When everyone envisions a plan for a rebuild, it all seems to go through clear steps.
Tear everything down and be bad for a few years to build draft capital. Slowly improve as your young players gain experience and step up. Make that first playoff push. Trade and consolidate to build around your star. Then with each success climbing up the ladder eventually contending for a title.
It is so easy to put that all down on paper. The process seems so simple to follow and the logic of continued and gradual improvement is easy to digest.
Sometimes there are bursts and the timeline goes faster. Sometimes it takes longer and requires patience. But the process always seems to be the same and it seems so logical.
Of course, that is not how things go.
Teams overachieve and teams start to get excited and go for it. Or they feel they are further along than they are. Teams trip up and struggle. Bad picks are made, the wrong free agents are added, veterans start to age out, and contracts grow.
There is no straight line in a rebuild. Each success is not duplicated so easily. Every season, a team has to start new and from the beginning. And sometimes what a team builds up one year, does not build up so easily the next.
The Atlanta Hawks were the darlings of the NBA in the 2021 season. But their growth into a title contender was far from guaranteed and their 2022 season was proof that progress is rarely linear.
The greatest lesson any team in a rebuild has to understand is that progress is not linear. Sometimes it stops and turns back, goes back on itself before pushing through. And what a lot of teams sometimes fail at is understanding how their team is progressing and moving forward or panicking when it turns back.
That is where the Atlanta Hawks found themselves this season.
They did their work to rebuild — acquiring Trae Young in a draft-day trade, making smart draft picks to add around him in John Collins, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter. They made their moves to add veteran players, turning cap room into Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
This was an effort to push their rebuild faster. The Hawks knew they had their star and were willing to push some chips in to the middle. They were determined to make the playoffs.
Instead what happened was the breakthrough every rebuilding team dreams about.
Young was dancing on the New York Knicks in the Garden. The Atlanta Hawks kept the pressure up and surprised the Philadelphia 76ers to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, winning a Game 7 on the road, no less! They even pushed the Milwaukee Bucks in that final series.
If not for Young’s injury late in that series, maybe the Hawks’ incredible run would have continued.
They were no longer the trendy pick to make some noise in the playoffs. They were actually making some noise. And with how young the team was and how much gravity Young had around him as a superstar, it felt like this was a team with staying power.
Perhaps some regression was expected. The Hawks had a major burst — they ran to the 5-seed in the Eastern Conference last year because of a killer finish to their season spurred by the coaching change with Nate McMillan. But the team was likely to fall back to earth in a competitive Eastern Conference.
Nobody expected the team to fall off this much though.
The Hawks struggled to make the playoffs this past year, needing two wins in the Play-In Tournament to make the playoff field. That was at least a sign of how good they could still be and how disappointing their season ultimately became.
Young was still extremely good — 28.4 points per game and 9.7 assists per game. He was the main thing carrying the team through the season.
But the Hawks struggled with the secondary players — Collins missed most of the season with an injury, Bogdanovic was solid coming off the bench but Gallinari suddenly looked old and struggled to contribute consistently. Capela too seemed like he was struggling to find his place after being such a deadly pick and roll weapon the year before.
Whatever rhythm or magic the Hawks captured in 2021, it was not so easy to replicate in 2022. The Hawks still had the second-best offense in the league, a growth from their 2021 season. But their defense quickly plummeted to the fifth-worst in the league.
Their making the playoffs and rallying to get in through the Play-In Tournament is a testament to Young and his brilliance — he scored 24 in the win over the Charlotte Hornets and 38 in the win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It is easy to bounce back when you have a star of that caliber.
But, to be sure, the Hawks’ struggles to make the playoff field was a step back. This was not the season they imagined, even with accounting for normal regressions to the mean.
What the Hawks do next will determine a lot of the franchise’s future. They have to be realistic with their goals, but also aggressive to maintain their status in the Eastern Conference. With a player of Young’s star power, there cannot be any going back.
The team cannot afford another year of regression.
Taking to the challenge of a “bad year” is always difficult. Figuring out the best way to fix things but staying on plan is always difficult. But a year like the one the Hawks just had, indeed, requires a response and some change.
The Magic will inevitably face the same challenge at some point. Whether that will be after reaching the Eastern Conference Finals or as the team struggles to climb its way, there will be a season where the Magic’s rebuild seems to stagnate and falter.
It is inevitable that it will happen. And the Magic will have to step back and assess how best to move forward when it does.
Progress is not linear. There will be fits and stops. All of the Magic’s young players will not continue to improve in a predictable fashion.
Someone will inevitably struggle — as Chuma Okeke did at times this past year or Cole Anthony did after his hot start to the season. The question is knowing when change is necessary and knowing when to stick with someone to get them back on the right path.
It is not always an easy thing to figure out. But it is the essential task of a young team just before they push their chips onto the table.
This is where the Hawks sit now. They faltered with so many chips already in the center of the table. They will have to find their way forward all over again.
That is the natural life cycle in the NBA. There is no linear way or thing that goes to plan. It is about adjustment and readjustment.
Every success is no guarantee of future success. Each season and each team brings its own challenge.