Will Atlanta Hawks’ ‘Warriors East’ Approach Work?

When the Atlanta Hawks transitioned from the Mike Budenholzer era to the Lloyd Pierce era in 2018, general manager Travis Schlenk began to shape the franchise in the likeness of his former team: the 2015-2019 Western Conference juggernaut Golden State Warriors.

Many view the hiring of Pierce and the acquisition of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cameron Reddish as moves that mimic the Dubs. Schlenk spent 12 seasons with Golden State; Pierce and three other Hawks staffers all worked there as well. 

In 2018, Schlenk drafted the Hawks’ backcourt of the future that reminded people of the Splash Brothers. Young is an ultra-skilled, undersized playmaker with limitless shooting range, an inefficient version of Stephen Curry if you will. Huerter is a tall, sweet-shooting 2-guard who could fill a similar role to Klay Thompson.

This summer, Atlanta addressed the wing and forward spots. Hunter and Reddish could supply the defensive versatility and stretch-forward roles that Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes respectively occupied for Steve Kerr.

Jun 24, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks draft pick Cam Reddish holds his jersey standing between general manger Travis Schlenk (left) and head coach Lloyd Pierce during a press conference at Emory Sports Medicine Complex. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The quartet of rookies and sophomores will be joined by third-year pro John Collins, whose agility and skill in the paint complements the perimeter pieces.

Golden State is a great franchise to try and emulate, though that’s obviously setting the bar insanely high.

Drafted superbly, surrounding young stars with the right role players and playing an unselfish brand of hoops, Atlanta is arguably the most intriguing among the NBA’s handful of rebuilding teams and arguably has the most dynamic potential.

But will the Hawks’ “Warriors East” approach actually work? And what must the Birds do to even sniff the Dubs’ success?

It will be difficult to replicate what Bob Myers and Co. built in the Bay. While the Warriors’ success is dependent on much more than just three-point shooting, their rise was catalyzed by Curry’s unprecedented blend of perimeter accuracy and facilitating prowess. (His early injuries also initially depressed his contract size, which coincided with an explosion in NBA cap space that collectively allowed for signing/retaining an outsized amount of talent right as he achieved peak power.)

Young is the focal point of the Hawks’ ambitious rebuild. He’ll need to reach his absolute zenith to come close to wielding Curry’s level of power, and they’ll need optimal cap management (along with plenty of luck) as well.

On an optimistic note, there hasn’t been a recent draftee who’s more reminiscent of Curry than Young.

Trae Young is ahead of schedule in some aspects, but behind in others.

Dec 31, 2018; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers guard Darren Collison (2) during the first quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

His quick shooting release, seemingly infinite range, sharp vision and ball-handling ambidexterity were all on display during his freshman year at Oklahoma and his rookie year in Atlanta. Young’s playmaking talent was particularly impressive, as he zipped slick passes all over the court en route to 8.1 assists per game last season.

After a rough shooting start to his rookie campaign—he shot 33-of-133 (24.8 percent) from deep through the first month and a half— Young gradually smoothed things out.

He got more patient, stopped hunting for home run plays too early in the shot clock and let the game come to him. Better shot selection and rhythm pulled his three-point percentage up to 32.4 percent by the end of the season. As a facilitator, his feel for NBA defenses gradually improved, and it translated to a healthier assist-to-turnover ratio. He never averaged more than 3.7 turnovers from February to April.

Atlanta’s offensive ceiling will largely hinge on how efficient Young can be in the long run. As Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball noted in March, he’s often overreliant on extra-deep triples and might not become a truly efficient scorer:

He still shoots from crazy distances, and while he makes a bunch from out there, he’s not that accurate. If he’s worried about his shot getting blocked, that’s not a great sign. More than half of his triple attempts are coming from 27 feet or beyond. That’s a problem because league average on those shots is 32 percent, and Trae sits at 33 percent…Including college, Trae’s taken over 700 threes in the last two years, and shot just 34.5 percent on them, so I doubt he’ll be lighting up the nets in the next few years.

