It’s no secret that the Atlanta Hawks are in a rebuilding phase.
Having competed in the playoffs for 10 consecutive years, the league’s second-longest playoff appearance streak (at the time) came to an end last season as the Hawks limped to a 24-58 record after newly-appointed general manager Travis Schlenk decided to press the reset button and allow veterans like Paul Millsap to walk, whilst trading away others such as Dwight Howard, in an effort to get younger in addition to saving themselves from crippling long-term salary that they would’ve faced had they re-signed Millsap and matched the ludicrous offer sheet the New York Knicks tendered to Tim Hardaway Jr.
Getting younger was a primary objective for Schlenk when he took the job, as well as acquiring future assets and maintaining flexibility within the salary cap, mostly by avoiding the signing of long-term salaries.
”That was one of the main focuses when I got here was to get a younger roster,” said Travis Schlenk at a press conference last week. “At the time when I was hired I think we had the fourth oldest roster in the league. We started that process [of getting younger] obviously last summer and we feel like we were able to accomplish a lot of our goals especially through the draft this year.
”Obviously we got three first-round draft picks [for the 2018 draft] and we were able to pick up three more future draft picks on draft night and then this summer we picked up another pick from Oklahoma City [via the Dennis Schröder-Carmelo Anthony trade]. We’re continuing to get more future assets, we maintained our financial flexibility moving forward this summer by not signing any long term contracts.”
So far, Schlenk has executed what he had set out to do. His squad is now one of the youngest in the league, he has acquired multiple draft picks (including the three first round picks ahead of the 2018 draft as he mentioned) and has maintained long-term financial flexibility, using his cap space to absorb contracts in return for draft picks/assets rather than splash out on a free agent.
While Schlenk made the Hawks’ draft selections and free agency decisions in the summer of 2017, last season’s Hawks team still held the remnants of a previous era.
Existing foundations, such as Schröder and a coaching staff led by Mike Budenholzer, were still present and it was unclear at the time if Schlenk wanted either to be a part of his new look Hawks team long-term.
Heading into the summer of 2018 and the roster continued to see turnover — building upon the foundation of Schlenk’s first summer — to the point now where the only players that are still a part of the roster Schlenk inherited prior to the draft in 2017 are DeAndre’ Bembry, Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore.
The entire coaching staff, other than Chris Jent, also saw turnover this summer as Mike Budenholzer and his staff departed for Milwaukee, allowing Schlenk to install his own coach to run the team he has assembled. In the end, Philadelphia assistant Lloyd Pierce was the successful candidate and has since brought in his own staff.
The Hawks now have one of the most inexperienced sides in the league, with only a handful of the roster serving more than 5 years experience in the league (though, Vince Carter’s experience is alone almost makes up for that) and a number of their young core, such as John Collins, Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and Prince, are still young players in their budding NBA careers. For this reason, and others, many analysts have tipped the Hawks to be amongst the league’s cellar — one of the worst teams in the league.
Those who follow the team and cover the team know that such predictions aren’t surprising by any means. Barring a miracle that would defy everything ever imaginable, the Hawks aren’t winning a title this year and the playoffs would also seem to be a long-shot.
But there are still 82 games to be played, the Hawks still have to show up to all of those and they still have to compete. Since the total number of victories notched isn’t the endgame this season for the Hawks, what are they playing for? What’s the measurement of success for the Hawks in a season where wins could be few and losses aplenty?
When a similar question was posed to Schlenk and Pierce, the word ‘painful’ (used to describe the rebuilding period, referring to the possibly large number of losses) was a key part in the framing and context of the question.
Both Schlenk and Pierce were quick to dismiss the notion that the rebuilding period was painful or the number of losses would affect them personally.
”It’s not painful for me!” laughed Schlenk.
”Listen, it’s a lot easier [personally] to win 70 games than it is 24 like we did last year,” Schlenk later followed. “But it really isn’t painful. … I go to basketball gyms for a living, it can’t be that painful.”
