If you look at the standings as a means of determining the future kings of the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Hawks certainly don’t look the part. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that the franchise is uniquely positioned to re-emerge in the coming years once again as a force.
It starts — as any Cleveland Cavaliers fan will tell you — with superstars. While neither Trae Young nor John Collins has earned an All-Star appearance in their three combined NBA campaigns, the youthful duo are both in line to be busy during All-Star weekend for years to come. Collins is 21 years old and Young is 20, so for as impressive as they are now, there is clearly room for upward mobility.
Young is on track to earn unanimous First-team All-Rookie honors this season, while Collins, who was slowed by injuries to begin the year, has averaged 19.4 points and 9.6 rebounds across fewer than 30 minutes per game this season. The duo create a 1-2 punch that have kept Atlanta out of the Eastern Conference cellar, even if they haven’t made noise as it pertains to a playoff berth.
For teams on the come up, it takes more than just two top level players to make a contender. That could all change this off-season, in a myriad of ways: The Hawks are going to have ample cap space to be as aggressive as they choose with pending free agents, attempting to recruit them to Atlanta, a major city that may not be on the scale of a New York or Los Angeles, but one that certainly holds some sway. While the Knicks can boast New York City, there is undoubtedly more young talent on the Hawks; while the Bulls can boast Chicago and legendary franchise history, the Hawks have the draw of a newly renovated arena and one of the more exciting uniform color/design schemes in the league.
Then there’s always the NBA Draft. While the odds may not be in the Hawks’ favor, they have two cracks at the No. 1 overall selection, which likely would mean they could add Zion Williamson to their already staggering array of young talent. Even if the ping-pong balls don’t bounce on their side, they have two selections that could net them extremely useful pieces to help Young, Collins and even Kevin Huerter, whom the team nabbed with the No. 19 overall pick in 2018, and who has proven to be a strong 3-and-D weapon for the team moving forward.
In addition to their own first-round pick, they also own that of the Dallas Mavericks, who will similarly be on the outside looking in of the postseason this year. Just how did they pull off such a savvy acquisition you may ask? Look no further than the top two candidates for the 2018-19 NBA Rookie of the Year Award. It will be a little-known trivia fact of NBA history that the Hawks drafted Luka Doncic (with the No. 3 pick) and the Mavericks drafted Young (with the No. 5 pick). The two teams agreed to then swap guards, with Dallas kicking in their 2019 first-rounder to acquire Doncic. If both players’ rookie seasons are any indication, those two are to be inextricably linked for the remainder of their careers.
The Hawks are attempting something not done before in the modern NBA: To do a complete tear down and return to prominence in succinct fashion. They will miss the postseason for two consecutive years, but next season will be just five years removed from having won 60 games under the tutelage of former head coach Mike Budenholzer. The nucleus of that team — Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder — are all playing somewhere else, with Lloyd Pierce now the man in charge.
The 2018-19 installment of Atlanta basketball may be on the sidelines by mid-April, but the 2019-20 version — no matter who is on it — will be looking to be on the floor well into the start of the summer.