the Hawks should perhaps look to draft in, even if Schlenk decides to pick the best player available over team need.
Let’s look at the current roster, who are (barring any trades) guaranteed to be in Atlanta next season and, for today’s discussion, we’re including both Mike Dunleavy and Ryan Kelly, whose contracts aren’t fully guaranteed yet.
PG: Dennis Schröder, Malcolm Delaney
SG: DeAndre’ Bembry
SF: Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Mike Dunleavy (non-guaranteed)
PF: Ryan Kelly (non-guaranteed)
C: Dwight Howard
Let’s also quickly look at who is hitting the free agency market and what positions are affected most:
PG: José Calderón
SG: Tim Hardaway Jr. (restricted)
SF: Thabo Sefolosha
PF: Paul Millsap, Ersan Ilyasova
C: Mike Muscala, Kris Humphries
So, now you can began to see (if you hadn’t already) the front office’s thinking from last year’s draft. With the exception of Mike Dunleavy (who wasn’t with the team last year), every single notable Hawks wing that was contracted to the team in 2016 was either about to hit the free agency market later that summer (Kent Bazemore) or would hit it in 2017 (Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr.). That was part of the reason the Hawks selected two wings (Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry) in the first round of the draft last year.
Thanks to this foresight, the Hawks are in a decent position when it comes to their wing positions. They control THJ’s destiny — as he’s a restricted free agent — and Kent Bazemore can play the two-guard if required. The now former Hawks rookies, Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry, also seem set for larger roles next season, highlighted by coach Mike Budenholzer’s decision to start Prince in all six games of the Hawks’ playoff series against the Washington Wizards, where he was a consistent contributor.
If Hardaway and Dunleavy are retained, look for the Hawks to possibly look for only one more wing to make up the numbers.
The Hawks also seem pretty set at the point guard position with Dennis Schröder and Malcolm Delaney, though it remains to be seen whether the Hawks will add a third point guard or head into the 17-18 season with just two point guards, similar to last season.
So, by deduction, the area the Hawks would most need to address would appear to be their power forward/center spots. Per Chris Vivlamore, Schlenk said that the potential loss of Paul Millsap will not affect his selection in the draft, and so we must assume the same is true with Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Muscala.
But even if Schlenk says that he won’t be affected by team needs when it comes to ringing the League with his draft selection, I think they’re hard to ignore in this case.
Millsap, Muscala, Ilyasova and Kris Humphries (can’t forget about him) all have the freedom to walk away from Atlanta this summer, and if Schlenk was to draft — as he said he would — the best player available and, that didn’t happen to be a center or power forward, he is left with only Ryan Kelly (should his contract even be guaranteed) and Dwight Howard in his front court. That’s it, meaning Schlenk would probably have to acquire two power forward (and starting calibre power forward at that) and two centers (I say two for the sake of potential injuries) in free agency or via trade.
To me, it just seems very unlikely that Schlenk would possibly leave something like that to chance, because it’s very conceivable all four of those players will not be returning to Atlanta and the scenario I described above could easily happen given the nature of free agency, especially for Muscala and Millsap who are at hugely crucial stages of their careers when it comes to finances.
In conclusion, it would seem that the Hawks would, perhaps, be better off drafting a big man in this draft.
Even if Paul Millsap is re-signed, you figure he has much more of a future in Atlanta than Dwight Howard, who just seems out of place in this team with the way it’s set up and how Mike Budenholzer coaches. The Hawks might be better off — for the sake of the long-term future — drafting what could be Dwight’s future replacement, similar to what the Rockets did with Clint Capela, even though the Rockets weren’t to know at the time of drafting the young Swiss center that he would eventually replace Dwight at that center spot.
They say it’s difficult to teach a old dog new tricks and Dwight has shown very little signs of adapting to this new NBA (though he has said he is working on this three-point shot, which is a terrifying thought since he can’t even hit mid-range shots with much consistency). At least if the Hawks draft a center, they can teach him their way of doing things from the very beginning of his career and mould his game to suit their style while he’s still young.
The NBA Draft will prove to be the debut of the many important decisions Travis Schlenk will have to make as the General Manager of the Atlanta Hawks, and it will be fascinating to see how he responds over the course of his first major event in the role.