How the Atlanta Hawks are Trying to Rebuild in the Image of the Warriors

With the Warriors reeling for the first time in a long time, one of the NBA’s cellar-dwellers has quietly rebuilt with the Golden State blueprint in mind.
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Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It has been a dismal start to the 2019-20 NBA season for what remains of the Golden State Warriors. Though these are the darkest times in recent memory in the Bay, a quick glance around the rest of the NBA offers plenty of examples of how their dynasty reshaped the league. Every team began reshuffling, rehashing and retailoring their rosters once they realized the Warriors could not be beat.

No rebuilding team has embraced the Golden State blueprint for success quite like the Atlanta Hawks. Now, before you stop reading and scamper over to Twitter to call me an idiot, I am NOT trying to make the point that the Atlanta Hawks are the Warriors, are as good as the Warriors were, or will ever be as good as the Warriors teams that went to five NBA Finals in a row. The Hawks have not been a playoff basketball team since 2016-17 and it’s no stretch to say the ceiling on their current core is likely lower than that of the generational teams that ran the league for the last five years. Even this year, Atlanta is on the outside of the playoff picture in a weak Eastern Conference.

That said, the Hawks have assembled a young nucleus of players in their first, second or third season whose skill sets and roles bear a striking resemblance to the guys who brought Golden State so much success. It’s too early to tell with any conviction if they will blossom into players of the caliber or skill of those who played for those Warriors teams, but Atlanta drafted in such a way that the Golden State influence is impossible to ignore.

It all starts with Trae Young in the Steph Curry role. The Lilliputian floor general recovered from a shaky start to his first season to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting, just as Curry did in 2009-10. Comparing their rookie year stats uncovers some unsurprising trends; Curry shot better from three and had a higher effective field goal percentage while ranking higher in rebounding and most defensive metrics. Young scored more points, had a higher usage percentage and logged more assists while getting to the free throw line more often than rookie Steph. However, the pair were within 10 percentage points of each other in most statistical categories and turned in surprisingly similar rookie campaigns on teams that won fewer than 30 games.

It’s not about Young becoming the next Curry; the two are stylistically different. A peek at NBA.com advanced statistics reveals Curry took considerably more midrange shots and assisted jumpers as a rookie while Young got into the lane more often and tended to create his own shot off the dribble. That said, Young and Curry fill similar roles; confident, elite spot-up shooters (Curry was in the 93.5 percentile in that category last year while Young ranked in the 89) you want taking the last shot and can trust to play the floor general role running an offense.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For Young, the keys to filling the Curry mold more effectively are two-fold. He must find more consistency as a shooter; Young only made 10 fewer threes than Curry did as a rookie, but on 102 more attempts. More importantly, he must improve defensively. Curry is no Pat Beverly, but Young was one of the league’s worst defenders last season. He has the quickness to be serviceable but lacks the technique and adding some muscle to his wiry frame would also help. That said, Young hit plenty of clutch shots, broke off some mind-bending dribble combinations and demonstrated enough in-season growth that it’s hard not to be excited about his potential as a point guard in the modern NBA.

For the Klay Thompson role, the Hawks have Kevin Huerter. This may be the biggest stretch of the bunch, but generational shooters who also play all-NBA defense don’t grow on trees. However, Huerter and Thompson also posted comparable rookie year stat lines while playing similar minutes on bad teams. Thompson edged the Maryland product in most areas, but Huerter shot a better effective field goal percentage and logged more rebounds and assists. He also shot and made more threes, but Thompson’s percentage was better.

The main difference between the two is the midrange game; Thompson’s is one of the best in the league, and Huerter’s is still developing. That said, Huerter displayed surprising leaping and dunking ability to pair with his reliable three-point shooting. He proved to be a capable ballhandler with good vision and the fearlessness to take and make big shots. Defensive improvements are paramount (as he shares the floor with Young most nights) to handle bigger NBA wings, and a midrange game would make him even more potent offensively. While he may never become the near-automatic shooter Thompson became over the years, the early returns on the 21-year-old Huerter indicate he has the foundation to be a central backcourt figure in Atlanta’s rebuild.

