LAS VEGAS — All around Atlanta, the city he now calls home, there are heavyweight construction projects taking place. The Falcons are moving into a state-of-the-art football stadium, and the Braves are playing their first year at a new baseball complex that’s still not fully complete. Meanwhile, Philips Arena will spend the next few dusty years undergoing a transformation.
And the team that plays at Philips? That would be the Hawks. They’re about to feel a nip and tuck, too.
Travis Schlenk is the GM running the team now and he wasted no time performing a facelift this summer to rid the Hawks of veterans who didn’t fit his vision. He traded Dwight Howard and refused to extend an offer to retain free agent Paul Millsap, the Hawks’ best player. The new plan, he said, is to invest in the future and steer clear of bad contracts. And in that process, the Hawks are almost certain to feel the pinch in the standings and perhaps drop into the draft lottery, initially, at least.
Schlenk refuses to embrace the idea of tanking and cringes at the thought of enduring a string of bad seasons, but he’s not naive, either: The task of revamping the Hawks could come at a cost.
When they won 60 games and secured the top record in the East two seasons ago and reached the conference finals, they had four All-Stars in the rotation. Right now, there’s no All-Stars or even a single player with a solid track record of success. Three of their top four scorers from last season are gone, and also their top four rebounders. The meat of the roster is rich with players in their mid-20s or younger who have yet to gain much, if any, traction in the league.
But that’s the plan: Develop the young players on hand, add a few more to the mix through the Draft, keep the payroll as lean as possible and collect enough assets to trade or keep. Once a new nucleus is built, the Hawks can then fortify the roster with a free-agent signing.
If only it were that simple and easy.
Schlenk was aggressive in dumping Howard, who undoubtedly qualified as a bad contract. Howard had signed just last summer and had two years remaining at $23 million per, but was benched in fourth quarters during the Hawks’ first-round playoff loss this spring. He was already outdated, a big man relic with no offensive polish who clashed with Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks’ coach and then-GM who gave Howard that contract.
In order to rid the club of Howard, the Hawks had to take back a bad contract in Miles Plumlee and filler. It was essentially cutting your losses ASAP. And while Budenholzer sang the praises of Millsap last season and was strongly in favor of retaining him when the playoffs began, Schlenk nixed that idea, too, because of Millsap’s age (32) and asking price (he eventually agreed to a three years deal with the Denver Nuggets).
Schlenk also didn’t think long about refusing to match the Knicks’ shocking four-year, $71 million offer to restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr., another Budenholzer favorite.
So the obvious question: Are Budenholzer and Schlenk on the same page?
“Bud’s been great,” Schlenk said. “Building a relationship with Bud was very important to me. Once we started talking about the roster and where we are, Bud was completely in board with the plan and is excited about the challenge to get us back up and contend for a championship in a few years.”
Keeping Hardaway would’ve gone against Schlenk’s plan to avoid poisonous contracts, while Millsap didn’t represent a youth movement. The goal is to allow others to fill those roles so the Hawks can see what they have. Bazemore, another Bud signing from last summer ($17 million per) who struggled last season, will get extended minutes and chances should he earn them, and the Hawks will shovel the same opportunities to Taurean Prince and De’Andre Bembry.
There’s great anticipation about John Collins, the 19-year-old rookie power forward from Wake Forest, who’s making a huge impression in summer league. Collins brings a great feel around the basket, attacks the boards and looks the part, although his shooting needs work. He could command significant minutes.
“Obviously we were thrilled he was still there at No. 19, and one of the things that jumped out at us is that, right after our press conference when there was a practice, is how hard he went through the drills,” Schlenk said. “He just has a great work ethic and a desire to be good.”
Schlenk doled out only manageable contracts this summer, to Mike Muscala (two years, $10 million) and Dewayne Dedmon (two years, $14 million). Schlenk knows how suffocating bulky contracts can be, and places a high value on financial flexibility. He wants to stay responsible and avoid the trap of “bidding against yourself” in the open market.
He was groomed by the Warriors’ organization and, after initially wanting to coach, was steered toward management by Jerry West, who eventually sold the Hawks on Schlenk when owner Tony Ressler wanted a new voice in a front-office shakeup. He had a voice in the Warriors’ building process; they built their two-time championship winner with high picks (Steph Curry), middle picks (Klay Thompson) and low picks (Draymond Green) before garnishing the club with trades (Andre Iguodala) and free agents (Kevin Durant).
“We want to develop the young players we have and we’ll potentially have five first-round picks in the next few years of the draft,” Schlenk said. “You really want to have three ways to get talent in this league: draft, trades and free agents. We’re going to use all three but it’s certainly easiest to get star players through the draft. It’s hard to trade for them and sign them. There’s all kind of ways to get a star. Maybe we look to package a few of those picks to move up.”
Meanwhile, the side effect from hitting the reset button is long and tough nights, something the Hawks haven’t felt since 2013-14, the last time they had a losing season.
“We want to continue the success we’ve had, but realize we might have to take a step back,” Schlenk said. “We just don’t want to dip down 2-3 years in a row. We realize that young players in this league take their lumps but we don’t want to send the message that we’re (fine) with losing.”
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