The other major concern is Young’s defense. His physical tools, effort and technique are all subpar on that end.

Slashers get around him fairly easily, and even when they don’t, they rise up over him or power through him. When it comes to help defense or switch-ability, Young is nearly a non-factor due to his short stature and lack of explosive agility. Some might point out that Curry is often the worst defender in his starting lineup, but even Curry’s worst defensive seasons were better than what we’ve seen from Young.

Gloomy statistics further reflect his shortcomings: Young posted the worst defensive rating (117) and defensive box plus/minus in the Hawks’ rotation last season, per Basketball-Reference.com. His defensive field-goal percentage on two-pointers was 59.8 percent, which is 9.8 percent worse than the rest of the league (per NBA.com). He also had the fourth-worst defensive points saved mark in the entire NBA in 2018-19, according to NBAMath.com.

Young is still just 20 years old, so it’s too early to make definitive conclusions. It’s just going to be a steep climb for him to be a championship-caliber point guard and a viable defender. He shouldn’t be viewed as the only limiting factor, however, because there are plenty of other question marks across Atlanta’s rotation.

Prospects like Huerter, Collins and Reddish all still have a lot to prove on defense. Their level of effectiveness and interchangeability will determine whether Atlanta can stymie playoff opponents the way Golden State does, with heavy switching between the 2-through-5 positions.

Apr 8, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Virginia Cavaliers guard De’Andre Hunter (12) reacts after a play during the second half against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the championship game of the 2019 men’s Final Four at US Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

They’re all athletic, but that doesn’t automatically make them respectable defenders.

Hunter is the most promising stopper among the young prospects. The Virginia standout is armed with terrific footwork, length and instincts to guard all kinds of wings and forwards. He could become the all-purpose defender who propels Atlanta’s defense toward success if they build the right chemistry.

But don’t count on him turning into the next Draymond Green. He might never reach Green’s level as a defensive quarterback, and he’ll likely never be as versatile a playmaker as Green on offense. This isn’t as much of a knock on Hunter (who could have a very bright career) as it is a declaration of how hard it is to be a linchpin like Green.

For all we know, Atlanta’s glue guy could wind up being Collins as much as it is Hunter. Or maybe it’s someone not even on the roster or someone we haven’t even conceived of being capable yet.

As a 2nd-round pick, no one saw Green’s career coming, so trying to find the “next Draymond” has an entirely different layer of difficulty. Many may try to emulate his role, but capturing his intangibles is something else entirely.

Dec 8, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) and Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter (3) celebrate after a basket during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, the Hawks’ bench depth is relatively uninspiring so far. They have a few solid players on expiring contracts this season, but the likes of Allen Crabbe, Jabari Parker, Chandler Parsons and Evan Turner aren’t high-upside additions. They’re also not glue-guy role players who consistently make everyone around them better.

Atlanta has a couple of extra first-round picks in its pocket over the next few drafts (lottery-protected picks in 2020 and 2022). Those assets could translate to another key prospect or two, or help facilitate a trade for a proven playoff contributor. Maximizing those selections will likely require patience, great scouting and a little bit of luck.

Schlenk has a long way to go if he wants to form the kind of rotation that Golden State had in 2015 and 2016. The Dubs stars had an adaptable bench that included Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, David Lee and Marreese Speights.

It’s fair to recall that many of those guys grew into their roles after less productive stops elsewhere, (with the exception of Iguodala and Barbosa), so there’s always that chance Atlanta captures the right mix at the right time.

But I suppose that’s my point about the Hawks’ overall emulation of the Warriors. It’s an admirable aspiration, yet nearly every player must reach his 100 percent peak, and the pieces must fall together smoothly. This is also assuming the game doesn’t change in some fundamental way in the meantime as it did because of the Dubs.

Golden State developed a combination of talent and synergy that’s hard for anyone to imitate, including a franchise run by one of its disciples.