It has become a popular trend among sites, experts, and whoever else you want to throw in there, to put the Hawks in the cellar of the NBA when forecasting the 2017-2018 NBA regular season. On paper, it makes sense. Atlanta has regressed over the last two seasons, moving from the first overall seed in the East to the fifth and a first-round exit last season. That led to the Hawks relieving Coach Budenholzer of his President of Basketball Operations title and handing over the reigns to Travis Schlenk as general manager. In Schlenk’s first month on the job, he got rid of Dwight Howard, and then coincidingly did not even issue four-time all-star Paul Millsap an offer to stay in town. After the Knicks outbid the Hawks for Tim Hardaway Jr., Atlanta was left with one of the strangest and weakest rosters across the league, but you will never hear the word “tank” around the organization, and for good reason, it is not happening.
Despite unloading three of the Hawks best players, Schlenk’s comments have always pointed towards the team doing everything it can to remain competitive. That might sound like nothing more than some politically correct statements to keep fans buying tickets for the upcoming season, but Schlenk is not hiding anything here. There is talent among this group and a ton of competitive attitudes that ignorantly believe they are still championship contenders.
It starts at the head of the snake with Coach Budenholzer. I am going be quite frank here, I do not think there will ever be a Coach Budenholzer coached team that finishes last in the Association. I do not care if you give him John Callipari’s squad, he is that talented of a coach. I read an article the other day that suggested Budenholzer is on the hot seat coming into this season, and almost spit up my drink. What a preposterous statement on a coach whose team has done nothing but over achieve in every season, but that is another story for another day.
In a league where tanking is pretty much the alternative choice to contending, there are going to be tons of teams lacking talent playing with a coach just waiting to get the ax. The Hawks could have the least talent of any NBA roster, which I do not think is true, and they would still finish better than at least five teams that will have thrown in the towel by the end of November.
Coach Budenholzer has the ability to get the best out of his players. Do we not remember, he turned a group of good players into four all-stars and won sixty games in the regular season. Didn’t Demarre Carroll start on that team? And a middle aged Kyle Korver? And they won sixty games? How many games did the Cavaliers win this season? 51. Do we not remember “Team basketball?” Coach Bud is among the best coaches in the league, and has a team that may lack talent but features many of the skills that Budenholzer adores.
Schroder is the team’s budding star, averaging 24.7 points and 7.7 assists in the postseason as a 23-year old. With Millsap and Howard off the roster, he becomes the man in Atlanta, and there isn’t a guy who wants it more. Like Budenholzer, Schroder is as competitive as it gets, willing to go face to face with the best in the NBA. Just ask John Wall, who he faced in the first-round of last year’s playoffs. Wall got the best of Schroder, but that is just another thing pushing the German point guard this offseason. He wants to make a statement in the league, and let’s just say tanking isn’t in his vocabulary.
Beyond that, Schlenk filled up the roster with guys who can shoot the basketball. He received Marco Belinelli in the trade that sent Howard to Charlotte. Bellinelli, a career 39.2% three-point shooter, may only be here for one year but will do wonders with Coach Budenholzer. He spent two seasons in San Antonio prior to Charlotte and was terrific under Coach Popavich, even shooting 43% from behind the arc in 2013-2014. Luke Babbitt, another career 40% shooter, was just recently added. The Hawks also re-signed both Mike Muscala and Ersan Ilyasova, who will stretch the floor from the four and five spots. Budenholzer loves some small ball, so expect a lot of it this season with less size and more shooting on the roster.
But as much as Budenholzer loves shooting, he loves defense even more. And very few people play better defense around the paint than one of the Hawks most recent additions, Dewayne Dedmon. Like Bellinelli he spent time in the Spurs system and was very efficient for them as a backup center because of his defensive and rebounding presence. There is not a lot of offense here, but there is reason to believe he could play a similar role that Howard played last season, and a lot more willingly.
And perhaps the biggest determinant to whether the Hawks postseason streak continues, the development of their rookie first-round pick John Collins. If you watched summer league, you saw the enormous potential this young man possesses. Yes, it is just summer league, but he looks as NBA ready as any rookie. If he can develop into a starter, and a solid second option to Dennis Schroder, this team can contend for a playoff spot in a weak East. Hell if he is good enough, they might just find themselves in the same spot because the Eastern Conference has taken such a dive.
I understand the Hawks being a popular pick to finish at the bottom of the league. After all, it was not long ago that it was a common thing for Atlanta to be picking near the top of the lottery. They do not have any sexy names, and many people probably cannot even name half of their starting five. The ugly volt green jerseys do not make it any better, but they are not finishing in last. They will not even be close. This team is going to try next season, and in today’s NBA, that can be enough to get you to the playoffs.