ATLANTA — Travis Schlenk sat down in the comfy chair in his spacious office, while to his left, on the other side of the window facing the Atlanta Hawks‘ practice court, one of the NBA‘s most interesting teams prepared for their Thursday night season opener against the Dallas Mavericks.
The team on the other side of that window had gone through its own looking glass last season when it morphed from a disappointing blend of youngsters and veterans to a playoff force.
Schlenk’s tenure in Atlanta began as a rehaul around young draft picks Trae Young and John Collins — both question marks early on — that has since morphed into a team that might just contend again in a very crowded Eastern Conference.
The Hawks, who made the leap from the pandemic-shortened season that left them out of the remainder of the 2020 season to last seasons’ Eastern Conference finals contenders, find themselves suddenly burdened with the best and most demanding of realities: real expectations.
That fact comes after Schlenk moved on from then-head coach Lloyd Pierce last February, elevated Nate McMillan to the interim role — and then watched his team surge to fifth in the Eastern Conference and then tear through the playoffs before losing to the eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, one step from the Finals.
On the eve of this season, a chance to show that that run was no fluke, the Hawks GM sat down with CBS Sports to discuss his team, how they got here, and what to expect going forward.
This interview has been edited for clarity and consciousness.
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CBS Sports: Congratulations on the success last year, last season. Success is interesting. Pat Riley talked about, “The disease of more.” What’s the line for you guys to build on that success but to not have guys take it for granted — and to have to live with some pretty different expectations coming into the season?
Travis Schlenk: Yeah, that’s clearly one of the things that will be part of the growth process. Last year, our goal was to get into the playoffs and we were able to do that, and then obviously have the success in the playoffs. And so now, it’s for a group of young guys to understand that, as you said, when we go play on a Tuesday night in the middle of February, you’re going to get the other team’s best effort, so you’ve got to show up every night, because you’re on the radar now. Teams aren’t going to overlook you anymore.
It’s going to be a new challenge for our guys and that’s one of the messages we’re preaching to them: You have to show up every single night and give your best effort. We have a good group of guys, it’s not that they don’t [understand] but not to fall into the trap of, “Oh, we’re better than this team. We don’t have to give our best effort tonight.”
CBS Sports: Trae Young. I think it’s fair to say he’s a legitimate superstar now. That comes with its own challenges. How does he continue to take whatever steps you guys want for him to be the player that you need?
Schlenk: First and foremost, one of the big positives about Trae is he always continues to work. He puts in a lot of work during the summertime. He wants that mantle to be: consistent All-Star, in the upper echelons of the league. So he’s going to continue to work even once he gets there, and he might be there now, like you alluded to, but he’s going to continue to stay there and to keep getting better and that’s … that’s ultimately when we start drafting players — those are the kinds of personalities you’re looking for. Guys with that hunger. You know he’s always had that chip on his shoulder since Day 1 and I don’t think he’s going to lose that.
CBS Sports: What’s his ceiling? Over the next three, four, five, six years — MVP?
Schlenk: I think if you’d ask him, the first thing he’s going to say is probably a championship before the individual awards, but I think that’s certainly what he’s going to shoot for.
CBS Sports: There’s not a lot of patience in our business. There’s less patience in yours. And certainly early on, the Trae-Luka Doncic trade drew a lot of scrutiny for you, and I’m sure a lot of criticism for you. Did you feel a sense of relief or a sense of vindication with what you guys did last year, and what it showcased Trae was as a part, as a linchpin for your plan when you came in and took over this job?
Schlenk: Not really. Listen. Both those guys are really good players and they’ve been really good players since Day 1 when they stepped into the NBA. For us, it was having the ability to get a player that we thought was going to be a really good player and the other asset on top of it. One of the theories that we always had when you’re drafting in the top of the lottery, you know, top 10, it’s not an exact science, so the more swings you have at that to get a superstar [the better]. You always hear the pundits say, “We knew this guy was going to be great.” No one ever really knows.
Certainly, Luka had a great pedigree and he’s turned into a great player and Trae had a great collegiate pedigree as well with what he was able to accomplish in his one year at Oklahoma, so we were confident in both guys. And getting any extra draft asset, which we were projecting to be at a top-10 pick, we did get …
CBS Sports: Which was Cam Reddish.
Schlenk: Yep … which we calculated as, you know, worth it.
CBS Sports: Generally speaking, if you’re doing a good job — you, personally, Travis Schlenk, and your staff evaluating — what is the right hit rate for a general manager in the NBA?
