By Bill Shanks
Eddie Johnson, Armond Hill, John Drew, Dan Roundfield, and Tree Rollins. Those were the five starters for the Atlanta Hawks when I started watching them as a 9-year-old in 1979.
Watching this franchise for 42 years doesn’t mean I’m a better fan than anyone else, but it does bring perspective. I’ve seen many incarnations of this team, in many different jerseys. There have been 12 coaches and more rebuilding projects than I’d like to remember.
The first one actually worked, when the Hawks traded for the player who had been picked third in the draft in 1982 and was luckily didn’t want to play in Utah. Dominique Wilkens was acquired, then Doc Rivers and Randy Wittman were drafted, and then Kevin Willis the next year.
There were four 50-win seasons in the late 1980s, but Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas got in the way. The 1980s nucleus was traded to make room for Mookie Blaylock, Stacy Augmon, Steve Smith, and Christian Laettner, along with signing the finger-wagging Dikembe Mutombo.
There were six winning seasons under head coach Lenny Wilkens in the late-1990s, but Michael Jordan never let the Hawks get far. So, they started over. Again.
The next era consisted of Jason Terry, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff, Glenn Robinson, and Dermarr Johnson. Nope. That group didn’t click, had issues and the project was scrapped.
Then it was Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, and Al Horford. That group hit a wall, had a coach named Mike Woodson win 53 games, and then get fired. The Hawks were then stuck in mediocrity, with bad contracts and three straight seasons near .500, so they started over again.
Horford was joined by Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, and then Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll. It was a team of five good players that won 60 games but then ran into a Lebron James team. That was the Danny Ferry era, which was brought to a sudden halt due to a scandal that wasn’t all his fault.
New ownership, finally, brought in a guy from Golden State to follow the Warriors’ blueprint. Draft well and add veterans who wanted to join in the fun. Travis Schlenk had seen it done before, so sure, it was worth giving it a try. Why not.
Well, it has worked. Schlenk has drafted better than any executive in the Hawks’ history. John Collins at #19 in 2017. Then, in 2018, he shocked everyone by trading the consensus best prospect in the draft (Luka Doncic) for Trae Young and a draft pick (which became Cam Reddish – #10 in 2019). Then it was Kevin Huerter (#19 in 2018), trades made to move up to grab De’Andre Hunter (#4 in 2019), and then Onyeka Okongwu in 2020 (#6).
Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari were brought in as veterans, and there are certainly more to come.
We’ve just witnessed the best season out of the 53 the Hawks have been in Atlanta. They won two games in the Eastern Conference finals, so they were within six wins of winning it all. That might not seem like much, but it’s the closest this franchise has been to sniffing a championship. And, after they lost game six, the feeling was one of appreciation and genuine hope that the best is yet to come. Never before has this franchise had a nucleus like this. Never. The ages of the main characters are what makes it different.
If the 2021-22 season starts on, let’s say, October 20, here will be the ages of the players on the Atlanta team:
33 – Danilo Gallinari
29 – Bogdan Bogdanovic
27 – Clint Capela
24 – John Collins (if he’s resigned), Nathan Knight, Skyler Mays
23 – De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Trae Young, Bruno Fernando
22 – Cam Reddish
20 – Onyeka Okongwu
Let’s compare that to the ages of the players on the 1985-86 team, which won 50 games. Here are the ages when they started in October 1985:
30 – Tree Rollins, Johnny Davis, Eddie Johnson
26 – Randy Wittman
25 – Dominique Wilkins, Scott Hastings
24 – Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston, Doc Rivers
23 – Kevin Willis, John Battle
22 – Spud Webb, Jon Koncak
How about the ages of the group that won 56 games in the 1996-97 season? That team lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
33 – Tyrone Corbin
32 – Ken Norman
31 – Henry James
30 – Dikembe Mutombo
29 – Mookie Blaylock
27 – Christian Laettner, Steve Smith, Jon Barry
24 – Alan Henderson
So, the current group is just much younger. We’re not even sure when they will hit their prime. How good might Young be when he’s 25, or what about Reddish? We saw tremendous improvement from him in the three playoff games. Think about him in three years. Hunter showed unbelievable development in his second year. How will he be once he’s totally healthy again?
That’s why this group could be so special. The Atlanta Hawks franchise has never had this sort of future before. Never. Obviously, Young is the biggest star since Wilkins, who was traded 29 years ago. That’s a lot of time between star players. There have been a lot of very good players, but nothing like Wilkins and Young.
Having a star is key. Put the right players around him, and you’ve got a nucleus for a championship-caliber team. Collins, Huerter, Hunter, and Reddish around Young, with Bogdanovic and Gallinari providing the veteran presence, is solid. But think about other veterans who might also want to play with this group in the coming seasons.
No, that doesn’t mean necessarily that Atlanta will get its version of when Kevin Durant signed with Golden State, but it might. There might be another star player who wants to join this group. Schlenk will have to gamble that breaking up the nucleus to make that happen is worth it, but it will be a good position to be in to make that decision.
Stan Kasten made that gamble when he traded for Reggie Theus and signed Moses Malone, two perennial All-Stars, before the 1988-89 season. That did not work, for whatever reason. So, chemistry will be important moving forward.
The decision on Collins is the first order of business. It’s debatable how much he’s worth, and the market will determine that, as he is a restricted free agent. Atlanta really should match any offer, however, as Collins is a critical piece of their puzzle. If, for whatever reason, Collins needs to eventually be traded (like to make room for others to get more minutes), his contract should be a very tradable commodity in a huge trade.
Remember, Collins changed his role with the presence of Capela. He no longer needed to be a 20-point/10-rebound per game player. But we know how Collins is critical and could still get better as he gets into his mid-20s.
We all know the Hawks might have been even better in the series with Milwaukee if Young had not stepped on the referee’s foot and if Hunter had been available. Yes, it could have made a difference. But that, along with the glimpse we saw of Reddish and his ability to take over a game, is what makes you even more excited about what’s to come.
Nate McMillan compared Reddish to Paul George after Saturday’s game. If Reddish can even come close to that, think of how good the Young/Doncic trade will look then. And don’t forget what Hunter did in the beginning of the year. He was perhaps Atlanta’s best all-around player before his injury.
Okongwu? Yeah, let’s see him some more. He had some awesome minutes in the postseason. Huerter has done nothing but get better, even though he may have run out of gas in the Bucks’ series. Then there’s the 20th pick in the draft later this month, and we should all trust Schlenk to get the Hawks a solid bench player with that pick.
Get this group healthy and let’s see what it can do. Man, this was one heck of a season. From a 14-20 record to within six wins of an NBA title. But the best is yet to come, and for that, we will all be counting down to the start of the next season for the Atlanta Hawks.
Listen to The Bill Shanks Show weekdays at 3:00 pm ET on SportsRadio 93-1 WXKO and 98-3 WCEH in Middle and South Central Georgia and online at TheSuperStations.com.