The comparisons between the Atlanta Hawks and the San Antonio Spurs were inevitable as soon as Mike Budenholzer was hired. Gregg Popovich’s longtime assistant had been hired by another guy with San Antonio roots (Danny Ferry) to install a system based on spreading the floor and moving the ball that got the most out of guys that other teams had given up on (DeMarre Carroll). The Hawks were built around a do-everything big man (Al Horford) and a speed merchant at point guard (Jeff Teague), they incorporated a lot of international players and high basketball IQ veterans and they played the game "the right way.”
However, for as much success as they had in the regular season, their lack of superstar players who could take over games became apparent in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they had no answer for LeBron James. Horford isn’t Duncan and Teague isn’t Parker, and there’s no guarantee that anyone on the Atlanta roster ends up making the Hall of Fame. More importantly, they don’t have an under-25 superstar like Kawhi Leonard ready to take over the reins and that’s where the comparisons between the Hawks and the Spurs really fall apart.
There’s no discounting the factor that luck played in the Spurs getting their hands on Leonard but you also have to give them credit for patiently developing a late first-round pick from a small school (George Hill) into a guy that a team would be willing to give up a lottery pick for as well as the way in which their coaching staff helped Leonard turn his three-point shot from a liability on draft night to one of the most efficient in the entire NBA. The overarching factor is that San Antonio never forget the importance of the draft and never let competing for championships distract them from the task of building for the future.
The same can’t be said for the Hawks and that’s where the real concern about the long-term success of the franchise comes in. To be sure, they have had an incredible amount of turmoil and dysfunction in their front office over the last few seasons but that doesn’t change the fact that they have wasted a ton of chances recently to find quality young players in the middle of the first round. While no one is going to bat 1.000 in those circumstances, Atlanta hasn’t even been trying.
2013: No. 16 overall - Lucas “Bebe” Noguiera
The Hawks wound up with Nogueira after a series of draft night trades in the middle of the first round and it looked like they had found a nice pick-and-roll combination of the future with fellow international rookie Dennis Schroder. Instead, after keeping him overseas for a season, they traded Nogueira and Lou Williams in a salary dump for John Salmons. Considering that Williams won the Sixth Man of the Year Award for the Raptors and Salmons only played 35 more games in the NBA after being waived by the Hawks, it’s hard to believe they couldn’t have made the deal to clear space without giving up Nogueira’s rights.
Nogueira couldn’t get off the bench for Toronto last season but an injury to Jonas Valanciunas this season has allowed him to get on the floor and he has looked very promising in the limited chances that he has received. It’s far too soon to say what type of player he will end up being but his combination of length (7’0 220 with a 7’6 wingspan), athleticism and finishing ability at the age of 23 means that it isn’t out of the question that he becomes a starting caliber center in a spread pick-and-roll system.
2014: No. 15 overall - Adreian Payne
The selection of Payne made a lot of sense on paper as he flashed the combination of skills at Michigan State - length, athleticism and shooting ability - that would make him a good fit for Atlanta’s system. At the same time, though, the Hawks system requires their big men to be able to make plays out of the high post and put the ball on the floor and those have never been the strengths of his game. They held on to Payne for only three months before giving up on him and shipping him to the Minnesota Timberwolves for a future first-round pick.
Payne’s inability to carve out a consistent role in the rotation for a rebuilding Minnesota team may end up justifying Atlanta’s lack of faith in him but the Wolves also have a very crowded frontcourt and it seems likely that he’ll get another chance somewhere else if things don’t work out. The bigger concern is that Atlanta fell out of love with him so quickly after drafting him, suggesting a difference between the way the front office and the coaching staff values players.
2015: No. 15 overall - Tim Hardaway Jr.
The Hawks originally selected Kelly Oubre but they wound up trading back to No. 19 overall and then flipping the guy they selected with that pick (Jerian Grant) to the New York Knicks for Tim Hardaway Jr. The moves made sense on paper given that the Hawks had just won 60 games so it would be difficult for a rookie to earn playing time (as Payne had found out the season before) and they had to plan for the possibility of a huge hole in their wing rotation given that Carroll was about to hit unrestricted free agency.
The problem is there once again seems to be a coordination issue between the front office and the coaching staff (even though Budenholzer is now in charge of both). Hardaway, a guy whom they gave a very valuable asset for, is buried at the end of the bench behind second round picks (Lamar Patterson) and waiver wire pickups (Justin Holiday). What makes the trade even more of a head scratcher is that Hardaway didn’t have a ton of of fans around the league following two very up-and-down seasons with the Knicks and it would make a lot more sense to have a rookie rather than a third-year veteran learning on the bench this season.
In and of themselves, all of these moves are defensible. The Hawks already had one rookie they were bringing along in 2013 in Schroder and Nogueira’s inability to shoot made them a poor fit for their system. They cut bait on Payne quickly enough that they were still able to get pretty good value for him on the trade market in the form of a future first-round pick from a rebuilding team. The Hardaway trade is the least excusable and even then they had no clear idea what they would be able to get out of Bazemore, Holiday and Patterson coming into the season.
One way to look at it is that they are a veteran team that has been in contention over the last few seasons so it would have been hard for any of those guys to make an impact in a best-case scenario. The other way to look at it is that they were a 60-win team with the rare chance to draft in the middle of the first round thanks to the largesse of the Brooklyn Nets. When the Spurs were in that position, they wound up with Kawhi Leonard.
Even if Noguiera, Payne and Oubre wouldn’t have worked out in Atlanta, here’s a look at some of the other players that were available to the Hawks when they picked the last few years.
2013 - Gorgui Dieng, Mason Plumlee, Rudy Gobert, Allen Crabbe
2014 - Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, Mitch McGary, Rodney Hood, Clint Capela, PJ Hairston
2015 - Justin Anderson, Bobby Portis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, RJ Hunter
Hindsight is 20/20 and finding quality players in the middle of the first round isn’t easy, but the reason the Spurs are the Spurs is because they know what to look for when it comes to evaluating young players that other teams have passed over and because they are patient enough to give guys chances and let them grow into roles over time at the NBA level. Atlanta can still be a successful franchise without doing those things but there’s no way they can be San Antonio East if they aren’t going to take the draft seriously.