While waiting for questions from members of the media Wednesday, Hawks veteran Kent Bazemore offered his unsolicited assessment of the season.
“Great year,” Bazemore said cheerfully.
That drew laughter from reporters who assumed he was being sarcastic.
“No, seriously,” Bazemore said. “There’s a ton of positives.”
Bazemore was among the Hawks who took solace in some encouraging developments during a difficult season. Yet by any objective measure, the Hawks (24-58) had a bad season in 2017-18, their first in 10 years to end without a playoff berth.
On the final day of the NBA’s regular season, the Hawks stood last in the Eastern Conference (the Magic were 24-57 before playing the Wizards on Wednesday night). The Hawks had the fourth-fewest victories of any Hawks team, and the second-fewest since the franchise moved to Atlanta before the 1968-69 season. Only the 2004-05 Hawks (13-69) were worse.
However, the context is that the Hawks weren’t expected to be good this season by design. First-year general manager Travis Schlenk stripped the roster of high-priced talent and signed short-term veterans and young players.
Schlenk is focused on using the draft to assemble the core of a contending team. That plan has worked so far: The Hawks will have a high lottery pick the 2018 draft, own another pick at No. 30 overall and will have a third first-round pick from Minnesota if the Timberwolves make the playoffs by beating the Nuggets on Wednesday night.
Even with all the losing, it wasn’t all bad for the Hawks this season.
Young players who figure to be a big part of the future, including rookie John Collins, showed promise. The Hawks recovered from a dreadful start to the season to string together some competitive stretches, with quality victories sprinkled throughout. Injuries left the Hawks undermanned over the final two weeks of the season, yet on the final weekend they won road games against playoff-bound teams Washington and Boston.
But most nights were like the season finale against the 76ers on Tuesday. The Hawks pushed an opponent with more talent or experience (or both) before eventually fading to another loss. Following that game, like so many others, coach Mike Budenholzer praised his team’s effort in defeat.
“I thought our guys brought it every night,” Budenholzer said. “They competed every night. We’ve talked for five years about the most important thing for us is we want to have competitors. They competed and competed.
“Sometimes the game or the results isn’t what you want, but if you are competing for 48 minutes and laying it on the line, we’ve always said we can live with the result.”
The Hawks likely will take their lumps again in 2018-19, when they could be an even younger team. Only three veterans are under contract for next season: Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Miles Plumlee. Veterans Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala can opt out of their deals.
The Hawks will add as many as four rookies from the next draft. Two rookies who played major roles this season, Collins and Tyler Dorsey, project to do the same in their second year. Taurean Prince, a first-round pick in the 2016 draft, was a full-time starter for the first time this season. Point guard Isaiah Taylor played 67 games for the Hawks this season after playing only four as a rookie for the Rockets in 2016-17.
Those eight young players figure to be part of the team’s core in the 2018-19 season along with veterans Bazemore, Schroder and Plumlee. Schlenk is likely to offer veteran free agents value-priced, short-term contracts this summer, so the best ones are unlikely to join the Hawks.
Any improvement for the Hawks in 2018-19 is likely to come from young players getting better. That happened this season and, though it didn’t translate to many victories, it’s a big reason why Bazemore wasn’t joking when he said the Hawks had a great year.
“All in all, we had some bright spots,” Bazemore said. “Taurean finished the season really strong. John Collins slid into that starting spot. A lot of our young guys really took a leap and grew up. ... The future is bright, and I think everyone is champing at the bit to get back in here and start working and preparing for next season.”