Let the rebuilding begin for the Atlanta Hawks.
After an all-too-brief run among the NBA’s elite, the Hawks are starting over with a largely anonymous squad and no hope of challenging the top teams. Four-time All-Star Paul Millsap was allowed to walk. Dwight Howard was dumped after one dismal season with his hometown team. Coach Mike Budenholzer lost much of his immense power after several ill-fated personnel decision.
What’s left is a dynamic point guard, Dennis Schroder, and not much else. The roster is filled with the sort of players that generally make up a team more focused on the future than the present: career backups, journeymen, raw prospects and those who never panned out for one reason or another.
Hard to believe it was only three years ago that the Hawks led the East with 60 wins and reached the conference final.
New general manager Travis Schlenk made it clear that his two immediate priorities were to get younger and gain “financial flexibility” — essentially code for a team that’s not going to be very competitive for several seasons while it clears out overpriced contracts and accumulates draft picks, all in hopes of making a big splash down the road.
“Our goal for the season is to see growth in all our guys,” Schlenk said, not mentioning anything about wins and losses.
The probably means Hawks fans are in for a bumpy ride this season.
“These are scrappy guys, these are competitive guys, these are prideful guys,” Schlenk said, doing his best to sound hopeful. “Now, we’re going to be young. Historically, teams that are young take it on the chin a little bit.”
Some other things to keep an eye on for the Atlanta Hawks:
SCHRODER GOES IT ALONE: Heading into his second season as a starter, Schroder is the unquestioned leader of team in flux. He ranked second in scoring behind Millsap at 17.9 points per game and averaged a team-high 6.3 assists. He’ll be counted on to carry even more of the load on a roster that lacks any big-time scorers. More telling will be whether the 24-year-old shows some much-needed maturity. He had several off-the-court issues a year ago, and this season got off to a troubling start with his arrest on misdemeanor charges after a brawl at a late-night club.
BAZEMORE BOUNCEBACK: After signing a huge contract, Kent Bazemore struggled through an injury plagued season and lost his starting job. Insisting he’s fully recovered, the former D-Leaguer needs to start living up to his status as Atlanta’s highest-paid player. He must improve his outside shooting, having connected on less than 41 percent a season ago, while continuing to bring positive energy and effort to a team that figures to endure plenty of long nights.
YOUTH MOVEMENT: Forward Taurean Prince, a first-round pick in 2016, moved into the lineup late in the season and played an integral role in the playoffs, averaging more than 11 points per game. The Hawks will be looking for similar progress out of their year’s top draft choice, John Collins. The 6-foot-10 forward from Wake Forest is a dynamic athlete who has to expand his shooting range. If that improves, he’ll likely take on an increased role as the season goes along.
STEPPING UP: The Hawks take great pride in their player development, and they’ll have plenty of projects to work with this season. Forward Luke Babbitt is someone who could break out in a high-tempo offense that relies heavily on the 3-point shot. In seven NBA seasons, he’s yet to average more than 7.0 points per game, but he’s hit nearly 41 percent of his career attempts beyond the arc. Also figuring to play a much bigger role are fifth-year big man Mike Muscala and forward DeAndre’ Bembry, a first-round pick in 2016 who saw limited time as a rookie.
BUDENHOLZER’S ROLE: He’s back for his fifth season as the Hawks’ coach, but Budenholzer was stripped of his title as president of basketball operations. Enter Schlenk, who was hired as general manager after working in the front office of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Schlenk has the final say on roster moves, and it will be interesting to see how he meshes with the coach he inherited — and how Budenholzer deals with a new boss.