The Hawks are rebuilding. That’s not a pejorative. On the contrary, it’s a concession to stark reality and therefore worthy of applause.
In sports, nobody rebuilds on a whim. Because it’s hard to do and harder to stomach, even if you know it’s the only prudent course. Mediocrity is no fun, but there’s some comfort in that: You can say, “Hey, there are teams worse than us.” If you commit to a full-blown rebuild, there might come a time when, going on W's and L's, there’s nobody worse than you. But if you (re)build well, you won’t be wretched forever.
Here’s how soul-sucking rebuilding can be: Sam Hinkie, author of the most daring tanking strategy in league history, resigned just as it was beginning to bear conspicuous fruit. Today the Philadelphia 76ers have the NBA’s best collection of young talent – Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor were picked first, first, third and third in their respective drafts – but the author of the audacious “Process” was, at last report, living in Palo Alto and contemplating the meaning of life .
Ten days ago, the Hawks’ newly minted general manager proclaimed: “The Philly model is not our model.” Travis Schlenk also said he doesn’t like the word “rebuild,” which is disingenuous but understandable. (As noted, rebuilds are ugly and unpopular.) But then, in the team’s release announcing the addition of a guy who’ll surely be bought out or traded within days if not minutes, Schlenk quoted from the gospel according to Sam: “First-round picks have great value.”
That, see, was the reason the Hawks agreed to facilitate the Nuggets’ trade of Danilo Gallinari , who became superfluous when Denver signed Paul Millsap , to the Clippers. A rebuilding team has no need of the 37-year-old Jamal Crawford, once a Hawk of distinction, and at his age he wants no part of a team for which winning isn’t Job 1. Diamond Stone is an unpolished (heh, heh) big man who scored 10 points in his rookie season. The lure for the Hawks was the Rockets’ No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, even though that pick won’t fall anywhere near the lottery.
The Hawks figure to hold three Round 1 picks in the 2018 draft – theirs, which surely will be a lottery pick unless half the NBA East out-tanks the Hawks; Minnesota’s via the 2015 trade for Adreian Payne, which won’t be a lottery pick – if it is, it reverts to the Timberwolves – given that Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague are teaming with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in St. Paul, and the one from Houston, which just paired Chris Paul with James Harden.
Philly wouldn’t have gotten where it is without its run of high lottery picks, which were the function of manic trading and 199 losses over three seasons. Non-lottery picks can fill out your roster, but they don’t transfigure a franchise. The Hawks will need more than one lottery pick to clamber from this hole, but that’s OK. A rebuild isn’t a one-year deal. It is – cue Hinkie – a process.
One housewarming gift left for Schlenk by the failed Mike Budenholzer/Wes Wilcox managerial tandem is the 2019 Round 1 pick from Cleveland for Kyle Korver. If it falls in the draft’s top 10 selections, it stays with the Cavaliers. If LeBron James remains in place, there’s little chance that pick will fall in the top 25. But a lot of NBA folks believe he’ll opt out next summer and leave for L.A., which would change everything for the Cavs. (And the NBA.) Stick a pin in that pick.
If you’re effecting a reset, draft picks are your only currency. Rarely does an NBA team trade for a superstar. If they do, it’s because he’s about to become a free agent. Superstars are either signed as free agents for massive amounts of money -- and superstars don't sign with bad teams -- or they're drafted. To draft a superstar, you have to pick high in the lottery.
Even if your Round 1 picks don’t figure to be prime, they can be clumped in exchange for a better one. (Philly did that to land Fultz.) The Hawks going eight drafts between lottery picks was why they got stuck being not quite good enough. Here's their chance to come unstuck. They’ll have to get worse to do it, getting worse being the only way to get better.
In the resignation letter known as the Hinkie Manifesto , the man responsible for Philly’s splendid young core wrote: “In the first 26 months on the job we added more than one draft pick (or pick swap) per month to our coffers … That’s not any official record, because no one keeps track of such records. But it is the most ever. And it’s not close. And we kick ourselves for not adding another handful.”
Schlenk mightn’t publicly embrace Hinkie’s Process, but it should be his North Star. His team is tanking, same as Hinkie's did. Draft picks are the way out of that tank.