The Atlanta Hawks took European phenom Luka Doncic with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. That is a thing that happened. The Phoenix Suns took DeAndre Ayton; the Sacramento Kings reached on Marvin Bagley III because, for whatever reason, he actually wanted play for the Kings; the Hawks took Doncic.
Then the Hawks traded him.
The euphoria that arose following the announcement that Doncic was going to be an Atlanta Hawk quickly evaporated once it was clear the Slovenian superstar wasn’t coming to Atlanta. No, Doncic was going to Dallas, to learn under future Hall Of Famer Dirk Nowitzki for a year, to drive opposing defenses crazy with last year’s lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr., and have the fairytale sports arc that is obviously going to happen under head coach Rick Carlisle. For a brief moment, it felt like the Hawks had their first transcendent superstar since Dominique Wilkins. I was ready to purchase my No. 77 Luka Doncic jersey. Instead, Luka Doncic is a Dallas Maverick.
The 2018 NBA Draft didn’t have any fireworks, just a firecracker here and there. The Philadelphia 76ers traded local hero Mikal Bridges to the Phoenix Suns; the Denver Nuggets pounced at the opportunity to draft a free falling Michael Porter Jr. with the No. 14 pick; the Boston Celtics lucked out once again with Texas A&M big Robert Williams falling into their laps late into the first round. No, the highlight of this year’s NBA draft was the trade between the Dallas Mavericks and the Atlanta Hawks. That’s what fans of the two teams, analysts and basketball fans, in general, will be talking about years down the line. Will that 2019 top-5 protected pick turn into a superstar for the Hawks in five years? Will Trae Young survive on defense in the NBA? Will it be immediately clear that Doncic is going to be a future NBA MVP and HOFer? The Hawks, the Mavericks, Young, and Doncic will be forever linked because of this deal, that much is clear.
So who could the guy the Hawks preferred over the 19-year-old enigma turn out to be? General manager Travis Schlenk hasn’t shied away from the press following his decision. The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps spoke with the former Golden State Warriors assistant general manager about the Hawks’ 2019 draft which included this interesting tidbit:
“Schlenk, obviously, has other ideas. And he was far from alone — Young wasn’t going lower than sixth Thursday night, a clear indication of his value. In praising Young, and explaining his thought process, Schlenk pointed to two specific skills that excite him about Young’s game: his ability to shoot off the dribble, and his passing.”
Do you know who else can shoot off the dribble and pass the ball extremely well, but isn’t 6’2”, 180 lbs?
After trading back for Young, Schlenk selected Maryland guard Kevin Huerter, then Villanova big Omari Spellman -- all guys who could shoot threes and thrive, theoretically, in today’s game. The blueprint has been revealed -- this front office is going to try and build Golden State 2.0. Maybe Young can be Steph Curry-like, Huerter can be Klay Thompson-like, and Spellman can even be Draymond Green-like, but, chances are, none will blossom into future HOFers like the Warriors’ superstars. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, even Kevin Durant, don’t come about very often. They’re one of a kind. If even one of Spellman, Huerter, or Young come anywhere close to the former, it’s a huge win for the Hawks.
What’s more realistic for a player like Young, it seems, is a Damian Lillard-like path. You’ll never be sure if you can have a championship-level defense with him playing 36-plus minutes a night, but you’ll know he makes shots. This wouldn’t be a disaster for the Hawks -- Lillard is a borderline First Team All-NBA player now. He guided the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference this year. He silenced a lot of critics after the Blazers finished in the top-10 in defensive efficiency to end the regular season. It’s early, I know, but it certainly feels like the Blazers won the Gerald Wallace trade with the New Jersey Nets that resulted in Portland taking Lillard with the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. If the Hawks had flipped Kent Bazemore, Miles Plumlee, and Malcolm Delaney for the No. 6 pick to take a player like Young, there would have been no backlash. It would have felt like a steal. It would have felt like the Hawks had gotten away with something.
That’s not how it played out.
The Hawks had Doncic, and they didn’t have to move anyone to get him. The Suns took the safest pick in the draft in Ayton and the Kings stayed the Kings by taking Bagley III. (General manager Vlade Divac went so far as to say it was an “easy choice” to take Bagley III over Doncic at No. 2. Easy! I can’t.) Schlenk could have just taken Doncic, Huerter and Spellman to highlight his second draft as general manager of the Hawks and it would have been universally praised. Instead, he and the front office went a different route, a far riskier one. If Doncic is out of the league in five years, it will be a shock to everyone; if Young is out of the league in five years and playing in China, it will be a shock to no one. With Doncic, the ceiling is high and the floor is high; with Young, the ceiling is high and the floor is low. That’s why that 2019 pick Schlenk got in the deal with the Mavericks is so crucial to this Hawks’ rebuild -- if it turns out to be a superstar, fans will forget about Doncic wearing a Hawks’ hat faster than they forgot about Rasheed Wallace wearing a Hawks’ jersey. If it’s another Otto Porter, or Harrison Barnes, or Terrence Ross, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, then it’s a disaster. The only way this Doncic deal doesn’t haunt the current Hawks administration is if Young turns out to be a superstar along with whoever they take with that 2019 pick. If one or the other doesn’t pan out, or both, this front office is in more trouble than the Star Wars spin-off movies.
