Travis Schlenk has displayed an excellent eye for talent, hitting on just about every first-round pick he has made at various draft positions. While many are not satisfied with how that has translated to the wins column, this has all been part of a long-term plan for Schlenk, and he has successfully manipulated a big-time salary cap increase years after the fact, turning it into assets with the Hawks’ cap flexibility.
This whole process started before Schlenk took the helm as general manager, and the Hawks were looking to remain competitive under executive at the time Mike Budenholzer alongside GM Wes Wilcox. The team handed Kent Bazemore way too large of a contract, a move that would hinder them from making significant moves going forward. They also signed Dwight Howard to a sizeable deal, which never panned out. They may not have realized it at the time, but these were moves that eventually forced the Hawks, who had struggled to recruit free agents for years, into a rebuild. That same offseason, Atlanta traded away former All-Star Jeff Teague, as the team felt Dennis Schroder was ready to take over the ropes as the starting point guard.
The Hawks struggled that season, ending up just 43-39, a far cry from the 60-win season they had recently experienced. It was evident that their roster was not going to reach these heights again. Prior to the trade deadline, the Hawks moved Kyle Korver for Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams (who was waived), and a top-10 protected 2019 1st Round Pick. In May of 2017, Travis Schlenk, a longtime executive with the Golden State Warriors, took over the helm.
Schlenk’s first move was to rid the team of the Dwight Howard deal. Howard was not abysmal for Atlanta by any means, but his cap figure was far too large. He traded away Howard for Marco Belinelli and Miles Plumlee and swapped second-round picks with the Hornets. The team let Paul Millsap walk in free agency, and facilitated a deal to get him to Denver that landed them a first-round pick, later used on Omari Spellman. Atlanta then drafted John Collins 19th overall. This effectively signified the beginning of a long-term rebuild for the Hawks, one that is far from over but has delivered promising results.
From the beginning, Schlenk emphasized financial flexibility and stockpiling draft assets. Plumlee was a far cry from Dwight Howard from a talent standpoint, but the move was all about the cap figures. Though he still had Bazemore and Plumlee’s inflated contracts on the books, he had a plan. He soon after absorbed a couple of second-rounders from Cleveland just to take on expiring contracts.
The first year of the rebuild was a rough one, and too much for Coach Mike Budenholzer, a guy who came from the winningest organization in recent memory — the San Antonio Spurs. He soon forced himself out, a tough but necessary pill to swallow for Hawks fans. These are the types of sacrifices you have to make at times in hopes of building a long-term winner. Lloyd Pierce, a development-oriented coach, was named the head man shortly after.
This was when things got juicy for the Hawks, as far as the transaction sheet goes. We all know about the deal that landed them Trae Young, and later Cam Reddish for Luka Doncic. The team also drafted Kevin Huerter 19th overall that season. But this is also when Schlenk started to stockpile assets. He picked up two second-rounders just for taking on the contract of Jeremy Lin. They received a first-rounder from Oklahoma City for Dennis Schroder with Trae Young ready to take over at the point, mainly in part by taking on Carmelo Anthony’s contract, who was waived.
The Hawks had the worst defense in the NBA last season but showed promise as a young team. That is when Travis Schlenk started to play 4-D chess.
The team traded away Taurean Prince, who was not one of Schlenk’s selections, to the Nets and landed two first-round picks. The Hawks were only able to make this deal due to the financial flexibility Schlenk had worked so hard to create. The Nets had to make room to sign Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, so out of desperation, they sent the 17th pick and a 2020 top-14 protected selection along with Allen Crabbe’s expiring deal to make it happen.
The Hawks then used their pick at 8th overall, the 17th pick, the 35th pick, and the Cavs pick acquired in the Kyle Korver deal to land their coveted wing, De’Andre Hunter in the Draft at 4th overall. The Cavs pick is top 10 protected, so it will likely turn into two-second rounders for New Orleans. Atlanta also absorbed Solomon Hill’s sizeable expiring contract in this trade.
Then, the Hawks moved Hill and Plumlee to Memphis for Chandler Parsons, another massive expiring deal, but it saved the team a roster spot.
Last month, the Hawks were able to acquire Jeff Teague for Allen Crabbe, filling a considerable hole on their roster as Trae Young’s backup. So in a super weird way, Schlenk was basically able to acquire two first-rounders from the string of assets that stemmed from the trade with the Pacers. Teague is a far cry from the player he was when he was dealt away, and he is now among the overpaid expiring contract players in the NBA, but then again, so is Allen Crabbe.
It is a strange way of analyzing things, but it makes Schlenk look like a genius. From that stream of assets, they were able to trade up with the 2019 pick from the Nets to get Hunter, and on Tuesday evening, they packaged up the other pick with, you guessed it, the expiring contract of Evan Turner to acquire Clint Capela from the Rockets. So in short, the Hawks used a year left of Jeff Teague to obtain Hunter and Capela, two guys who could be starters for a very long time in Atlanta. And Teague just so happens to currently be on the roster as well.
Capela will be under contract for the next three seasons at a very reasonable rate. However, with the way Schlenk has been able to maneuver the cap, the Hawks are still set to have the most cap space in the NBA, with over $60 million available. Teague will become a free agent, and Chandler Parsons was waived to make room for Capela. That will create around $45 million in cap space alone.
Many have complained about the lackluster product surrounding the Hawks’ young core, but we are starting to see the benefit of accumulating expiring contracts, and the best is yet to come. Travis Schlenk has proven to be a hard-working and thoughtful GM, along with having an eagle eye for talent. Simply put: he gets it, and he is taking the steps necessary to finally turn this Hawks team into a contender down the road. Atlanta has a starting lineup full of rising stars with enough cap space to bring in any player they’d like. Better days are ahead.