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Don’t talk to the Atlanta Hawks about low expectations: They’re having none of it

No, seriously, don’t. They won’t listen.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks-Media Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When the Atlanta Hawks hired Golden State Warriors Assistant GM, Travis Schlenk, to be their General Manager and President of Basketball Operations they scheduled an introductory press conference for the 2nd of June. In the build up to and in said press conference, Schlenk made some comments that led many to believe that the Atlanta Hawks entering the summer were going to be extremely different from the Atlanta Hawks that would be emerging from the summer.

Speaking to Bay Area radio station 95.7 FM The Game prior to his introduction to Atlanta, Schlenk said, “One of the things we did in Golden State is we avoided signing bad contracts. All the guys we signed in free agency were on deals that were move-able. If you sign a bad free-agent contract and it’s a deal that can’t be moved, that can hold your franchise down.”

Then, speaking at his introductory press conference:

“...I’m inheriting a good team with a nice foundation that has some flexibility, and that’s what we’re going to look to maintain,” Schlenk said.

“Any time that you’re in the playoffs, it’s a good thing,” Schlenk added. So that’s something we’re going to look to maintain, but we need to maintain the flexibility so when the time comes to strike on a big acquisition we’re ready to do that. Like I said, we feel good about our position right now. It’s hard to get to a point where you’re competing for a championship year-after-year-after-year, that’s our ultimate goal. But we have to maintain the flexibility and the assets so we’re able to do that when the time approaches.”

What most people took away from all of this was that Schlenk was — more than likely — going to allow any players who received a contract offer that might be considered a bad contract and/or obstructed the Hawks’ future flexibility’ to walk in free agency. This, immediately put Paul Millsap and — if his offer sheet was large enough — Tim Hardaway Jr. on shaky ground when it came to their Atlanta Hawks futures...

But Schlenk didn’t wait until free agency to practice what he preached, trading center Dwight Howard prior to the NBA Draft, citing ‘flexibility’ as the main reason for the move.

"Our number one goal is to maintain our flexibility as we work to get this franchise going in the direction we wanted to,” Schlenk said. “This trade helps us accomplish long term and short term flexibility for us."

With the Hawks — from a personnel point of view — getting considerably worse in this trade, the way forward was beginning to look a little clearer, and a rebuild looked on the cards. But no one could really be sure this was the case until free agency, until Paul Millsap was definitely gone — this could’ve just been a move simply to get rid of Dwight Howard, who has been talked about by many as a downer for a dressing room.

But, sure enough, when free agency rolled around both Paul Millsap (who wouldn’t ultimately receive an offer from the Hawks) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (who received one of the summer’s most ludicrous/lucrative offer sheets from the New York Knicks) were allowed to leave Atlanta, and the rebuild many suspected was coming was all but confirmed.

The departures of Howard, Millsap and Hardaway Jr. left many statistical (or otherwise) holes for the Hawks to fill for the remainder of free agency. And how did they fill them? With Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins, the Hawks’ 19th overall selection, Miles Plumlee and Luke Babbitt to name a few.

The talent drop-off speaks for itself.

(And that’s not to disrespect Dedmon, Babbitt etc. but they’re just not as good as Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard and THJ — those are just facts)

As the summer progressed, general opinions and expectations for the 2017-18 Atlanta Hawks were made clear by many credible and notable media outlets.

On July 10th, CBS Sports kicked off the Hawks’ 2017-18 burial by ranking the Hawks dead last in their early power rankings.

Imagine if you (or me) really thought Dennis Schröder struggled to make the Hawks better last season but then realized he's their best player. Now consider that Miles Plumlee is their third highest-paid player. Given those factors, a case could be made for any of the six preceding teams as worst in the league, but Atlanta's the bet here. The tank is on the way.

Then, ESPN’s RPM projections buried the Hawks dead last in the Eastern Conference and the NBA with a projected win total of 27 games.

RPM has long been low on the Hawks' talent, and that certainly hasn't changed with the departure of Millsap. Remarkably, Atlanta has just two players projected to be better than league average by RPM: likely starting big men Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova. had their say and, again, it wasn’t kind to the Hawks with John Schuhmann ranking the Hawks 30th out of 30 in his power rankings.

Key addition(s): Low expectations

Key departure(s): Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard

Key question: Will they play for the future?

The Hawks could have five first round picks over the next two drafts, and the best of the five will likely be their own. Their 23-year-olds returning starters - Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince - will continue to get plenty of playing time, but throwing No. 19 pick John Collins (who turns 20 next month) into the fire early (at the expense of a bunch of veteran bigs) could be an important long-term play. The good news is that they can't get much worse offensively than they were after the All-Star break last season (101.0 points scored per 100 possessions - last in the league).

Bookmakers Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook were next to weigh in, making the Hawks one of four teams (along with the Chicago Bulls, Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets) with a long-shot to win the NBA title at 1000/1.