”Painful is not anything I’m going to feel this year,” said Pierce.
A detail that’s easy to forget is that Pierce was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers for the last 5 years prior to his hiring as head coach, and a member of the organization when the team underwent an egregious strategy to return to the NBA’s pinnacle by losing as many games as possible in order to receive the best odds of the No. 1 overall draft selection.
In Pierce’s first four years with the Sixers, the Sixers went 75-253. This included a season where the Sixers won just ten regular season games.
But despite that, it wasn’t a season that Pierce saw as painful because he believed the process (no pun intended) was more important than the overall wins/losses.
”Just a reminder, I won ten games in Philadelphia about four seasons ago,” chuckled Pierce. “So, it’s not painful if you know you’re doing the right things. It’s not painful if you know guys are getting better everyday. It’s not painful if you know that when you’re in the gym and you’re spending the appropriate time on what’s needed for growth. Guys understand that.”
And the Atlanta Hawks will be measuring success through a very similar lens.
”We’ve said this all last year, and it’ll be the same this year, what we’re going to look for is our guys to develop and to continue to get better,” said Schlenk. “We saw that last year with John [Collins]. John was almost exclusively a roll guy and as the season went on, by the end of the year, you saw him stepping out and catch and shoot corner threes. Then at Summer League, coach put him positions where now he’s picking-and-popping at the top of the key. You see the transgressions that he’s made and we’re going to look for that for all our young guys, individually and collectively.”
“… This is the foundation of what we’re building, this group right here,” added Schlenk. “We just want to see those guys continue to grow, on the court and off the court.”
When it comes to how Lloyd Pierce is measuring success for his young side, it’s an even finer lens, focusing on daily victories and how the Hawks are performing over ‘ten-game clumps’.
”Part of sport is growth and for us the growth and development of our guys is the most important thing,” said Pierce “We say it everyday, ‘How are we going to win today? What’s our win for the day?’
”We have to measure ten-game clumps. What are we focusing on and are we getting better? Next ten-game clumps, what are we focusing on and are we getting better? That’s individually and that’s collectively as a team. If we’re trending that same way, that’s what we’re measuring. What the number is and when the timeline is is not really up to us right now. It’s really about measuring our guys and their performances on a daily basis, on a ten-game basis, on a nightly basis of improvement, growth and development.”
For a rebuilding team, the words “growth” and “development” are heard ad nauseam but that doesn’t make them less true. Growth and development is an obvious factor and, ultimately, the most important factor when it comes to this team’s long-term upside. If this young core doesn’t develop and grow they won’t be going back to the playoffs anytime soon.
Simple as that.
But when it came to the expectations of the team for this season, Pierce hinted at ‘direction’ and an interesting way to measure such direction/progress.
”Growth and development is going to be at the forefront of everything we do,” added Pierce. “In terms of expectations, it’s making sure we’re heading in the right direction. How do we measure that? One weird, strange way is we’re going to play our first game, and everyone has to do media, and I think one of the ways you can evaluate that, and as you guys write you’ll know what to say about Atlanta Hawks. ‘Are they competitive? Do they get up and down the floor? Do they play high efficient basketball?’”
Coming from a defensive background (which would certainly be drilled into you, working with former Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins), a defensive identity is what Pierce has outlined for his Hawks but also wants to play to the team’s youth before adding that at the root of it all will be the Hawks’ work ethic and togetherness.
”We want to create an identity that fits our team,” said Pierce. “Obviously we’re young, we want to play to our youth. We want to be competitive, we will be competitive. I’ve spoken ad nauseam about how we’re going to be a defensive identity team here and that’s going to be the forefront of what we do. So that starts with our work ethic, our togetherness as a team, me instilling what I want to do on the defensive end. And that has to reflect on the court. We’re going to measure it in a lot of different ways.”