Schlenk: I’ve always said that we want to be around 60 percent. You know, it’s tough. Go back and look at — especially when you start adding your second-round picks in there — it’s not an exact science, and you know you’re dealing with 18-, 19-year-old kids and trying to project what they’re going to be when they’re 23, 24 years old. So it’s hard.
CBS Sports: I know it’s an imperfect science, but generally speaking, in your experience here and at Golden State, what percentage of success is you just happen to draft the right guy — he had the mental, he was good enough, he loved the game — versus player development and what you’re able to personally, as an organization, bring or not bring out of a guy?
Schlenk: They definitely go hand in hand and I think a lot of it is the internal makeup, which is a huge factor, but also the structure that you give that person and the situation they’re put in as well. And sometimes one person’s personality might work in one situation and maybe not so much in the second situation. If you have a very internally-driven guy, maybe going into a situation where he doesn’t get minutes right off the bat, where it’s actually going to help his growth and he’s going to try harder to earn those minutes. As opposed to a guy who’s dropped into a situation where he’s given 25 minutes a night that might actually hurt their development.
They go hand in hand — the situation and personality — but at the end of the day, I’ve always found that the most important thing is the person’s drive to be successful or to be great. You have to get to know the person to know, “What’s the kid’s endgame?” Was the kid’s endgame to get into the NBA and for some of these kids who got to the NBA, they think they’re done. Other kids have that drive to be great in the NBA and they’re going to typically thrive in whatever situation you put them in. But it’s really trying to get down to what the kid’s motivations were, what they’re trying to accomplish.
Sometimes it’s just getting the second contract. And once they get the second contract that internal drive goes.
CBS Sports: So you were very instrumental in the Warriors building what they built as part of their front office. You are in charge of Atlanta building whatever it has and will build. So you’ve had some experience with the draft and with these sorts of things. When you’re evaluating guys yourself, and now that you have a staff that does a lot of that for you, are you watching the way guys react in college games? Are you talking to people they know? Are you looking at tape?
Schlenk: It’s all of it, right? You know we do a ton of background on all the guys. Call back to high school and junior high coaches, AAU coaches, high school coaches, going to high school, college practices. It really is a deep dive into these guys trying to figure out what motivates them and what their endgame is.
CBS Sports: How does your approach change in terms of putting eyes on guys and your willingness to delegate. You’re probably not seeing as much, right, in this job as you did in other jobs?
Schlenk: Yeah, so, we kind of have a flowchart, if that makes sense, right? We have the scouts that are out there and that’s their whole job. They’re seeing the lowest level college all the way up to the best college, and they filter names up to the next group, and we just keep filtering down and I’ll typically go see the guys who are projected in the first round. When I was at Golden State and had more time to be on the road, then I was seeing everybody that we had in our first two-tier groups that got filtered up — low first-round, second-round guys. So now my main focus is just on the first-round group of guys.
CBS Sports: You just agreed to an extension with Kevin Huerter. And in Phoenix, they made a decision and weren’t able to get a deal done with Deandre Ayton. In both cases, I think you can make an argument that two organizations that have done a pretty good job identifying young talent had to make some difficult decisions. You’ve got more talented players on your roster and more decisions ahead.
Schlenk: We’ve drafted what we think is a good group of young guys and we want to try to do everything we can to keep that group together as long as we can. We were able to sign John [Collins] this summer — the first guy we drafted when I got here. Obviously, we were able to get an extension on Trae pretty quickly in free agency. And then Kevin was the third guy that we’ve drafted in the first round since I’ve been here, so being able to keep those three guys together and then next summer we’ll be sitting here talking about De’Andre Hunter.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep that group together and continue to watch those guys grow as a group. But as you said, in this league, we have a salary cap and we will have to start making decisions on what we’re going to do. It’s going to be really hard to keep that group of five guys all together because they are really good young players.
CBS Sports: When you’re good, you get paid.
Schlenk: (Laughs) Yes, you do.
CBS Sports: What are your expectations and/or hopes for a legitimate ceiling over the course of this season from De’Andre Hunter?
