Washington PostAs Lloyd Pierce has reimagined Trae Young’s role in the offense, Hawks General Manager Travis Schlenk has reworked the supporting cast.
Atlanta used lottery picks on Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter and Duke’s Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft, adding a pair of big, multi-positional wings to complement Young’s pick-and-roll partnership with John Collins. Young called the moves, which fit with Pierce’s three-point heavy offensive scheme, a “home run at every position we need.”
Schlenk deserves credit for a tidy turnaround, at least on paper. In the two-plus years since he was hired, the first-time GM has identified a potential franchise player in Young, assembled a legitimate core of young talent, established a clear style of play and navigated his organization toward an incredibly flexible salary cap position next summer.
Many of the most important players in Pierce’s new-look rotation will be 23 or younger, meaning Atlanta’s anticipated leap forward might still be a year away. Although Young’s potential is enough to make the mind wander, the Hawks’ brass is doing its best not to get ahead of itself.
“Progression is the key word,” Pierce said. “We have to play better defense. We have to play together better. We are preparing our young guys to win games. If we do that, an all-star [selection for Young] is possible and the playoffs are possible.”
The RingerFew NBA teams are as disciplined as the Hawks when it comes to sticking to a long-term plan. In three drafts under GM Travis Schlenk, Atlanta has targeted skill sets more than players. The front office identifies specific types of players whose games complement one another and then moves around the draft to acquire them, without worrying about their abilities in a vacuum. They are putting on a team-building clinic.
The Hawks have now added five key players in the past three drafts: John Collins, Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Hunter and Cam Reddish. The unusual part is that all five can play in a lineup together. Atlanta head coach Lloyd Pierce may start a more traditional big man like Alex Len at the 5, but he could close games with these five young players in his own version of the Lineup of Death: Young at the 1, Collins at the 5, and three 3-and-D wings around them.
Everything starts with Young; he already makes the players around him better. The only way for a team with Young to be good defensively is to surround him with length and athleticism on the perimeter. The Hawks, who now have three of the biggest wings in the NBA, are doing that.
The biggest challenge in targeting wings with elite size and athleticism in the draft is that few can consistently shoot 3s—think of recent lottery busts like Josh Jackson and Stanley Johnson. Without other perimeter players who can stretch the floor, defenders could sag in the lane and force the ball out of Young’s hands. That should not be an issue with any of the young wings in Atlanta. All three players can space the floor around a pick-and-roll between Young and Collins.
Schlenk, an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, is clearly trying to re-create his old team. It’s unrealistic to expect Young to be as good as Steph Curry, Collins to be as good as Draymond Green, or Huerter to be as good as Klay Thompson. What Schlenk is gambling on is that putting players with similar skill sets in the same types of lineups can create roughly similar results.Spoiler:Hunter, Huerter, and Reddish all can attack a mismatch, which means there’s nowhere on the perimeter to hide a poor defender. A team that wants to move its point guard off the ball on defense and put its best wing defender on Young will be in trouble. Only point guards with elite size for their position will be able to hold up against a 6-foot-7 wing, which means most will have to stay on Young. It is the opposite of what Atlanta can do with Young on defense. Point guards will have to guard Young, but he won’t have to guard them. Golden State’s ability to do the same thing with Curry has been one of the underrated keys to its success in the playoffs.
There would have been no way for Atlanta to create a team that fit this well together if it had stood pat and taken the best available players. The Hawks acquired three of their five core players in trades. They received an extra pick by trading down last year (getting the pick that became Reddish by moving down from no. 3 to no. 5 in 2018 so the Mavs could take Luka Doncic) and cashed in their surplus of picks one year later to move up to take Hunter. It’s a risky strategy. There were more talented players on the board at no. 4. Atlanta needs the rest of its core to make Hunter better than he would have been if he had gone almost anywhere else.
The Hawks should be one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA over the next few seasons. They play a 3-point-heavy style with the type of versatile defensive cast that could be very appealing to a superstar in free agency, much like the Nets were this offseason. They don’t have any bad salaries on their books, either; the only deals past 2020-21 are rookie contracts. They will have acres of cap space ahead of them. Collins won’t be eligible for an extension until the summer of 2021, and Young won’t be up for one until 2022.
NBC SportsWhat a way to get a rebuild rolling. They appear fully committed to their vision.
General manager Travis Schlenk took over in 2017. Atlanta was coming off 10 straight postseason appearances, only one year removed from a playoff-series victory and just two years removed from a 60-win season.
Now, only DeAndre’ Bembry remains from the roster Schlenk inherited just two years ago. The last two players to go, Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore, got moved this summer. They’re still assembling a young core. It’s OK if every piece is not yet placed.