Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Hawks' arena redo sounds nice, the Hawks themselves less so


Some things you’ll be able to do if you buy a ticket to a Hawks’ game in the fall/winter of 2018/2019 – get a haircut, play golf, socialize at a courtside bar and dine from food trucks. (They’ll be parked outside.) There’ll be lots of indoor restaurants – akin to Ponce City Market, according to Hawks CFO Thad Sheely – and a pile of pixels on which to gaze.

“I don’t know what a pixel is,” thundered Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, “but we’ll have six times more than we had before! So that’s got to be great!”

In another in his series of bold pronouncements, Hawks owner Tony Ressler thundered: "(This won't be) just (about) winning a championship, which we fully expect to do. (This redo) will lead to a dramatic transformation of downtown Atlanta."

So: Come 2018 (or ’19), the fully reconfigured Philips Arena will offer many splendid attractions. Alas, the chief tenant mightn’t be among them.

For all the broad strokes authored at Wednesday’s media briefing – Mayor Kasim Reed, batting .500 at keeping major sports franchises within city limits, echoed Ressler's "dramatic transformation" line – cold reality will be the same in 2018 (or '19) as it ever was: If the Hawks aren’t any good, the effect will be halved. And we saw earlier Wednesday that the gulf between the Hawks and the NBA’s upper crust keeps widening.

Chris Paul, who could have become a free agent this weekend, agreed not to become a free agent and be traded instead to Houston, where James Harden already works. Thus will two of the NBA’s five best guards share a backcourt. Last summer, Kevin Durant chose not to re-team with Russell Westbrook, just named the league’s MVP, and opted instead to sign with Golden State, which had just won 73 games and was home to three of the game’s 20 best players.

Asterisk: The Hawks helped facilitate Paul-to-Houston – as we can never forget, the Hawks didn’t draft him back when – in a bit of book-balancing that saw Ryan Kelly sent to the Rockets, for whom he might never play. And therein we saw the difference: The teams that have superstars can attract other superstars; the teams that don’t can only shed a Ryan Kelly and keep dreaming wishful dreams.

As it stands, the Hawks’ starting lineup for 2017-18 would be: Dennis Schroder, Taurean Prince, Kent Bazemore, John Collins and Miles Plumlee. That’s a 25-win team, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. If you don’t have a superstar, your odds of luring one via free agency or trading for one in today’s NBA are infinitesimal. Superstars have power. Superstars cluster.

And how, failing a trade or a signing, do you get a superstar? You land in the lottery and get lucky. For the past four seasons, the 76ers have been a joke of a team. Today Philadelphia stands as a sort of new paradigm – the franchise that lost a lot on purpose for very long time, but with its shedload of lottery picks, is poised to break good. For better or worse, the Hawks aren’t seeking to follow that lead.

“The Philly model is not our plan,” Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said Wednesday. “We want to be competitive.”

Be advised that Schlenk’s definition of “competitive” mightn’t coincide with yours. He referred to his time at Golden State. From 2008 through 2011, the Warriors won 29, 26, 36 and 23 games, which wasn’t quite Philly-style tanking. They also drafted Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, all of whom would start on the 2015 NBA championship team.

That’s apparently Schlenk’s model for the Hawks – win 30 or so games, maybe have a sniff at the playoffs, keep your draft picks and hit big when you exercise them. “If we miss out (on postseason play) one year,” he said, “it’s not the end of the world.”

As plans go, that’s not a terrible one. It almost surely means that Paul Millsap won’t be coming back – why pay max money to perpetuate mediocrity? – and Tim Hardaway Jr. could be outbound as well. Schlenk seems to grasp what has been become neon-sign blatant: His new team really does need to get into the lottery.

Granted, just making the lottery carries no guarantee. New Orleans wound up with the No. 1 pick in Anthony Davis’ year, but the biggest talent to turn professional since LeBron has lifted the Pelicans to the playoffs once in five seasons. (And then only long enough to get swept by Golden State.) In the neo-NBA, one star won’t cut it. You need two or more.

The Hawks, sad to say, are stuck on none. Maybe a spruced-up arena will prove a magnet for players, although that was the hope when Philips opened in 1999, and it never really happened. The new place sounds like it’ll be nice – most new places are – but the new architect of this basketball team faces years of heavy lifting.


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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.