BDL's 2017-18 Season Previews: Atlanta Hawks, starting at the bottom

The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent AllStars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.

DeAndre’ Bembry dunks on his own face. This season might feel like that pretty often for the Hawks. (Getty)

ATLANTA HAWKS

2016-17 finish: 43-39, lost in the first round
Offensive rating: 102.3 (27th)
Defensive rating: 103.1 (4th)

Additions: Miles Plumlee, Marco Belinelli, Dewayne Dedmon, John Collins, Tyler Dorsey, Nicolas Brussino
Subtractions: Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Tim Hardaway Jr., Thabo Sefolosha, Kris Humphries, Jose Calderon

Did the summer help at all?

Sure, in the sense choosing to go all-in on a rebuild after two years of diminishing returns was a healthy decision for the franchise overall. But taking your medicine doesn’t mean you stop being sick right away, and things promise to be pretty gross for the Hawks while new general manager Travis Schlenk tries to work the last few mucous-y contracts he inherited out of Atlanta’s system.

Schlenk, who rose to prominence as part of the front-office braintrust that built the Golden State Warriors juggernaut, took over the Hawks in late May and wasted little time deconstructing a roster that had waned after that sainted 60-win 2014-15 season. First, he hit “undo” on Atlanta’s big 2016 free-agent signing, shipping the final two years and $47.1 million of Howard’s contract to Charlotte for reserves Plumlee (owed less overall, but over one more year) and Belinelli. Then, he bid farewell to All-Star linchpin Millsap — or, to hear Millsap tell it, actually didn’t bid him anything at all — and somehow found the courage not to match the New York Knicks’ $71 million offer sheet to Hardaway Jr.

Just like that, three of the Hawks’ four top scorers from last season were gone. Just like that, the Hawks belonged to entrenched point guard Dennis Schröder, a lightning-quick 24-year-old capable of big things on the court, but whose prickly presence and off-court conduct has raised questions about whether he can be a foundational piece for a good team.

And, just like that — with no more All-Stars past or present on the roster, with Schröder and Kent Bazemore the only returning players to log at least 1,500 minutes in Atlanta last year, and with a rotation full of players whose ceiling looks to be “nice enough, I guess” — the Hawks were on the path to being one of the worst teams in the NBA.

For now, Hawks fans will have to take their silver linings where they come. A humble suggestion: find them in electric first-round power forward John Collins, who flies around the court, tries to gobble up rebounds everywhere, and soars to throw down all manner of spring-heeled thunder:

With any luck, plays like those will get you through a long, cold winter and a barely-thawed spring full of waiting to see if Schlenk can find a taker for one or both of Schröder (if he decides he’d rather start fresh) and Bazemore (a fine defensive wing who doesn’t make much sense making $54.3 million over the next three years on a rebuilding team). Then comes the summer, and the draft, when hope and possibility spring eternal.

Best-case scenario: Schröder follows up last year’s killer postseason series against the Wizards (24.7 points, 7.7 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 35.2 minutes per game on 46/43/84 shooting splits) and for Germany at Eurobasket (23.7 points, 5.6 assists, 2.6 rebounds in 30.9 minutes per game on 48/39/89 shooting) by putting up monster numbers unleashed as a No. 1 option. That either convinces Schlenk to keep him around, or entices a prospective suitor or two willing to give up future draft goods for a long-term answer at the point. Sophomores Taurean Prince (who impressed as a stout wing defender as a rookie) and DeAndre’ Bembry (who struggled to carve out a niche) take steps forward on both ends of the floor, cementing themselves as solid, steady contributors worth keeping around.

Collins leaps off the page as a rookie, looking like a draft-night steal and the Hawks’ first future frontcourt building block. Atlanta’s many reasonably priced, decent-enough rotation players — the streak-shooting Belinelli, defense-and-dive man Dedmon, stretch four Ersan Ilyasova, pick-and-pop big Mike Muscala — generate attention at the trade deadline, bringing back more picks that Schlenk can bank. The lottery gods smile upon Atlanta, delivering the franchise’s first top-three pick since Al Horford in 2007.

Dennis Schröder (right) will get his chance to prove that he’s a foundational piece for a Hawks team in transition. (AP)

If everything falls apart: Schröder proves his doubters right, sputtering as the top gun while sowing discontent in the locker room, tanking his trade value. Nobody wants to take on Bazemore’s salary without some heavy draft-pick compensation. Prince, Bembry and Collins look less like The Guys and more like Just Another Guys. Forced to sit tight and keep his powder dry, Schlenk watches as Atlanta gets leapfrogged in the lottery, dropping down out of the top five and leaving fans wondering just how much patience this rebuild’s going to take.

Best guess at a record: 23-59

Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2017-18 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte HornetsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz