A look back on how the Hawks got back to the second round

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The Atlanta Hawks have won their first playoff series of the Trae Young era, so I figured now is the best time to take a second and look back on how the Hawks got to this point and simply appreciate how far this organization has come in just four years.

Back in 2017, the Hawks were stuck in a state of mediocrity. While the team had made the playoffs for ten straight years, they had advanced past the second round just once over that run. Faced with an offseason decision of re-signing an aging Paul Millsap to run it back again or begin the process of a rebuild, the Hawks ownership group chose the latter. Enter Travis Schlenk.

Coming off of five years as the assistant GM for the Golden State Warriors, Schlenk had spent 12 years in the front office in total. Witnessing firsthand the versatility of the Warriors’ lineups that were filled with players who could dribble, pass, and shoot, Schlenk looked to bring that philosophy to the Hawks.

“As I’ve mentioned from Day 1, we are looking for skilled players. When you look at the league today, you need guys out on the floor that can dribble, that can shoot, that can pass.” –Schlenk in 2018 

One of the first moves Schlenk made as GM of the Hawks was the decision to draft a project big out of Wake Forest named John Collins. Fans rarely can get excited about a non-lottery pick, but this one brought a high-flying big man with the potential to shoot — a perfect fit for the modern NBA.

“We’re very excited to add John to the Atlanta Hawks. He’s a guy that we had pegged higher up on the draft board than the 19th spot, so we love his athleticism. We love his ability to score, his rebounding. So, we’re looking forward to getting him down here.” – Schlenk’s opening statement after drafting Collins via Peachtree Hoops.

From there, the Hawks traded Dwight Howard and allowed Paul Millsap to walk in free agency, signaling the rebuild was in full effect. They would go on to win just 24 games, securing a top pick in what would prove to be one of the strongest draft classes in recent history. The team, of course, brought in Trae Young and Kevin Huerter that year, who both fully fit the dribble-pass-shoot model Schlenk referenced the year before.

“Trae led the country in assists and Kevin is a good ball handler for a wing player. We’re looking for multi-dimensional players that can play the way we want to play up and down and an exciting brand of basketball.” – Schlenk after the 2019 draft via Peachtree Hoops.

Of course, this draft did not come without controversy. The Hawks traded out of their third overall pick to take Young at the cost of Luka Doncic. At the time, many were skeptical of the move, and as the 2018 season began, that skepticism became full-blown criticism. Young, of course, improved over the course of the year, but the national opinion had already been formed.

Year two of the rebuild was up and down, and Hawks fans’ feelings were tightly bound to Young’s performances. Overall, the season would end with Young finishing second in voting for Rookie of the Year while Kevin Huerter and John Collins established themselves as solid players as well. 

In 2019, the core was born.

While the 2018 draft was full of stress and anxiety leading up to draft night, 2019 held twice as much. With Hawks fans feeling confident they had their franchise cornerstone already on the roster, many were hoping to add Zion Williamson to the aforementioned core. This culminated when Williamson was seen tapping the Hawks logo as he paced the lottery stage.

Ultimately, though, the ping pong balls went in a different direction, landing the Hawks the eighth and tenth overall picks. Travis Schlenk certainly had to be disappointed to fall in this draft and was determined to get into the top five. After two straight years of trading players and taking on contracts to acquire multiple future picks, Schlenk cashed in two firsts (eight and seventeen overall) and an early second to move up and take De’Andre Hunter.

Hunter, fresh off an incredibly successful season which saw him not only win the national championship at Virginia but also lock down fellow first round pick Jarrett Culver on college basketball’s biggest stage, was the mix of offense and defense Schlenk envisioned next to Young. Add in Cam Reddish with the tenth overall pick, and the Hawks seemed ready to make some noise in the 2019-2020 season.

Some Hawks fans, and a few analysts, felt the team had dark horse playoff potential. Trae Young made the leap into stardom, earning a starting spot on the All-Star team. However, the team would finish with just 20 wins before Covid ended the season. A part of the “delete eight,” the Hawks season did not go as many planned. However, after the acquisition of Clint Capela at the trade deadline, head coach Lloyd Pierce made the Hawks’ goal clear for the next season — playoffs or bust.

“We’re going to level up,” Pierce said. “This team is a playoff team, and I told our guys. We’re a playoff team. The guys in that room that will be back here understand that. Now it’s about understanding what that means. We know it.” – Lloyd Pierce towards the end of the 2019-2020 season via the AJC

This was certainly a refreshing statement for Hawks fans, who had gotten used to hearing the goal was player development, not wins. However, these words may have caught the front office off guard, and reporting done at the time confirmed this. While internally, the Hawks had planned to compete in 2020-2021, they did not necessarily want the pressure that came with public statements. Regardless, the team faced the most interesting offseason since the 2018 draft.

By the end of the 2020 NBA offseason, the Hawks had stacked up on veteran talent to go along with the core of the team. The signings of Danilo GallinariBogdan Bogdanovic, and Rajon Rondo to multi-year deals signaled a new era had arrived. It was time for the players and staff to prove their worth in wins. However, perhaps the most significant move of the offseason received the least amount of press, the hiring of Nate McMillan as an assistant coach.

“In his 16 years as a successful NBA head coach, his teams have emulated his playing style and personality,” Pierce said. “They’ve always been disciplined, competitive, played together and won at a high level. I have great respect for Nate as a man and as a coach, and I feel fortunate to welcome him to our staff and to the Hawks.”

This season’s ups and downs have been well documented. However, one part of the season seems to be forgotten by many — the Hawks’ red-hot start. After going 3-0 to begin the season, the Hawks took Brooklyn down to the wire but ultimately lost despite scoring 141 points. After the game, Kevin Durant believed the Hawks were legitimate. “They are going to be a team to be reckoned with this season,” Durant said. The very next game, the Hawks would defeat the Nets and improve to 4-1.

Then the wheels fell off. 

Between injuries and blown leads, the Hawks fell to 14-20 through the first half of the season. Just before the All-star break, Travis Schlenk made the decision to move on from Lloyd Pierce and promote Nate McMillan to head coach.

“I just felt like we needed a new voice to take the next step…As we said at the beginning of the season, our goal was to have progress this year to move forward. We just felt that wasn’t happening as quickly as we wanted.” –Travis Schlenk to reporters following the announcement of Nate McMillan being hired as interim coach

That’s when the Hawks caught fire. 

They won 27 of their final 38 games to clinch the fifth seed in the conference. The combination of depth that Schlenk had put together and Nate McMillan’s experience proved vital in turning the season around. It was not all depth and coaching, however. Trae Young had fully established himself as a superstar through all the injuries and changes throughout the season. Even though his counting stats had not improved from the year before, the point guard showed he could trust his teammates and take over when needed. This, of course, has culminated in a dominant series from Young and company, closing the Knicks out in just five games. 

If the Trae Young game-winner in the first contest was any indication, the Hawks were never going to lose to New York. Aside from Young — John Collins, Kevin Huerter, and De’Andre Hunter have each proven they can contribute to winning playoff basketball and confirmed Schlenk made the right decision in drafting each of them. The free agent and trade acquisitions have certainly done their part as well, with Bogdanovic and Capela especially living up to the hype.

The story for this year’s team is far from over, as they still have a second-round matchup coming up this next week. For now, though, the rebuild has brought them back to the postseason, this time with a much younger core and a superstar leading the way.

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