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‘Potential,’ an intriguing prompt, and the bright future of the Atlanta Hawks

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks are in a fantastic position. The team exceeded expectations for the 2018-19 season, flashing significant upside (particularly on the offensive end), and Atlanta’s rebuilding effort is off to a great start with Trae Young, John Collins and others in the mix. In short, virtually everyone (both in Atlanta and across the NBA) agrees that the future is bright for the organization but just how bright is something of an open question.

On Apr. 24, a Peachtree Hoops reader named Tyler Cetrulo asked a question that, since its arrival, has stuck in my mind.

“The last time you were this excited about the potential of Hawks core/future was ___________?”

Immediately (in typical Twitter fashion), I responded without deep thought but, with the benefit of hindsight and a bit of analysis, something came to light.

The answer, at least for me, is never.

As with anything, context is important because, well, the Hawks have enjoyed some (very) positive moments while I’ve followed the team. While growing up in Atlanta, Hawks fandom arrived in the early-to-mid 90’s and I lived and died with the team, even without the benefit of mature thought. Then, things came together in the form of legitimate die-hard status as high school arrived and, during college in the early 2000’s, I was a season ticket holder (albeit one with no money and no business making that investment) and super-fan before ever writing a word about team.

Since then, things have changed to some degree, with the team enjoying a ton of success over a ten-year period and my observing experience evolving along a journey from pure fan, to fan blogger, to “professional” writer and analyst. For the Hawks, the best season since the franchise arrived in Atlanta happened in 2014-15, with 60 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. At first blush, it may seem silly to suggest that optimism is at its all-time high for the Hawks given that result, but the 2014-15 wasn’t supposed to win 60 games and, even when it was happening, most weren’t predicting perennial title contention.

Would it be a shock if this current Hawks core failed to string together even a single 60-win season? No, but that wasn’t the question that Tyler asked.

“Potential” is an interesting thing, particularly through the prism of NBA basketball. An established, 28-year-old player with two-way ability brings more value in a present-day sense than a 20-year-old prospect with more talent, but less stability. As such, the calculus can be difficult when attempting to project forward, with tantalizing upside pitted against the general safety of a more established player.

This Hawks team isn’t stable just yet, with only a 29-win season to bank on and some areas that need to be addressed before the real leap arrives. With that said, the organization’s “potential” is off the charts for a few clear reasons.

First and foremost, Atlanta’s roster is in great shape. Young enjoyed a genuinely spectacular rookie season, outperforming expectations at every turn, winning individual awards and providing real optimism of a game-changing offensive force. For good measure, the youthful point guard inspired and galvanized the city, taking ownership of the organization, and Young’s upside is utterly tremendous. In addition, Collins took a massive step forward in year two, becoming a legitimate 20-10 guy with more room to grow. The duo was joined by a strong debut from Kevin Huerter and solid maturation from other roster pieces, with the seduction of lottery picks on the horizon.

There is some debate on which players fall into Atlanta’s “core” but, at the very least, it would be difficult to criticize Travis Schlenk and the front office for what they’ve been able to build in just a short time. To that end, there is reason to be optimistic about the management side of the coin, leaving even more room for future excitement.

Schlenk hasn’t pitched a perfect game to this point because, well, no general manager can do that. What he has done, though, is essentially nail the NBA Draft in back-to-back seasons and clear the decks of the roster with an eye toward flexibility and options. That is all that can be asked of a first-time decision maker and Schlenk, in tandem with owner Tony Ressler, deserves the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

One fantastic decision Schlenk made in his early tenure was the hiring of Lloyd Pierce. Though the Mike Budenholzer era ended with an unfortunate thud, the addition of Pierce to the mix has been wildly encouraging to this point. There is more to learn about how the still-young head coach will function in a high-level playoff environment but, at the very least, he is tremendous with young players and has displayed a great deal of on-court acumen to bring future confidence to the table.

For long-time Hawks fans, the reality of a stable organizational structure simply can’t be overstated. During the formation of the last “era” of Hawks basketball, ownership was a near-daily adventure and, prior to the arrival of Budenholzer, head coach hadn’t been a full-blown strength in a long time.

It shouldn’t be ignored that, despite an intriguing market in Atlanta, the Hawks haven’t been widely considered a top-tier free agent destination, even with the caveat that some interesting pieces have found their way to Atlanta in the past. From an outsider’s perspective, the lack of free agent appeal has never clicked with many but, with more stability in the front office and, perhaps more importantly, the appeal of tremendous roster talent, there is reason to believe that could change.

There are certainly additional factors to consider, ranging from the landscape of the NBA itself to the dynamics in play when trying to evaluate one’s individual optimism about a franchise when the team is winning 50 games compared to winning 29 games with a (very) young core. Still, the conclusion, in my mind anyway, is that the Hawks have never been in a better position when viewing the ultimate goal of bringing an NBA Championship to Atlanta.

Make no mistake, there is a a lot of work to be done, both in building the roster required to compete at the highest level and in developing the intriguing talent, headlined by Young and Collins, that is already in the mix. With that said, the Hawks have legitimate star power, alluring draft capital, a stable front office and coaching situation, and salary cap flexibility, all at the same time.

There are other examples of genuine, future-facing optimism surrounding the organization, headlined by the vigor produced when the team landed at No. 2 overall (with a chance to add Chris Paul or Deron Williams) in the 2005 NBA Draft Lottery. That team added Josh Smith and Josh Childress the previous season and, much like the current group, the Hawks entered the summer with max-level salary cap space. Another contender would be the five-minute period during the 2007 NBA Draft Lottery when the Hawks, with Joe Johnson already joining Smith on the roster and another lottery pick in the mix (one that became Acie Law at No. 11 overall), were definitely in the top three with a chance to grab Kevin Durant (or Greg Oden), before the world knew that Al Horford would be a perennial All-Star.

In the more established category, the Lenny Wilkins-led teams of the mid-to-late 1990’s were (very) good. The Horford-Smith-Johnson-Millsap teams (in various iterations) were reliable and fulfilling, peaking with the wonder that was the 2014-15 campaign and a now-legendary January when basketball euphoria arrived. Oh, and I wasn’t around for the Dominique Wilkins era, at least in conscious form.

In the last three decades, though, I’m not sure the ceiling has ever been higher for the future than it is now and, even if the pieces never fit perfectly together to bring a title “home” to Atlanta, there is a beauty to the fact that optimism surrounding the Hawks is both genuine and well-founded.

Buckle up. This should be fun.