Vegas struck again with their over/under win totals, giving the Hawks an over/under win total of 25.5 games. Only the Chicago Bulls at 21.5 wins ranked lower than the Hawks.

And to cap off, ESPN came back with their power rankings, pegging the Hawks to have the 28th best record in the league, leading only the Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls.

The perception of the 2017-18 Atlanta Hawks was clear: ‘low expectations’, ‘tank’, ‘one of the worst teams in the league’, ‘rebuild’, ‘future’ etc. Many have already counted out the Atlanta Hawks, their obituaries already written, already buried ten feet under the ground...

Everyone except the Atlanta Hawks themselves, that is.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks-Media Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking on Media Day, the Hawks’ disregarded the low expectations the basketball world has placed upon them — they believe in themselves.

Leading the way was Hawks head coach, Mike Budenholzer, who believes that the Hawks’ own expectations are far more important than everyone else’s expectations.

“For the most part, luckily, most of us I think live in our own little world and teams tend to just bunker in,” said Bud. “We know what’s happening on our practice court, we know what’s happening in our film sessions and in our games. Our expectations of ourselves I think are significantly more important than what people on the outside expect of us.”

Budenholzer added that it’s “wasted time” to worry about what the outside world thinks of his squad, and that his expectations are how his team turn up to work everyday and how they can be better everyday.

“It’s kind of wasted time to think about or worry about what anybody else is expecting of us,” Budenholzer continued.

“I think a lot of the things that we’ve been doing — probably a lot of it since we’ve started playing basketball and coaching basketball — is how we come to work everyday, what are we doing in the gym, how are we preparing... That’s where our expectations are. If you’re doing those things then, more often than not, you can feel good about what’s happening on the court, and it just continues to be our focus is what are we doing everyday, how are we getting better everyday and that’s where our focus and expectations are.”

When asked how he could be so optimistic about the next few years, Budenholzer stressed that player development was a huge reason why, because it’s something he really believes in.

“When you genuinely believe in player development, when you genuinely believe in your team getting better from the start of this season to end of this season, I think it’s a big reason why a lot of us coach and a lot of us play,” said Budenholzer.

Budenholzer also believes that there’s a hint of “underestimation” when it comes to his team.

“...we hope through the work and player development, and the individual development, that the results are going to be something that we’re all proud of,” Bud added. “There’s maybe some degree of underestimation of who we are and what we can be.”

All across Media Day, Bud’s players echoed his feelings about the team, others using the summer sleights as motivation while others drew inspiration from teams past. But there was a player who, long before Media Day, dismissed any notion of anything other than a good season. Taurean Prince.

Speaking at NBA Summer League, Prince quickly dismissed the thinking that this season is going to be difficult despite all the offseason turnover, determined to push his teammates to enjoy the winning feeling.

“No, no, no. I disagree. I don’t like to go off the rebuilding word because I like to win. I love to win. Anybody who is on the team, I’m going to make sure that they love to win too. I don’t expect to have a bad season next year. I expect to have a good season.”

NBA: Atlanta Hawks-Media Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Back to Media Day — when asked about a role being opened up for him as a result of the summer departures — DeAndre’ Bembry his thoughts on the upcoming season.

“Of course we’re not thinking we’re going to have a terrible season, we think we’re going to have a good season,” said an optimistic Bembry. “That’s a mindset all of us should have. We’re just looking forward to the opportunity.”

When asked why he thought this way, Bembry said it was a matter of “confidence”.

“Each player that’s here is confident in their own basketball skills. We’ve added pieces, that aren’t Paul Millsap of course, but we added pieces that have been in the league and have been through the ups and downs. And they’re talented as well...”

“...we’re all confident in each other and confident in our own talents,” Bembry added. “We’re just young and just trying to make a name for ourselves.”

Point guard Dennis Schröder believes that the low expectations placed upon the Hawks will motivate them.

“It’s going to motivate all of us, that they say we’re going to be the worst team in the NBA,” Schröder said. “But it is what it is. They’ve got their opinion and we got to do what we can control: get in the gym, try to work hard everyday and try to get better.”

A bunch of Hawks players have taken these predications and projections of a poor Hawks season personally.

“I see a bunch of guys that take that personal,” Kent Bazemore added to the subject. “No one on this team is going to succumb to that. We have a great group of competitors, guys who are going to show up every night and that alone will shatter any expectations anyone has given us.”

Point guard Malcolm Delaney believes in the system that coach Mike Budenholzer has in place and that the Hawks, if they stick to that, can still be “dangerous”.

“...if anybody Tweeted to me something about how we could be the second worst team in the league or anything... I’m commenting back, because that’s just the type of player I am. I’m competitive,” said Delaney. “I believe in Bud, our organisation and the guys around me. I think if we do what we’re supposed to and perfect our system, then we can still be dangerous. And I’mma stick with that.”

“I don’t look at the projections...” Mike Muscala added.

This team is united in proving everyone wrong, and there seems to be a “us versus everybody” type of attitude within this squad.

