Travis Schlenk's Best Moves as Hawks' General Manager

Ben Ladner

In his first three years in Atlanta, Travis Schlenk has earned a reputation as an aggressive, risk-taking general manager. He has executed two major draft-night trades for potential franchise cornerstones and made several more bold moves both in the summer and during the season. The broad strokes of Schlenk’s résumé are largely encouraging; the Hawks are in a far better position to eventually compete for a championship than they were when he stepped in and have clearly identified their foundational building block. On the margins, Schlenk has made a few head-scratching moves that have momentarily impeded the team’s progress but ultimately not meaningfully changed its trajectory.

Neither of his two biggest moves of his Hawks tenure (the trades that sent Trae Young, Cam Reddish, and De’Andre Hunter to Atlanta) seems to have been a home run at this point, though a final verdict has yet to be rendered on both decisions. Those two deals will likely have more bearing on Atlanta’s future than any others he makes, though it’s too early to definitively say whether Schlenk was right or wrong.

Monday marks the three-year anniversary of Schlenk’s hiring in 2017. Let’s look back on some of his savviest moves thus far -- the two aforementioned trades excluded.

1. Using the 19th Overall Pick on John Collins and Kevin Huerter

Atlanta drafts John Collins & Kevin Huerter with the 19th pick the 2017 & 2018 NBA Drafts

We’re lumping these two picks together because while both selections are impressive independent data points, the combination of the two outlines an encouraging trend of finding talent late in the first round. In his first two years on the job, the Hawks picked 19th overall -- a slot that doesn’t produce a high average value -- yet Schlenk may have found two quality long-term starters with those picks in consecutive drafts.

Both Collins and Huerter are already positive offensive players with plenty of additional upside to explore, and it’s feasible that they could finish their careers among the eight (or so) best players in their respective draft classes. Both would go off the board significantly earlier in a theoretical re-draft. Collins was one of five big men selected in a row in 2017; none of the other four have eclipsed 1400 minutes in the NBA or had the kind of on-court impact Collins has.

The Wake Forest product has quickly blossomed into one of the most efficient and versatile offensive big men in the NBA while his red-haired teammate has proven a capable shooter, defender, and playmaker on the wing (Huerter could catch some observers by surprise when the Hawks start to play meaningful games again).

John Collins Has Become One of the NBA's Most Versatile Weapons

When the NBA suspended its season last week in the aftermath of players testing positive for COVID-19, John Collins reacted with both understanding and frustration. Of course he understood the league being proactive and keeping its players safe, but he also felt the momentum of the season come to an abrupt halt.

Organizations usually need to hit on at least one late draft pick or value free-agent signing to build a title-contending core. No general manager gets every move right, but some have higher success rates than others. So far, Schlenk has shown a keen ability to identify talent where many teams struggle to.

2. Trading Taurean Prince

Atlanta sends Taurean Prince and its own 2021 second-round pick to the Nets for Allen Crabbe and Brooklyn’s 2019 (17th overall) & 2020 (lottery-protected) first-round picks

Short of acquiring a superstar or needle-moving role player, the best trades a general manager can make are those that help in both the short term and the long term. That’s what Schlenk accomplished two weeks before the 2019 draft by sending Prince to Brooklyn -- a move that cleared minutes for De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish on the wing, relieved Atlanta from having to pay Prince’s next contract, and netted draft capital that would be used in later trades.

With Prince’s rookie contract set to expire this offseason, the Hawks risked losing Prince for nothing or overpaying to keep him around in restricted free agency. Instead, they received an asset for a player they likely weren’t excited about paying, then used that asset to acquire a potential tentpole -- Clint Capela -- with three years left on his contract. The Nets’ 2019 first-rounder became Nickeil Alexander-Walker, whom Atlanta dealt to the Pelicans as part of the trade for Hunter. The Hawks had to absorb Crabbe’s inflated contract in return, but with ample cap space and low expectations in 2020, they could afford to take on some dead money in exchange for two first-round picks.

As Schlenk likely anticipated, Prince didn’t quite make the leap this season for the Nets, and both of Atlanta’s young wings appear more promising at this stage of their respective careers. This deal wasn’t as splashy as others on this list; it didn’t directly net the Hawks a star or a cornerstone prospect. But it set up more impactful moves down the line with little downside risk, and Schlenk deserves credit for having the foresight and the dexterity to pull it off. 

3. Trading for Clint Capela

Atlanta sends out Evan Turner, Brooklyn’s lottery-protected 2020 1st-round pick, and Golden State’s 2026 2nd-round pick for Clint Capela and Nenê as part of a four-team deal with Houston, Minnesota, and Denver

Capela was a needed addition to Atlanta’s incomplete core, and the Hawks surrendered relatively little to acquire him. The trade itself happened under unique circumstances; the Rockets were almost desperate to dump Capela and acquire Robert Covington, and Schlenk was wise to capitalize on the leverage that gave him. Armed with the first-round pick they acquired in the Prince deal and the Warriors’ 2026 2nd-rounder from the famed Spellman-for-Jones trade of 2019, the Hawks retained all of their own draft assets -- which are likely to be more valuable than the ones it gave up -- while shedding a dead contract.

