Historic. Amazing. Improbable.
Those are the words that have been used to describe the Atlanta Hawks’ season as it came to an end a few weeks ago. They were two wins away from the NBA Finals, as they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games.
No one can say before this season that they saw the Hawks making it to the Eastern Conference Finals, and honestly, over a third of the way into the season when the Hawks were 11th in the standings, a postseason appearance began to look bleak to some.
Hawks GM Travis Schlenk has built this team from top to bottom since taking over in 2017, and this season was the big payoff for all of the keen draft selections he’s made since arriving in Atlanta. It should be safe to leave the “rebuilding” title off the Hawks now, because it looks like they may be here to stay as contenders for a while.
Not every team has the same path, and we’ve seen that with the Phoenix Suns and Bucks. The Suns drafted Devin Booker in 2015 and Deandre Ayton No. 1 overall in 2018, but so far that alone hadn’t been enough to get to the postseason. Once Monty Williams took over and Chris Paul was acquired via trade, the Suns 11-year playoff drought was over. On the other hand, the Bucks have been in the playoffs for the past five seasons, but have not been able to get over the hump. They drafted their franchise player in Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2015, but have not had much success in drafting outside of him, so instead made smart moves through free agency or trades. Despite their shortcomings in the draft, both teams are now in the NBA Finals.
As of now, it looks like Hawks won’t be able to relate to either of those stories.
For a young team to see so much success early in their career is good, and history shows that this moment wasn’t just a one-stop shop for a group that’s looking to be a championship contender for years to come.
If there’s a blueprint that fits similar to their timeline, look no further than the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors teams around this time during the previous decade.
In 2007, the Seattle SuperSonics drafted their franchise player, Kevin Durant. They (now the OKC Thunder) then drafted Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka in the following years. With Sam Presti working his magic, the Thunder soon found themselves in the postseason year after year with a group of young players leading the way.
In their first playoff appearance, they lost in the first round, and the next year they lost in the Western Conference Finals. In 2012, they made it to the NBA Finals where they lost to the Miami Heat. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t make it back to the Finals after that appearance, but were still able to reach the playoffs in the coming years.
The Warriors had the same process, but their success went further than the Thunder.
The Warriors and Bob Myers (Travis Schlenk was the assistant GM) drafted Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green. In their first playoff appearance with that core, they made it to the the second round and lost to the San Antonio Spurs.
The following season, the Warriors were back in the playoffs, but lost in the first round to the Clippers in seven games. That offseason, Steve Kerr was hired as the new head coach, and the Warriors dynasty run began as they’ve won three championships since, with a litte help from a duy named Durant along the way.
Looking at both the Thunder and Warriors rise to contention, the Hawks are already off to a good start.
John Collins was drafted, then followed by Trae Young and Kevin Huerter the following season. Last year, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish were drafted. This year, Onyeka Okongwu was the Hawks No. 6 pick in the draft. These players have shown through four years that they have an important role on this team, and each have the potential to be very good players in this league. And perhaps most importantly, they are all 23 years old or younger.
This season, Lloyd Pierce was fired and Nate McMillan was promoted to interim head coach. You can see the difference he made, as the Hawks were 27-11 with him taking over since March 1.
This offseason they signed a group of key free agents and veterans such as Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Solomon Hill, and Kris Dunn. We also can’t forget the acquisition of Clint Capela last season.
In the Hawks first appearance with this young team, they were able to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
The model of good drafting has shown to be a major key in building good teams, but there is also some baggage that comes along with it. For the Thunder, it was having to trade Harden because they couldn’t come to an agreement on a contract extension. It looks like Collins is going to be in those same contract negotiations this offseason for the Hawks as they look to keep him long-term. Not to mention, the Hawks will still have to decide on players like Huerter, Hunter, and Reddish in the future. It should likely be a forgone conclusion that Young will sign a rookie max extension when the time comes, which could be as soon as this summer.
If these players grow and develop to be very good, the Hawks will have to pay them as so, and the confinements of the salary cap make matters difficult when trying to pay that many players.
For the Warriors, they were able to win a championship before having to sign their core players to major contracts. This is another good example of when you draft within, you can have the luxury of saving money in the beginning. Not only were they able to sign their core players of Curry, Thompson, and Green to max contracts later through the years, but they landed another All-Star through free agency in Durant.
The Hawks shouldn’t have to worry about adding a big free agent anytime soon since it’s still early in the process, but they do have the ability to acquire another star if that opportunity arises. With so many assets on the team, all it takes is one disgruntled star on another team to want out of their situation, and the Hawks could make a serious offer.
Many players have said that winning a championship takes some luck, and that includes staying healthy. Both the Warriors and Thunder had to go through this phase at some point during their years of contending, and the Hawks have already learned during this season along how important staying healthy can impact the team.
Atlanta may have had some of the most injuries in the NBA this season. It was evident during spurts of the playoffs how big the absence of Hunter was in the Sixers and Bucks series, and the difference Reddish made when he returned midway through the Conference Finals. Bogdanovic had been dealing with a knee injury since the second round (and earlier in the regular season), and Young suffered a bone bruise in a freak accident with a referee that caused him to miss two games.
It’s still a question mark on what this team would look like if they were at full strength. All in all, both the Thunder and Warriors have had winning success through their years. This isn’t to say that the Hawks will have the same type of story as either of those teams, but it shows that they’re doing the right things to help them build a championship contending team for years to come.