In 2017, Travis Schlenk was brought in to do one thing for the Atlanta Hawks: bring what he learned from helping build the Golden State Warriors to this franchise and become to the Eastern Conference what Steph Curry and company had become in the West.
Inheriting the ashes of the previous contenders, Schlenk had to have known that the Hawks would be a tear down and rebuild when he took the job but he had to trust the process.
The process started not with the drafting of Trae Young, but John Collins.
The only holdover from the Atlanta Hawks roster from the one that took the floor 4 years ago, Collins was also the first pick made by Schlenk. With a vision in place and a process to follow, Schlenk simply had to keep putting the pieces in place for an offensive supernova to step into and light the league on fire.
He didn’t have to wait long as the 2018 NBA draft had not one but two of those supernovas in Luka Dončić and Trae Young.
Unlike the Hawks, the Mavericks had their sights set on only one of those guys in Dončić and Schlenk was able to leverage that interest to secure what is becoming an all-time trade: Luka for Trae Young and a protected 1st round pick.
Schlenk had his core to start with superstar Trae Young along with fellow rookie sharpshooter Kevin Heurter and 2nd-year rim running big John Collins. Now he just had to add the finishing pieces to a puzzle already mostly built.
If there’s one thing it seems Donnie Nelson and Bob Volgarious agreed on, it was Luka Dončić.
These last few weeks have shown us that there was little else the two seemed to be on the same page for as the power struggle in house may have distracted the Mavericks organization from realizing just how special Luka was.
That dysfunction combined with a roster that was in limbo with Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, Dennis Smith Jr, and DeAndre Jordan that would all soon be on the way out in attempts to surround Luka with elite level talent (Barnes for cap space for the Giannis sweepstake that never happened, the others for Porzingis) have the Mavericks scrambling.
They even traded the rights to Shake Milton in the same draft as Luka to have the rights to Giannis’s brother Kostas, not seeing that Milton could potentially help Luka develop off the ball.
But why would they think that way? Superteams were the fad once again with the free agent arms race happening around the league and the Mavericks were positioned to be in pole position for Giannis or any other potential free agent both in terms of cap space and in having a young superstar to run with in Luka.
Porzingis not working out as the rim protecting, rebounding stretch 5 to be Dončić’s 2nd banana while waiting on the max slot star to come in and push Dallas into the serious contender realm has been the biggest setback the Mavericks have faced building a team around Luka but it’s far from the only one.
Instead of going the route of everyone else and looking to build a superteam, Schlenk and the Hawks continued to add the pieces around Trae Young to help hide his flaws as well as bring out the best in his offensive talents.
Adding wings Deandre Hunter and Cam Reddish through the draft and then Clint Capela (though he wouldn’t play for the Hawks until this year) set the Hawks up to have the option to spend big on adding the finishing touches if Schlenk was right about Trae.
Knowing what he had in Trae enabled Schlenk to be aggressive this offseason in two key additions with Danilo Gallonari and then Bogdan Bogdanovic after his move to the Milwaukee Bucks fell through.
But it’s that proactive, ‘prepared to build around Trae Young quickly’ mentality that made this quick rebuild possible. Instead of investing in a potential star and hoping he can prove his stardom to you before diving all in, Schlenk and the Hawks already had the chess pieces on the table.
Meanwhile the Mavericks are clearing the board and hoping to make it work on the fly before Luka decides he wants out. It reminds me of another draft class rivalry.
How a Similar Scenario Played Out in the NFL
There wasn’t a more complete quarterback prospect than Andrew Luck. Those once in a decade type of guys who just have a little bit of everything. And once he got to the NFL? Even better than advertised.
There wasn’t a franchise who wouldn’t trade their quarterback and then some for him in a vacuum. But instead of building a team around him to enable Luck to succeed the Colts front office failed him; refusing to put an offensive line around him to protect him until he had suffered too many injuries and retired early.
Meanwhile, Russell WIlson and the Seattle Seahawks were going to two Super Bowls (and winning one) while the Seahawks had a team built around WIlson’s talents as well as his rookie contract.
You could point to the fact the NFC was seen as the weaker of the two conferences (the East in the NBA, anyone?!) as part of the reason for Wilson’s easier path to postseason success or point to the fact that Matt Flynn had actually been “the guy” brought in to make that engine run.
But having the system ready to go and giving yourself multiple chances at hitting on “the guy” is part of the process itself. It’s a combination of skill, patience, and luck getting from the 2018 draft to where these two teams are now.
But even if the Luka-Trae trade was a clear win for the Mavericks it’s the franchise located in Atlanta that is thriving with a happy superstar in the conference finals and a front office on the same page. I’m sure if Schlenk has his choice he’d pick the Hawks franchise 10/10 times and he hasn’t been wrong so far.