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NBA AM: Hawks Dilemma, To Rebuild Or Reload

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Over the past decade, the Atlanta Hawks are one of the few teams in the NBA that have maintained a level of remarkable consistency. Now, in today’s “all about the rings culture,” this won’t fit the popular narrative. This also won’t fit the popular mainstream media talking point which often portrays the Hawks as a hapless foil or insignificant player on the national level. But; the fact remains that the Hawks just concluded a season which resulted in their 10th consecutive trip to the playoffs.

Ten. Consecutive. Trips.

This isn’t to say, though, that those trips haven’t resulted in plenty of disappointments along the way. Skeptics will quickly point out only one Eastern Conference Finals appearance during the current streak. Others will point out the numerous embarrassing sweeps the team has endured over the past 10 trips to the playoffs.

However, in a league filled with teams that have been mired in a lifelong dependence on annual lottery ping pong balls, the Hawks’ ability to remain afloat despite multiple coaching changes, front office shakeups and All-Stars leaving should be viewed as a mark of honor if being viewed objectively. With this being said, even the most optimistic Hawks fan or apologist must admit the franchise is entering a pivotal offseason for their program.

Earlier this month, the team shook up their front office by reassigning former general manager Wes Wilcox to another high ranking role within the organization. The Hawks also announced Mike Budenholzer was relieved of his duties as president of basketball operations and would retain his role as head coach.

With the NBA draft and beginning of free agency a little over a month away, the Hawks are barreling toward a pivotal time for the franchise without firm player personnel decision making in place. To be fair, the team was also in this situation before the draft in 2012. They then hired current Pelicans executive Danny Ferry as president of basketball operations.

A hot topic among Hawks fans is whether the franchise should blow up its current core in order to rebuild, or continue retooling on the fly. The current list of reported candidates to replace Budenholzer and Wilcox seem to indicate ownership believes they’re only a few pieces of way from true title contention. Three of the prominent executive candidates that have been rumored to be in the mix all have championship-level pedigrees. Former Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars won titles as a player and executive for the organization. Current Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin was at the helm of the team’s title run last season. Lastly, Golden State Warriors executive Travis Schlenk has served as the team’s assistant general manager during a very dominant streak for the organization.

As we’ve stated many times in this space, there are three ways to improve in the NBA – the draft, free agency and the trade market.

The top teams around the league all have a certain level of homegrown talent on the roster. The Warriors, for instance, drafted former league MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. All three have developed into All-Star level competitors.

While the Hawks have been able to maintain a level of consistency, their recent draft history hasn’t produced players with the same type of trajectory. In the past, the Hawks have been able to develop homegrown draft picks such as Al Horford and Jeff Teague into All-Star level performers. Both of those guys were critical in laying the foundation of the Hawks success you see today.

Point guard Dennis Schroder, drafted back in 2013, represents the best Hawks draft selection since Budenholzer arrived in Atlanta. Players such as Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry, to be fair, look promising, but will need a couple more seasons to truly develop and get a better understanding of their ceilings.

This creates a conundrum for the Hawks organization.

While the team waits for Schroder, Prince and Bembry to come into their own and shake off those growing pains, the team is still being expected to compete at the highest level in the Eastern Conference from its fan base. This is a tough space for a franchise to be in because a look around the league shows that a majority of elite teams with legit title aspirations heavily rely on players with six or more years of experience. From a free-agency standpoint, this summer is going to be critical for the Hawks.

All-Star forward Paul Millsap, 32, has lived up to every single cent of his last two contracts with the organization, and it has resulted in multiple All-Star appearances for the veteran. However, Millsap is on the wrong side of 30 and will be seeking to cash in on a contract expected to be valued at over 100 million this summer. Ever since the Ferry-Budenholzer era began, the Hawks have been reluctant to lock in guys on potentially cap crippling deals—especially guys that are aging.

However, failing to re-sign Millsap after losing Horford last summer would signal the beginning of a rebuild. Losing Horford was mitigated by the signing of free agent center Dwight Howard, but losing Millsap would likely signal the end of the team’s playoff streak unless the front office was able to pull a rabbit out of the hat similar to last summer.

The problem with trying to completely rebuild if you’re Atlanta is the lack of lottery picks in the arsenal to do it via the draft. The problem for the Hawks in free agency is the fact that Atlanta, while extremely popular with players as a living destination, hasn’t been known as a hotbed for players.

Over the past five years, All-Stars such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LaMarcus Aldridge have all been unrestricted free agents at some point and the Hawks haven’t been able to secure a single meeting with any of them.

From a trade market standpoint, the team is at a disadvantage right now, as well. Arguably the team’s two biggest trade assets are headed to free agency—Millsap (unrestricted) and emerging guard Tim Hardaway, Jr.(restricted). Players such as Kent Bazemore and Dwight Howard have seen their respective market values decline after inking lucrative deals last summer.

So while some clamor for the Hawks to completely blow it up and others are content with rebuilding on the fly, it is important to know that, disappointments aside, this is a golden era for Atlanta Hawks basketball. Fan support is high and improving, the playoff appearances keep the team relevant and there is talent on the roster to compete on a nightly basis.

But the question that must be answered over the next few months is what direction ownership believe is best for the franchise. The NBA is a business. Playoff appearances and solid crowd attendance means a positive on return on investment for investors. Blowing it up and heading toward the draft lottery with the “hope’ of one day returning to a place where you already are would net an unfavorable short term hit to the team’s profit margin.

To rebuild or retool has been an ongoing topic for the past five seasons in Atlanta. Ultimately, ownership has to decide whether the team can truly take a few steps forward as currently constructed or whether the team has to take a couple steps back in the interim in order to move forward in the future.

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About Lang Greene

Lang Greene

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons