The 2017-18 season was the first for the Atlanta Hawks under new front office leadership after the ownership decision to return Mike Budenholzer solely to coaching duties and bring in a new GM, Travis Schlenk. The tone from the organization prior to last season was quite different from what it is now.
Sure, the Hawks had moved on from their best player, Paul Millsap. But there was no discussion about “focusing on the young players.” In fact, in what was likely an objective to placate Budenholzer to some degree, Schlenk added and brought back a handful of veteran players that did not require contracts beyond the 2017-18 season.
Free agent Ersan Ilyasova, who was traded for by the Budenholzer-led front office at the trade deadline of the 2016-17 season was brought back on a one-year deal. Luke Babbitt was brought in on a deal that was not even guaranteed beyond the second week of January. And Marco Belinelli was acquired in a deal primarily motivated by a desire to move on from Dwight Howard. But there is little doubt that Budenholzer was pleased that another veteran shooter was added to the roster despite the how he ended up on the team.
Even the return of return of Mike Muscala, who had spent more than three years functioning in Budenholzer’s system, was of benefit to the head coach that was trying to integrate an almost entirely new set of players that would man the power forward and center positions. Of the four players, only Muscala would be on the Hawks roster come the end of February as even as Budenholzer had to eventually accept the reality of the Hawks’ season.
Those players had a few things in common. That they all knew what they were doing on both ends of the court. And they could all knock down shots from the three-point line.
As the Hawks summer league team transitions from Utah to Las Vegas, a number of the most vocal Hawks fans are already declaring Schlenk’s decision on draft night to move back two spots and acquire Trae Young as opposed to just keeping Luka Doncic to be a failure. And the decision deserves scrutiny. But certainly, the evaluation should not be considered anywhere close to complete after four days of summer league play.
Yes, the Hawks looked mostly terrible during the three games they played in Utah, especially when they were shooting the basketball. They collectively were 26 for 107 from the three-point line (24%). And Young certainly did his part contributing to that by hitting on just 3 of his 24 attempts from deep.
It’s too late to try to add shooters (aside from Jaylen Adams and Tyler Dorsey) to the Summer League Hawks. And despite the perspective that fans should not overreact, I do think the three games we’ve seen are informative in a very important way. Despite the focus on playing and developing the young players on the roster, Schlenk might want to consider making a few moves while free agents are still available that look similar to what he did last season.
The organization certainly would not have made the decisions they did on draft night if they did not believe that Young’s shooting, despite his regression toward the end of the NCAA season, would eventually translate at the NBA level. But the skillset of the young point guard that should translate the earliest in his career is his playmaking. As such, the struggles Young encountered in Utah playing along with little in the way of knock down shooters should be a feedback loop as to how they need to position the roster even this season.
The players Budenholzer seemed to prefer last season are no longer available, apart from maybe one of them. But hypothetically if the Hawks brought back the same roster they did last season to play along with their new young point guard, it would probably help him significantly more than those players helped second starter Dennis Schroder, who likely had more space to use in dribble penetration while playing with reliable shooters for a majority of the season.
At this point, it seems clear that Schlenk and the Hawks are still reserving cap space while teams around the league may need help in moving contracts that might otherwise be an obstacle to pursuing players that could improve their roster. Somewhat sooner rather than later (if they want Young to have any space with which to work on the offensive end of the court), they might want to make sure they can add several shooters that could be available on one-year deals. Even if those players are traded for little (or nothing) or bought out by February, just helping Young for the first half of his first season could make a world of difference.
There is not a lot of cap space for players to chase at this point and veterans Luke Babbitt and Wayne Ellington are likely the best shooters still on the market. Ellington was viewed by most as having more value than Babbitt, and the Heat still may intend to use his early bird rights to sign him after they make any moves that they might be lining up. But just getting one of those two could make very helpful.
Veteran centers Channing Frye and Brook Lopez would be significantly more helpful to Young than Miles Plumlee. Lopez might be looking for a competitive team to help but he has a track record of being a useful veteran that works hard and plays the right way even when he is not the best of teams. Frye is as latrustworthy as they come and would not complain even if he didn’t play for long stretches.
And no one wants to see these veterans come in and take any time away from John Collins. But in the event that either Muscala or Dwayne Dedmon (assuming they are on the roster when the season starts) miss time with an injury, like they did last year, Frye could step in an offer some spacing at the position instead of turning to a complete non-shooter.
It’s understandable that adding free agents is not the top priority at this moment. But in hopes of seeing Young be put in a position to build some amount of individual success this season, it might be wise that the Hawks have the objective of adding an experienced shooter or two to the roster as priority 1-B in the next couple of days.