In this league, there’s something to be said for competing hard every night and showing fight...these are things that can certainly help make up for what appears to be a lack of overall talent.

“...I think we’re all competitive and when it comes to the games we’re going to lay everything on the line,” said coach Bud. “We’re going to give it everything we’ve got...”

"What I can promise is the team is going to play hard all 82 games," said Dennis Schröder added. "We're going to compete offensively and defensively and see what happens."

(Side note: ESPN were a bit mean when applying this quote in their story)

"What I can promise is the team is going to play hard all 82 games," Schroeder said, in what sounds like a familiar refrain from someone on a talent-deprived team. "We're going to compete offensively and defensively and see what happens."

(“in what sounds like a familiar refrain from someone on a talent-deprived tam.” Ouch. Come on, now, that’s a tad harsh....)

Former Houston Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich made a memorable statement when his 1995 Houston Rockets team regained the NBA title — an achievement not thought possible at one point and with the Rockets a 6-seed in the West:

“Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

Kent Bazemore preached a similar message on Media Day.

“You can’t measure the heart of a competitor,” Kent Bazemore added. “You can’t put a price on someone who’s going to play hard every night, players that are going to give it their all. We don’t have anything to lose and those are some of the most dangerous people in the world — in anything that they do — the people that are just so fearless. We’re going to go out there and play super hard...”

Bazemore said the Hawks will draw inspiration from last year’s Miami Heat team — a team that was decimated by injuries, a team that wasn’t expected to do much other than slide deeper into the lottery after an 11-30 start — that ended the season on a 30-11 run with no All-Stars on the roster.

“That’s an inspiration for us,” Bazemore said. “That’s a team we’ll probably talk about a lot this season: how they just outplayed everybody. They played harder, they dove on the floor and set screens and did all the small things that gave them a chance at the end of the day.”

Personally, I’m a believer that hard work and determination can make up for a lot of shortcomings when it comes to talent. Will over skill.

Similar to what Kent Bazemore said: there’s something to be said for just wanting it more, and I think there’s a real sense of this present in this Hawks group. They want to get after it and prove everyone wrong. We saw it with this team last year, there are fighters on this team who didn’t give up and it helped the Hawks — who often trailed by double digits last season — come back into they didn’t really have a right to comeback into.

Do I think the Hawks can win 45-50 games? No, but they can certainly be a better team than many expect them to be. There’s some solid players on this team — many entering contract years again — there’s a good coach and system in place. Those things mean an awful lot.

Sometimes, projections really don’t mean anything at all. Let’s look at an example:

Remember that 2013-14 Phoenix Suns team? If you don’t here’s a quick look at that roster:

A starting five of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragić, P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and Miles Plumlee (!!) with a bench featuring the Morris twins, Gerald Green, Ish Smith, rookie Archie Goodwin, rookie Alex Len, Shavlick Randolph and Dionte Christmas.

It’s a very similar situation to that of the Hawks: No All-Stars on that roster and, on paper, that roster looked very meh. In fact, that Suns team looked worse than meh. It looked like one of the worst teams in the league, and everyone knew it.

Bleacher Report projected the Suns to finish with a 19-63 record, and that was before Marcin Gortat was traded for Emeka Okafor (who missed the entire season with an injury) and before Michael Beasley was waived.

Matt Moore of CBS Sports also had the Suns winning a very low number of games: 15

But against every single odd and expectation, the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns won 48 games in the Western Conference and — incredibly — still missed out on the playoffs. For reference, 48 wins would’ve tied the Suns for the 3-seed in the Eastern Conference...

Though that Suns team saw multiple guys have career years that year (including Goran Dragić’s amazing season that saw him named to the All-NBA Third Team), the point still stands: they completely blew away everyone’s expectations and projections.

And that team, on Media Day 2013, talked about the same things the Hawks talked about on Media Day 2017: the goal of getting better everyday, being better by the end of the season, establishing a defensive mindset, playing hard...

I’m not saying the Hawks can be the 2013-14 Suns — or possibly even come close to them — but the point is projections are exactly that: projections. The players play on the court, not on paper. It’s not unheard of for teams to just turn out the opposite of what everyone expects them to be.

For the Hawks, that could be winning 35 games or making the playoffs. Success is relative to where you are as a franchise.

At the end of the day, Atlanta lives in the Eastern Conference, where teams like the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic all play. In short, anything is possible in the Eastern Conference.

Though the rest of the basketball world have consigned 2017-18 to the grave — the lost year in Hawks history, ‘the year the Hawks tanked for player-X’ —the 2017-18 Atlanta Hawks are having none of it. This team is ready to fight and prove everybody wrong, and they’re damn motivated to do so.

Will all of this prove to be the same old preseason, ‘everybody is 0-0’ talk and other general fighting words of a team that knows it’s going to be rough and just don’t want to admit or is it the foundation of something real, a season that no one expected?

Only time will tell.