Schlenk: We’re very high on De’Andre. I think what we saw, as you mentioned from his rookie year to his second year, is just being more comfortable out there with the speed of the game and with the pace of it. He’s your typical play-both-ends, two-way player in the NBA. What we started to see last year is him expanding his offensive game, being able to put the ball on the floor a little bit more, create more for himself. I think we’ll see another step in that this year and then the next evolution on that end is going to be able to be a creator for other people and be able to put the ball on the floor and create for others. And we think he has a real ability to get there. And, obviously, defensively he’s extremely versatile with his strength and ability to defend at length and play four positions — and the way that the league plays sometimes, maybe he’ll be able to play all five positions when teams go small ball.
CBS Sports: You guys have a deep team, a really deep team. Have you talked to the coaching staff on how you want to approach minutes and rotations? There’s some interesting choices to make.
Schlenk: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s a headache for Nate, not for me. Listen, it was a huge advantage for us last year, obviously in a condensed season, and we had several guys get injured and we were able to move the next guy in. That’s where having a good group of guys is extremely important. But, yeah, we do have a lot of guys. Some of the guys we signed understand the situation they’re coming into, and where they fit in this role. Gallo [Danilo Gallinari] was the perfect example of that last year. He’s a big free-agency signing for us, but we made it extremely clear to the guy that’s been a starter his whole career that he would be playing behind John. And he accepted that role and obviously excelled in that for us as well.
CBS Sports: How do you evaluate the Eastern Conference? Do you think it’s fair to say it may be stronger than the Western Conference?
Schlenk: The West is still extremely good but I think we have a lot of good teams in the East as well. You know you look at some of the things that Chicago and Miami did this summer to bolster themselves. Obviously, Milwaukee’s not going anywhere as the defending champs. Everyone knows the talent that Brooklyn has. You know Boston is always a good team. Toronto has had kind of an off year, but you assume they’re going to be right back where they were. We’re one of the new kids on the block. The Pacers are always an extremely good team, so there’s a lot of depth in our conference. Maybe we don’t have all the star power that they do out in the West, but we’ve seen a migration of some of those guys in the West to the East in the last few years so. … Unfortunately, they’ve all gone to Brooklyn.
CBS Sports: Yeah they have! They have gone to Brooklyn.
Schlenk: (Laughing) Yep.
CBS Sports: How good will the Nets be if they play without Kyrie Irving?
CBS Sports: Not everyone likes the play-in format for the playoffs. Do you?
Schlenk: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that’s a guaranteed spot now, right? If you finish seventh or eighth, you have to earn it, but I think it’s good for the league. You know, I think it’s obviously good for fans. It creates more teams late in the season that have something to play for.
CBS Sports: Is it energy?
Schlenk: Yeah and you feel that. It’s dramatic. We saw last year with Lakers and Golden State playing two games the last week of the season in the playoffs. Those are exciting. That’s good television and any time you have that I think it’s good for the league.
CBS Sports: What’s the … I know you’re supposed to say championship — but in terms of range, what is the spectrum that’s fair to Nate, to the team, to you, what’s the range of expectations this year?
Schlenk: I’ll be real candid with you here. Our goal is to try to have home court this year and to try to be one of the top-four teams in the East. Is it going to be easy? Certainly not. As we just said, the East is a good conference, but last year we were fifth, ended up tying for fourth, lost the tiebreaker, so we think it’s attainable.
CBS Sports: Are there specific guys that need to make a leap?
Schlenk: No, I think because of the depth we have, we’re not relying necessarily on one or two guys the way some other teams are but to your point, we feel that De’Andre Hunter coming off the knee injury and what we saw the first part of the year before he had his surgery is in a good spot to make a jump. Cam [Reddish] kind of falls in that same category, too, where he dealt with a PRP injection last year and missed the second half of the end of the season, and so those guys, to your point, guys who have been in the league now for, well, a year and a half, I guess, since they lost (laughs) — had a shortened year they would be in that position where you might be able to see a jump from those guys.
CBS Sports: I like Cam. I know that he was a raw talent. I thought you guys got a potential steal.
Schlenk: He’s got all the talent and potential in the world. It’s just as we mentioned, he played in his rookie year which got cut short because of the pandemic and the second year he had an injury so he’s still learning the NBA game.
CBS Sports: All right, Travis Schlenk, let me try to get you philosophical here. What is the best decision that you’ve made in your career?
Schlenk: The best decision I made was in 2009. Larry Riley and Don Nelson came to me and said, “You know we” — I was the assistant coach at the time they came to me and said — “we think that you have a good eye for talent. We want you to go to the front office.” And at first, I was a little put off because I liked coaching. My wife and I had just had our first child. I made a decision to do it and it obviously worked out well for me so …
CBS Sports: It sure did.