Depending on how you view that final game before the All-Star break, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer made his first real gesture at tanking on Sunday against the Suns (who long ago stopped pretending they aren’t doing the same). That’s no small thing because, after all, the losses go on Budenholzer’s record.
Budenholzer rested Kent Bazemore, who’s been no worse than the team’s second-best player this season. Budenholzer left Dennis Schroder on the bench in the fourth quarter even with Malcolm Delaney injured and Isaiah Thomas ejected. Thus the Hawks finished the game with no true point guard, two rookies in the backcourt (a second-round pick and a 10-day contract guy) and reserve bigs Mike Muscala and Miles Plumlee.
There is value for the Hawks in playing young guys in that spot but clearly the Hawks didn’t send out their best available lineup. The Hawks won, anyway. That is good for those Hawks supporters who like to see their team win but potentially bad for those on Team Tank.
The victory rebukes those who say players don’t go all-out in these situations, which should be obvious but is a belief that seems to persist anyway. The same is true for the victory over the Pacers and the spirited effort in the loss to the Warriors. The Lakers walloped the Hawks but I think they are a bad matchup because of their speed and athleticism (plus the Lakers really are playing better).
It may turn out that two victories in a week, including one over a playoff-bound team, won’t hurt the Hawks’ lottery standing. FiveThirtyEight.com’s latest projection has the Hawks finishing with a 25-57 record, tied with three other teams for third-worst in the league behind the Suns and Grizzlies. That’s the same Hawks record that FiveThirtyEight projected before the Lakers game, which then was tied with two other teams for second-worst behind the Suns.
It could turn out that the past week gave the Hawks the best of all worlds. They got their young prospects meaningful minutes, earned a couple victories and made the best team in the league work for a W. Those can be important for player development and maintaining a competitive culture.
And yet the Hawks also remain on track to have a good chance at the top pick. The Hawks still have a tough schedule left, so there will be plenty of opponents better-suited than the Suns to take advantage of their tank lineups.
The Hawks are among seven teams with 20 victories or fewer, and at least half of those foes have fully embraced the tank. It might come down to the end but it’s still realistic for the Hawks to nab the top lottery odds after what’s been a good week for them.