2016-17 record: 43-39. 5th in the Eastern Conference. Eliminated by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs in six games.
Transactions: The NBA has really been dominated by two teams. The Golden State Warriors in the West and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the East.
Like every team in the East, the Hawks had a tough decision to make. They could try to load up and try to make a run at LeBron James and the Cavs or they could cut bait, blow it up and try to build a future contender capable of competing in a post-LeBron East. After all, the King is 32 now and is going to have to slow down at some point. He is after all only human, right?
The Hawks are a team that just made the playoffs for the tenth straight season. They are two seasons removed from finishing first in the East with a 60-22 mark. In the current NBA climate, none of these things matter. They aren’t getting by Cleveland. In fact, their first round exit against the Washington Wizards revealed some key weaknesses in the team that needed to be addressed.
Incoming GM Travis Schenk had two options. He could retool what was a pretty decent core lead by the front court of one-time superstar Dwight Howard and all-star Paul Millsap, talented young point guard Dennis Schroder – coming off an excellent first season as a starter, youngster Taurean Prince – who showed a great deal of promise in his rookie year, journeyman Kent Bazemore – who’d finally blossomed into an NBA starter after finding a home in Atlanta and Tim Hardaway Jr – who was coming off by far the best season of his young career – or he could start what is now commonly referred to as “The Process” (popularized by former Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie) and start the tear down in hopes of building a team ready to compete in a post-LeBron Eastern Conference.
The big deal of the summer for Atlanta (and first indicator of what direction the team would take) came with sending starting centre and hometown boy Dwight Howard – coming off just one season with the team – and the 31st pick in the NBA draft for centre Miles Plumlee, shooting guard Marco Belinelli and the 41st pick in the NBA draft.
The deal was about one thing and one thing only – cutting their losses with Dwight Howard. The mercurial big man wore out his welcome in Atlanta – his fourth team in six years – after one season which is as much an indication of the changing role of big men in the NBA as it is about Howard’s well-documented attitude problems.
Dwight had become unplayable for the Hawks in their first round series with the Wizards, bottoming out with a -14 net rating in 23 minutes of playing time in game six. It was the culmination of a season long styles clash between Howard and Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who as a former assistant with the Spurs, prefers a style heavy on ball movement and shooting. Neither of which Howard could provide and Atlanta’s offensive attack faltered with Dwight’s predictable and inefficient post isolation game.
In Plumlee, the Hawks aren’t getting a real upgrade as centre so much as a reclamation project. The soon-to-be 29 year old Duke product lost his starting job with the Bucks 12 games into the season and was shipped to the Hornets in early February where he averaged 13.4 minutes in 13 games. The Hornets simply needed the $12.5 million he’s due this season off the books to take Howard and if he’s able to meaningfully contribute in the Hawks rotation, it’s a bonus.
Marco Belinelli, on the other hand, will provide the Hawks with some depth at the shooting guard position. He’s solid veteran off the bench and provides Atlanta with a nice long range threat off the bench. He contributed 10.5 points on 42% shooting including 36% from three point range. As an added bonus, the 31 year old is playing on an expiring contract which means that if things don’t work out, the Hawks can simply move on without penalty.
This trade was the first strong indicator that the new management in Atlanta was considering blowing it up after a ten season playoff run. Giving up a one time superstar like Dwight Howard for a spare part centre and an expiring contract definitely hinted at that direction, however letting all-star Paul Millsap walk in free agency all but confirmed that the Hawks were about to undertake their own version of “the process”.
Shockingly, Atlanta didn’t even make Millsap an offer and when the free agent signing became a trade for cap reasons, the Hawks waived the players they got back – Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone – and kept only the future first round pick they got from the Clippers via the Houston Rockets. With Millsap leaving, the team lost the last member of the starting five of the 2014-15 Hawks team that finished 60-22 and 1st in the Eastern Conference. Life comes at you fast.
Another key piece of the team – albeit one that management likely didn’t see coming – was removed when the New York Knicks shockingly signed restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr to a four year, $71 million offer sheet. The astronomical value of the offer was made all the more puzzling that the Knicks had traded the 24 year old to the Hawks just two years before for the rights to Jerian Grant. Needless to say, Atlanta didn’t match, but it hurts to lose a young player coming off by far the best season of his carer. Hardaway averaged 14.5 points on 45.5% shooting including 35.7% from three point range. All of which weren’t just career highs but huge jumps from where he was the previous three seasons of his career.
The Hawks also waived veteran sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy, lost top perimeter defender Thabo Sefolosha in free agency and traded centre Ryan Kelly to the Houston Rockets for cash considerations.
Incoming is former centre Dewayne Dedmon. The 28 year old showed a great deal of promise in an often limited role with San Antonio last season. He started 37 times in 76 games and averaged 5.1 points on 62% shooting and added 6.5 boards. He hit 10 or more rebounds in 13 games. He also lead the Spurs in blocks or rebounds 21 times this past season. If he can keep up that level of performance in Atlanta, Dedmon will find a nice role on the Hawks and is likely to be their starting centre to kick off the season.
Three point specialist Luke Babbitt is also coming to the ATL on a one year veteran minimum. He offers the Hawks largely one skill, but it’s one that Budenholzer puts a premium on and that is three point shooting. In fact, Babbitt averages higher from three point range (40.6%) than his total field goal percentage (40.5%).