But that’s the price of being bold -- if it works out, you’ll be OK for a long time; if it bombs, you’ll be looking for new gig sooner rather than later. Schlenk, in Year 2, bet on throwing more darts at the board rather than putting all of his eggs in the Luka Doncic basket. If Young and those future first-round picks hit, Schlenk will have proved himself. If he is responsible for drafting and developing several superstars, not just one, he won the trade. That’s what will make the trade worth it in the end -- more building blocks.
That’s what makes the rest of this first round so important. It’s not just the “Luka Doncic trade down” move that will be remembered, no, it will be the rest of the draft. It will be the Huerter pick late in the first round, it will be the Spellman pick, it will be how this class grows as a group. Lloyd Pierce was already walking into a situation where his player-development skills were going to be put to the test early, first with second-year big John Collins, but also ensuring that Taurean Waller-Prince doesn’t become the latest Harrison Barnes-type in the NBA. The development of Trae Young is priority No. 1 for the Hawks -- their job only hinges on it, so no pressure -- but the development of Huerter and Collins and Waller-Prince and Spellman can't be understated, either. Like Lester Freeman said, “All the pieces matter.”
So when is the right time to judge this trade? If Stan Van Gundy and the Pistons had taken Donovan Mitchell instead of Luke Kennard last summer, he is still running things in Detroit. If Danny Ainge doesn’t trade down for Jayson Tatum instead of taking the then-obvious No. 1 pick in Markelle Fultz, do the Celtics make the Eastern Conference Finals? While some trades and picks require years to go by before it’s fair to judge, some trades and picks don’t even require a season to pass before it’s glaringly obvious that the Charlotte Hornets made a mistake not taking the plethora of picks reportedly offered to them by the Celtics so the latter could take Justise Winslow. It’s been a few years, and Winslow is on the trade block for the Miami Heat now, but something tells me the Hornets aren’t thrilled with how the Frank Kaminsky era has gone thus far in the Queen City. (Worry not, Charlotte fans, Mitch Kupchak is here to right the ship! His first move? Trade Dwight Howard and bring Timofey Mozgov to Charlotte! Get excited! Hey, where is everybody going?) Bovada already released their Rookie of the Year odds, and Doncic has the second-highest odds of winning the award, with Young a couple spots behind. If Doncic earns Carlisle’s trust early, if he gets paired with the right pick-and-roll big, and flourishes in a point-guard heavy system, the vultures will be circling around Phillips Arena before the end of next season.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about what Schlenk did in last week’s draft is the clear indication that he and this new Hawks’ regime is going to attempt to build Golden State East. It was only a few years ago that Danny Ferry was hired, then Mike Budenholzer, and then the Hawks won sixty games and then became known as Spurs East. For a number of reasons, Spurs East didn’t last, so why should Atlanta fans expect this to be any different? Is the imitation ever better than the original? By drafting a Super Manu Ginobli, the Hawks would have had to the chance to create the next big thing in the NBA, similar to Ben Simmons in Philadelphia this past season, instead, they’re banking on being able to recreate what Bob Meyers and Golden State were able to do in drafting three future HOFers.
Maybe that’s what still irks me, days later. We’ve seen this movie before -- front-office guy from a successful franchise comes in, tries to recreate what worked there, here, only for things to come crashing down after a couple of seasons. Schlenk, like Ferry before him, is reading off a script. But you never know with sequels. Can there really be another Steph Curry? In the same era? Can there be another Klay Thompson? Can there be another all-around monster like Draymond Green? The answer is probably not. That’s why Doncic was so exciting. The story hasn’t been told for someone like him before. Not in this incarnation of the NBA. He could be the next big thing, not the next Steph Curry. No matter how Young develops, the decision to trade down and not be bold in developing the next big European superstar in Atlanta will always feel like a missed opportunity. What Ifs are never fun, but Schlenk invited these questions by trading down. What if Young doesn’t even make it Lillard-lite levels? What if Doncic guides the Mavericks into the postseason in Year 1? What if that first-round pick next season ends up in the teens and the Hawks are screwed? These questions are fun and just a part of the game. But what if the Hawks had just taken Doncic?
Damn it, what if the Hawks had just taken Doncic?