There’s no perfect fit for the Draymond Green role, but John Collins appears best equipped to try. Collins, an offense-first power forward, and Green, a defensive-minded junkyard dog in the frontcourt, predictably outperformed each other in their areas of expertise; Collins dominated the offensive metrics in 2018-19 while Green was the superior defender. Green also distributed at a much, much higher rate, but Collins pulled down more offensive and total rebounds.

Green is the perfect unsung player for the Golden State offense and an underrated distributor of the ball, but Collins can shoot the three better (35% last season) and has nightly double-double potential. Of course, he must improve his passing and make large strides as a defender to even garner consideration as a player in the mold of Green. A beast at the four at 6’9”, 235 pounds, Collins’ unpolished defensive technique got exposed on the perimeter last year as he looked slow to diagnose and react to offenses despite his ability to cover for mistakes with sheer athleticism. He and head coach Lloyd Pierce mentioned an uptick in aggressiveness (something Green features in spades) as helpful and the third-year player already established himself as something of a locker room leader as Green did in the Bay. Collins has the athleticism to become a solid defender if he works on his technique and recognition skills, but he has plenty of time to take those steps. Though the Green comparisons aren’t a perfect fit in 2019, Collins has the tools and the mindset to continue the conversation as he matures.

The Warriors resurrected the careers of several NBA journeymen during their five-year run, but none proved more vital to their success Andre Iguodala. The Hawks hope prized rookie De’Andre Hunter can fill a similar role as a defense-first, switchable wing with catch-and-shoot skills. Hunter showed his poise as a defender in last year’s National Championship, neutralizing Jarrett Culver throughout the game as Virginia went on to claim the crown. Though his NBA ceiling remains to be determined, Hunter is averaging 28 minutes a night to start the season and posted a solid 101.4 defensive rating through seven games. Iggy’s offensive contributions were modest (7.3/3.9/3.4 per game as a Warrior), so Hunter’s elite shooting off the catch and from deep (41.9% from three at Virginia) will add even more production to a solid Hawks offense. It’s tough to say much else about a 21-year-old just seven games into his NBA career, but Hunter projects to be a reliable three-and-D option for years to come.

As for the rest of the Hawks, they bear a passing resemblance to the Warriors benches of old. Golden State milked production out of middling centers like Festus Ezeli, Andrew Bogut and JaVale McGee, and the Hawks are currently doing the same with Alex Len. Cam Reddish, seemingly written off after his freshman year at Duke despite going on to become a top-10 pick in 2019, fills a similar role as Hunter but more in the style of a guard. He’s not a true point like Shaun Livingston, but he could certainly provide steady minutes and scoring off the bench if questions about his consistency and motor get laid to rest. Deandre’ Bembry is a defensive stalwart who can handle the ball if needed, and Bruno Fernando is an exciting frontcourt prospect already getting 13 minutes a night off the bench. Vets like Jabari Parker and Evan Turner provide extra wing depth and a measure of leadership to an incredibly young locker room.

Of course, the Hawks are a few years away from being a finished product, and there are two more factors to consider. One is head coaching; Steve Kerr often gets overlooked because of the talent at his disposal, but he designed a system that kept the ball moving and everyone (mostly) happy for five years. Lloyd Pierce changed his stripes a bit in his first year in Atlanta, shifting his focus from defensive savant to a coach trying to instill confidence in a young team by allowing them to solidify their strengths rather than get bogged down in schematics. He showed a willingness to change his approach to fit the team at his disposal, and that bodes well from a developmental standpoint.

The other factor is free agents. Kevin Durant didn’t contribute to the rise of the Warriors, but he catalyzed the addition of two rings to their collection (despite Draymond’s stance on the matter). The Hawks will need to land a top-tier free agent (or two) to complete the rebuild, but that discussion can be held in a few years. First, Atlanta’s young core must show it get back in the mix in the Eastern Conference before it begins advertising itself as a free agency destination.

In any case, the Hawks rebuild is nearing completion. It’s been a tough few seasons in the A, but fans should be excited about the young core assembled by a front office unafraid to bite the bullet, rack up lottery picks and play terrible basketball for a few years. It’s a bit of a fool’s errand to gaze years ahead in a league that underwent a huge facelift this past offseason, but the early returns on the Hawks’ impressive stable of young talent are positive. And when they make their long-awaited return to the postseason, it will be with a roster constructed with the Warriors dynasty in mind.