The Hawks were also able to bring back veteran Ersan Ilyasova on a one year, $6 million deal. The 30 year old will be relied on to provide veteran stability to the power forward position with the departure of Paul Millsap. He can still stretch the floor very well, shooting 41% last season including 34.8% from three point range and averaged 13.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 82 games with Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Atlanta. with consistent offense looking to be a huge need for this team, Ilyasova’s return gives Atlanta their only other player besides point guard Dennis Schroeder who broke 1,000 points last season.
Power forward Mike Muscala is also coming back to Atlanta for his fifth NBA season on a two year, ten million contract.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 19th pick in the draft, the Hawks selected John Collins from Wake Forrest. The 6’10” power forward averaged 19.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in his second and final year with the Demon Deacons and established himself as one of the best offensive players in the entire NCAA. He lead all collegiate players in PER while being named the ACC’s most improved player last season.
Collins is an incredible athlete and thrives in a number of different situations. He’s an excellent rim runner in transition, cutter, pick-and-roll finisher, and in post up play. Collins plays with a great deal of energy and is excellent with the ball in his hands. He’s quick off the ground and thrives in above the rim play.
He was able to show off his skills during the NBA Summer League where he punished defenders and wow audiences while averaging 15.4 points on 59.3% shooting – which was the best mark of the tournament for anyone attempting at least 50 shots – and adding 9.2 boards.
In Collins, the Hawks have their big man of the future. While Ilyasova will provide veteran presence and stability at the power forward position, Collins will likely enjoy big minutes as a rookie and be able to establish himself as a star in the loaded 2017 rookie class.
With the 41st selection, Atlanta took Oregon guard Tyler Dorsey who averaged 14.6 points on 46.7% shooting including 42.3% from three point range in his second and final year with the Ducks. Dorsey also had a great March Madness, helping lead his team all the way to the Final Four. He could develop into a nice catch-and-shoot threat with the Hawks, who put that skill on a premium under Budenholzer. Dorsey will likely see some time in the G League, but with Atlanta relatively thin at the 2 guard position, there is high potential for him to work his way into the rotation.
At the 60th pick, the Hawks went with Alpha Kaba. The 21 year old French centre stands 6’10” with a 7’5” wingspan. He’s likely to play in Europe for the time being but is certainly an intriguing prospect for Atlanta if he’s able to develop into anything.
Outlook: The immediate future for the Hawks isn’t incredibly promising. Atlanta has committed to blowing it up and building for the future so it’s a safe bet that the franchise’s ten year playoff streak is coming to an end.
The obvious priority this season will be to develop Collins. He’s one of the most promising rookies in an absolutely loaded draft class and will be a huge part of the franchise’s future.
The Hawks will also look to Dennis Schroder to continue the remarkable leap he made in his first campaign as the Hawks starting point guard. The soon-to-be 24 year old German is now the team’s most potent offensive weapon with Paul Millsap gone. He averaged 17.9 points on 45.5% to go along with 6.3 assists, 3.1 board and just under a steal per game.
Schroeder is honestly one of my favourite players in the league to watch. He’s incredibly quick with a deceptively long reach (a 6’7” wingspan on a 6’1” frame). He plays with a confidence and swagger that makes him stand out on this squad. He’s also one of the most clutch players in the NBA, leading every guard in FG% in clutch situations.
“Dennis The Menace” – as he’s known among the Hawks faithful – will undoubtedly stand out as one of the bright spots on this Atlanta squad this season and with an even bigger offensive responsibility on his shoulders, expect his number to continue to climb exponentially.
Taurean Prince is likely going to have a huge second year. He finished off his rookie campaign seeing a rapid increase in minutes through the last two months of the season (22.2 in March, 28.6 in April) and culminated in his him averaging 31.6 minutes a game in the playoffs. Prince responded to that minute increase by averaging an impressive 11.4 points, 3.9 boards, 1.6 assists and 1.4 steals as a starter which bodes well for an increased role this coming season.
Prince also overcame early doubts in his ability to fit into the Hawks defensive scheme by becoming the team’s best individual defensive rating (98.4). He will now inherit the departed Thabo Sefolosha’s role as the Hawks primary perimeter defender. The young Texan is going to have a huge role on a rebuilding team this season and should continue his impressive development where he left off last season.
Kent Bazemore will also have a much larger role to play on this team and he’s really a player you can’t help but root for. After all, who can forget the Old Dominion product being known more for his role as a cheerleader on the bench in Golden State than anything he ever did on the court? A trade to the absolutely horrifying 2013-14 Lakers gave us a glimpse of what Bazemore could do a player, but he really found a home with the Hawks.
The past two seasons in Atlanta have been the best of Bazemore’s career, he’s found himself a key contributor on the Hawks and last season averaged 11 points on 40.9% shooting and added 3.2 boards, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals.
Bazemore is a high energy, team first guy who is going to thrive as one of the veteran leaders of this rebuilding Hawks team. He’s exactly the kind of player you want young players to learn from and the kind of glue guy who will things light in the dressing room as the losses pile up. When there isn’t much to cheer for in the dead days of winter, he’s going to be the guy rallying fans and teammates alike.
Beyond that there isn’t much to get excited about.
Rebuilding processes are painful and this one is no different. While Collins, Schroder, Prince and Bazemore will give you a reason to be seeking ATL out on League Pass, there will be times when fans at the arena will be more thrilled by Killer Mike’s barbershop than the product on the court.
Still the Hawks had one of two directions they could go in and a tear-down was likely a better call than hovering around .500 followed by another early playoff exit.
The only question now is that with Orlando, Indiana, Chicago, New York and Brooklyn all in various stages of a rebuild at the bottom of the East, can the Hawks bottom out enough to complete “The Process”?
Prediction: 30-52. 12th in the Eastern Conference.