The Hawks have placed a high value on togetherness with this group, and that stems from both Schlenk (who has placed an emphasis on ‘character’ players from day one) and Pierce (known to have excellent relationships with his players), who want to do everything they can to make sure the Hawks are together on and off of the court and in good spirits, which can be a challenge if the team loses multiple games in a row.
”Our job is to come in here and keep people’s spirits up,” said Schlenk. “We’re all competitive people, we all want to go out there and win but to keep guy’s spirits up when they’re having bad days. These guys are people, they have bad days just like all of us have bad days.
“Part of the culture we’re building here is one of positive environment. We want to have a winning culture, we want to have that positive culture and that’s something that’s forefront in our minds and something we have to live everyday.”
Pierce and the Hawks have already participated in a number of activities — such as having a yoga session at the Fourth Ward Historic Park, as well as paint-balling and attending Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United games together — in an effort to help grow the bonds and the chemistry of his team, and that, Pierce believes, is what will define the Hawks as a team, not wins/losses.
”We’re trying to do the right things as an organization and as a team that keeps our spirit high so that when we’re in the gym we know we’re together,” said Pierce. “It’s not just what’s going to happen on the court that’s going to determine us as a team, it’s what we’re doing as a unit as an organization trending forward that will keep us when there’s downs and then when we’re high we’re not going to over-celebrate because we know there’s a lot of work to do. Collectively, it’s a big picture thing for us.”
This effort to bring this group closer together and maintain high spirit has been noticed and is already paying dividends amongst the players.
“These guys are fun to be around,” said Kent Bazemore at media day. “It’s a very fun group.”
Bazemore then described the ‘family feel’ that coach Pierce brings to the Hawks which, again, involved spending time with the team off of the court.
“...Coach Bud and coach Pierce are family men, they love their families and love having a family feel,” described Bazemore. “Coach Pierce has been preaching a lot of that, spending a lot of time together. Tonight, we have a team dinner before we get going tomorrow. They both love that camaraderie feel...”
John Collins was also quick to agree that this group really like each other. Emotions are contagious at times, and Collins has tried to match that energy in the hope it catches on to his teammates.
“I think Coach started off very discreetly by trying to get to us to do a couple of team bonding events,” said Collins. “As a second year guy, I know how valuable that is. I’m trying to do my job. Being fun, being contagious around the guys. You being one way is contagious to everybody else. If everyone is on the same page you are, you can’t go wrong.”
In addition to this bonding off of the court through various team outings, Schlenk has also stated that being a part of the community is important to the Hawks.
”Coach has talked about some of the things we’ve been able to get the guys out in the community doing, that’s something that’s really important to us but the organisation, that we become a part of this community and a positive part of it.”
Pierce elaborated a little further on how he wants the Hawks’ public perception to appear, saying he wants his Hawks to be more than players who show up to the arena for their games.
”We want to be able to share with the city of Atlanta what we’re doing here, not just on the court but in the community, when we get to the arena. That’s our exposure, that’s our growth and that’s the way we want the city [to view us]. We don’t want to be viewed just as athletes. . . . It’s about their development, their commitment to Atlanta and that’s important. In terms of exposure, I think that’s the greatest way to show what we’re trying to build here. Being more than just guys who show up to State Farm [Arena].”
It’s important that athletes make use of their platform/status to do good, and being an active part of the community is a good way to do that — to give back. The Hawks have placed an emphasis on character... I don’t know these guys personally, but I’m sure they’re good people and I think the Schlenk and the Hawks want the fans/others to see that quality in them — to see them as more than basketball players, which Pierce obviously eluded to.
It might not be the prettiest season coming up for the Atlanta Hawks but their idea of success goes beyond wins/losses this season and what transpires on the court. The product on the court may not win 40 games this season — it may not even win 30 games — but it will excite, will create some buzz and will be fun to watch as the Hawks look to take their next steps as a franchise under Travis Schlenk’s and Lloyd Pierce’s new Atlanta Hawks.