The Hawks are Using The Process to Build the Next Warriors
Passing up a chance to select Luka Doncic with the third pick may come back to bite them, but Atlanta's team-building philosophy has that organization on the right track.
Photo by Brad Penner - USA TODAY Sports
Last May, the Atlanta Hawks tapped Travis Schlenk—a man who spent the previous five seasons offering insight as assistant general manager for the ludicrously successful Golden State Warriors—to completely renovate their roster. On Thursday night, Schlenk made the biggest decision of his career in a move that revealed two things: 1) a transparent desire to set his current team on a parallel path with the one he used to work for—as impossible as that may be—and 2) to do so by patiently following the same rule book the Philadelphia 76ers read when executing their infamous process.
Schlenk entered the night with three first-round picks (3, 19, and 30) and faith that other teams would be willing to mortgage a small chunk of their own future for the opportunity to move up. He left with an organization-altering “what if?” that will either be viewed as brilliant or catastrophic; an attempt for the Hawks to have their cake and eat it too via a deal the front office had about 30 minutes to process before they pulled the trigger. The word “guarantee” does not exist in the same universe as the NBA draft, but the Hawks were positioned to walk away with Luka Doncic, a 19-year-old Slovenian phenom who was seemingly born to be the type of prize a last place team can win.
But Schlenk didn’t sit on his hands and take Doncic. Instead he gave that third pick to the Dallas Mavericks for No. 5 and a top-five protected pick in 2019. Trae Young (another tantalizing prospect who may very well have a better career than Doncic) became a Hawk. Passing on Doncic could be a colossal mistake—he has size, force, advanced skills, and perennial All-NBA upside—but in his press conference after the draft, Schlenk made it clear, multiple times, how much he valued the accumulation of assets.
The Hawks either think Young will be better than Doncic—last night Schlenk admitted the decision was split among members of his front office—or strongly believe that having as many bites at the apple is paramount for an organization that entered the night with one (maybe two) long-term pieces already in place. It’s highly unlikely Doncic would be Atlanta’s Markelle Fultz, but similar risk for Young is dramatically reduced in the face of that 2019 pick.
Assuming both players live up to their potential, slotting Young and his increasingly irresistible skill-set in as a franchise point guard who can directly and indirectly make life easier for all his teammates is a wise move. He won’t be Steph Curry, but Young’s strengths offer the same ancillary benefits. Even before the Hawks surround him with more blue-chip talent, Young will take advantage of the room Atlanta figures to create with its three-point shooting bigs, vertical spacers, and athletic swingmen. Young has his limitations on the defensive end, but Schlenk’s half-decade around Curry will at the very least offer a blueprint as to how they can be mitigated.
By picking Maryland’s Kevin Huerter at 19, immediate comparisons to the Splash Brothers will emerge. He’s 6’7” (like Klay Thompson) with eye-popping shooting splits (that were better than Klay Thompson’s numbers at Washington State). On paper, Huerter is the ideal spot-up threat for Young, but if he can’t defend starting point guards then comparisons to Thompson will die. With the 30th pick, Schlenk plucked Omari Spellman, a skilled big who made 43.3 percent of 150 three-point attempts during his freshman season. I don’t know nearly enough about his game to say he can be Atlanta’s Draymond Green, but by and large comparing incoming rookies to the transcendent core trio of a team that’s won three chips and 73 games in a season is brutally unfair. (Still, maybe he can be Atlanta’s Draymond Green...)
If all three picks pan out this will be viewed as a transformative draft for the Hawks—like the 2012 draft was for Golden State—and that’s before we get into next year’s possibilities. The Mavericks’ pick is top-five protected for the next two years, top-three protected for the next two years after that, and unprotected in 2023. It’s possible Dallas gets serious about winning next season, bring in a big fish like DeMarcus Cousins or utilize cap space on experiences pieces who can contribute right away while complementing Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr.
But it’s still hard to see a postseason berth for the Mavs in 2019, and Atlanta’s own first-round pick is almost a lock to be in the top five (even with the NBA’s new lottery format coming into effect). Throw in a pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers (that’s top-ten protected in 2019 and 2020), and Atlanta may be able to simulate Philadelphia’s timeline at a faster pace than Sam Hinkie could. What if they get R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson? Or what if they do exactly what they just did last night in one year, moving down to add another future asset?
It may not work out, but in a conference that figures to be extremely competitive at the top for a little while, Schlenk is resigned to building his own Warriors, but for a moment forget about Young as Curry. Imagine if the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Damian Lillard into a slow churn, where they could carefully surround him with several top-10 picks, the benefit of low expectations, and sustained cap flexibility. That’s what’s happening in Atlanta, where Schlenk’s Hawks are taking their time to construct what may very well become the NBA’s next juggernaut.