Matt Chernoff of 680 the Fan made some bold claims last week regarding the Hawks. He said something along the lines of, “outside of about five teams, there is nobody the Hawks should be jealous of.” It sounds preposterous considering Atlanta finished with the fifth-worst record in the NBA and only won 29 games. But while the number of teams can be debated, the thought process behind the statement is spot on, and nobody should know this better than Hawks’ fans themselves.
In the NBA, there is absolutely nothing as dreadful as being a treadmill team. You might ask, “what the hell is a treadmill team?” Well, look no further than what Atlanta did going to ten straight postseasons despite never having a legitimate chance to win an NBA title. For some reason, the NBA allows over half of their teams to make the playoffs; which is preposterous in a league where only three or four teams a year have a chance to win. That’s an argument for another day, however. The point is: The Hawks were one of those teams in the middle of the pack that was just good enough to get to the dance, but never had a chance of taking home the girl, leaving them without a top pick in the NBA draft. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to build a roster daunting enough to compete for a championship.
That’s why the best thing that ever happened to the Hawks was Travis Schlenk coming in and deciding to tear it all down and build from the bottom. Fortunately, Schlenk also has a keen eye for talent, picking up starters John Collins, Trae Young, and Kevin Huerter in his first two drafts. Because of that, the Hawks are in the best position they’ve been in for years, and possibly the best position they’ve been in franchise history. So really, what teams should the Hawks genuinely be envious of as we enter the 2019-2020 campaign?
The Atlanta Hawks
No, the Hawks shouldn’t be jealous of themselves, but I feel it’s impossible to explain this point without expounding on why the Hawks are in such an advantageous position.
It begins with Trae Young. He is the playmaking point guard this organization has never had. He may never be a replica of Steph Curry, but his potential is just as high as a baller. He’s already among the best passers in all of basketball, finishing second in the entire NBA in assists as a rookie. Young’s decision making improved throughout last year, limiting turnovers, and of course, he can shoot from anywhere past half court. All of these traits are imperative for teams succeeding in the NBA today. Without an elite point guard, and there are only so many of them, good luck winning a championship.
Secondly, comes the rest of the Hawks’ young core. John Collins is a borderline All-Star already. If he can take the next step as an isolation player, the sky is the limit for the kid from Wake Forest. Kevin Huerter is a sniper that emerged as a rookie. It could be the Splash Brothers 2.0 in Atlanta before long. But even guys like Omari Spellman, De’Andre Bembry, and Alex Len have potential to carve substantial roles on this team down the road. Not to mention, the Hawks are likely to have not one, but two lottery picks this summer. The accumulation of young talent is up there with anyone in the league.
However, the most critical factor in all of this is financial flexibility. Braves fans should be overly familiar with this phrase; the only difference is in basketball – financial flexibility actually matters. Schlenk has used it over and over, and by the end of the 2020 season, the Hawks will have room for multiple max free agents. People will say, “Oh, no good free agents are coming to Atlanta.” That may have been the case before, but under new ownership and management, something is brewing down South, and NBA players are taking notice.
The Golden State Warriors
There’s not much I need to stay here. The Warriors are the poster child for what fantastic management can do for an organization. Even if Kevin Durant heads elsewhere, they are still set for multiple championship runs. How many teams in the history of basketball can say that? I’m going to go out on a limb and say zero.
The Boston Celtics
Like the Warriors, the Celtics are built from the top down. They have exceptional management and an absolute thief for a GM in Danny Ainge (Get well soon!). Even if Kyrie parts ways with the organization, their abundance of youth makes them an organization that will be around for a while, and there’s more than a real chance they land Anthony Davis in the offseason.
The Milwaukee Bucks
There’s only one reason the Hawks should be jealous of the Bucks: Giannis Antetokounpo. The Greek Freak is on the fast track to becoming the best player in the world – a title he should have to himself in a couple of years. And as we’ve seen with Lebron James, when you have the best player in the world, you always have a chance to win a title. Coach Budenholzer is also as good as they come as a coach, and Kris Middleton is an underrated All-Star that can stroke it from anywhere on the court.
This might not be a team many expect on this list, but the Nuggets are just beginning their reign of terror on the Western Conference. Nikola Jokic is among the most exciting players to watch at 24-years old. They have loads of young talent like Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Michael Beasley, and also have Michael Porter Jr. lurking, who could have been a top-five pick in last year’s draft if it wasn’t for injury concerns. They did overpay for Paul Millsap, but he remains a productive player and will be off the books by the end of next season.
The Houston Rockets
This is where the arguments begin to become legitimate. The Rockets are probably the second best team this year, and I love James Harden despite his failures in the playoffs. But if they can’t get it done in 2019, which is highly unlikely, Chris Paul is not getting any younger, and they just signed him to a four-year, $160 million contract. That kills their financial flexibility. I’m no longer sure that’s a tandem that can win a championship in the future. But for now, the Hawks remain envious of what is going on in Houston.
The 76ers are in a precarious situation as well if they can not find a way to win an NBA title this season. What is going to happen with the expiring contracts of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris? I believe it’s unlikely they keep one, let alone both of them. If that happens, the 76ers are back to being just another ‘meh’ team. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid individually are outstanding, but they have not shown an ability to be productive together. Plus, Embiid’s injury concerns are only going to grow as he ages, and Ben Simmons’ jump shot prevents him from joining the category of elite point guards.
I allowed the Raptors to make this list based on one thing: They have to keep Kawhi Leanord. If they do that, they have hands-down a top-five player in the league. I tend to think he’s going to stay, especially if the Raptors can make a run to the Finals this year. I also love Pascal Siakim, who I expect to make the All-Star game next season. However, if Leanord parts ways with Toronto, they may need to explore a complete rebuild like Atlanta.