In return, they acquired a proven difference-maker on both ends who had even more value to Atlanta than he would have to most teams. Capela filled a gaping defensive hole at center, and at age 26, he’s young enough to grow with the rest of the team’s core while also providing immediate value. Capela was injured at the time of the trade and didn’t suit up for the Hawks this season, but he came to Atlanta with three years left on his contract at a reasonable value. Combined with their trade for Dewayne Dedmon, the Hawks flipped arguably the worst center rotation into a position of strength in a few days. Both moves have yet to fully play out, but given how little they sacrificed in those moves, it seems likely that the Hawks will be better for them.

4. Trading Dennis Schröder

Atlanta sends out Dennis Schröder and Mike Muscala for Justin Anderson, Carmelo Anthony, and the Thunder’s 2022 lottery-protected first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with Oklahoma City and Philadelphia

Schröder’s future as a Hawk had grown murky even before the 2018 NBA Draft, and the team’s moves on draft night suggested Trae Young’s German predecessor wouldn’t be long for Atlanta. By executing this three-team trade roughly a month after the draft, the Hawks not only dumped Schröder’s negative-value contract and acquired a first-round pick, but cleared the way for Young to take the reins of the offense the moment he arrived in Atlanta. They had to eat Anthony’s salary in the process, but could afford to do so because of their financial flexibility and a lack of playoff ambitions for that season.

All that prevents this deal from being a home run is the lottery protection on the Thunder’s pick; it’s quite possible they could miss the playoffs in 2022, in which case Atlanta would receive Oklahoma City’s 2024 and 2025 second-rounders. But the Hawks can still use that pick as a trade chip for up to two more years should the opportunity arise to swing another difference-maker.

5. The Allen Crabbe Trade (the second one)

Atlanta sends Allen Crabbe to Minnesota for Jeff Teague and Treveon Graham

This trade was one of the more head-scratching deals of the 2019-20 season. The Wolves willingly took on Allen Crabbe’s contract (and the player, of course) while giving up two useful, if unremarkable, rotation players. The deal allowed Atlanta to stabilize its second-unit offense and add defense on the wing, and while Teague was overpaid last season, he provided significantly more value relative to his salary than Crabbe did in just 28 games with the Hawks.

The Hawks will have the cap space in 2020 to re-sign Teague and Graham, if they so choose, and both players make at least some sense on next year’s roster. Crabbe was likely never going to be a part of the team’s plans. This trade would place higher on the list had Graham or Teauge significantly moved the needle for the Hawks last season, but it’s still the kind of no-brainer trade that can help a team improve on the margins.

6. Signing Dewayne Dedmon

Atlanta signs Dewayne Dedmon for two years, $13.2 million in the 2017 offseason

In his lone season as a Spur, Dedmon established himself as an unproven but dangerous roll man with impressive defensive versatility. That made him an intriguing target in the 2017 offseason, yet it only took a two-year, $13.2 million offer to bring him to Atlanta. Over the next two seasons, Dedmon reinvented his offensive game, stretching his jumper out beyond the 3-point line, and became one of the league’s foremost 3-and-D centers.

His ability to space the floor and protect the rim provided surplus value on that 2017 contract and earned Dedmon a 3-year, $40 million offer from the Kings in the summer of 2019. While Dedmon didn’t live up to that price in 44 games last season, the Hawks eventually traded to get him back and help stabilize their wobbly defense.

Ultimately, the contract he signed with Atlanta grades out as a great deal that didn’t really move the needle. Dedmon’s skills, while useful on a young Atlanta squad, are most valuable to playoff teams. Still, kudos to Schlenk for identifying Dedmon’s talent and securing it at a team-friendly price.

7. Hiring Lloyd Pierce

Atlanta signs Pierce to a three-year contract (team option for fourth season) in May, 2018

Like the Young and Hunter trades, it’s too early to make a conclusive judgment of Pierce’s 2018 hiring. Clearly, the organization was right to move away from the present-focused Mike Budenholzer, and Pierce came to Atlanta with a track record of player development and coaching defense. The Hawks have achieved little success on the court over the last two seasons, though that was almost entirely by design, and at this point there’s little evidence of Pierce being a good or bad coach.

Until he declared Atlanta a 2021 playoff team midway through last season, the head coach remained patient and committed to Schlenk’s long-term vision. He was quick to put the ball in Young’s hands and has seen his young players take significant individual strides during his short tenure. Pierce has some clever halfcourt sets in his bag and clearly understands both the broad concepts that drive modern basketball and the finer points of execution and skill development.

Next season will be a telling one for Pierce and the entire organization. One way or the other, the decision to hire him could fall in a very different place on this list a year from now. 

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