Often lost in the transactional world of the NBA is the emotional impact of playing in a business-driven league that can alter a person's entire life at a moment's notice. Alex Len knows this feeling well, having been traded from the Hawks to the Kings in February. The seventh-year center grew fond of Atlanta in his two seasons with the Hawks, and had settled into a rhythm as the team's sixth man before straining his hip flexor and, ultimately, being traded for Dewayne Dedmon.
Len reflected on that trade and his time in Atlanta with Chris Kirschner of The Athletic in an article published on Wednesday. He discussed the differences between playing for the Hawks and the Kings, the challenges of playing on a losing team, and what the future could hold for his old team. Len said multiple times ahead of the deadline that he'd like to stay with the Hawks, but sensed that he could be traded once Atlanta acquired Clint Capela, and fell prey to the trade deadline's cold machinations.
"I wanted to stay,” Len told Kirschner. “I like the coaching staff. I liked my teammates. Everyone was cool. It really had a family feel to it.
"You know, it is what it is. That’s how I felt about it. I didn’t want to leave Atlanta."
While Len was the Hawks' best center before the trade deadline, Travis Schlenk valued Dewayne Dedmon's ability to (ostensibly) space the floor, his defensive impact, and his vocal presence both on the court and in the locker room. Len, however, fit right in with the Kings, and said he felt a different atmosphere around the team, which was chasing a playoff spot rather than toiling through continual losing.
"There was a whole different mood and vibe around the team because we were going for the eighth spot,” Len said. “When I was [in Atlanta], it’s tough to play knowing you’re not making the playoffs. You go into the game, and guys are thinking about their points and themselves. [In Sacramento], it’s all about team and winning. Guys don’t care how many points they score; it’s all about winning."
Len, who has yet to play in the postseason, added that the toll of losing weighs heavily on players, which can lead to selfish play. He noted to Kirschner that the Kings seemed more bought into the team's collective goals for the season rather than their own individual pursuits.
"Everybody was playing a lot harder. We were playing all five guys on a string. It makes your job easier because everybody else is a lot better," Len said. "It’s natural, though, because everyone is doing it. At that point, we’re not winning, so it’s, ‘My stats better look good.’ That’s what’s going to matter when it comes time for negotiations. But when the team isn’t having success, and you’re not making the playoffs, everyone is like, ‘All right. It’s my time to get going.'"
Len averaged 8.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 40 contests with the Hawks, played the most productive basketball of his career in Atlanta. He expanded his shooting range, improved his scoring efficiency, and sharpened his interior defense under Lloyd Pierce's tutelage, and credits the Hawks' staff for helping him transform his game.
"I feel like in my two seasons in Atlanta, I probably got a lot better than all five of my years in Phoenix,” Len said. “I’ve shown people that I can shoot the 3-ball. I got better finishing around the rim. I got better defensively."
Len continued his solid play with the Kings, scoring 6.6 points and grabbing 7.1 rebounds per game while helping anchor their defense at the rim. He will be a free agent this summer, and after two strong seasons, could command more than the $4.2 million he made this season.