Q&A: Hawks GM Travis Schlenk

Courtesy of Michael Cunningham

Q. Opening statement

A. We went into this offseason with a couple goals, and (one of) those two goals was to try to get younger. Last season we were the fifth-oldest team in the league. We wanted to get younger and obviously we feel like we accomplished that. The second thing we wanted to accomplish was financial flexibility moving forward as it relates to the (salary cap) as well. The reason why flexibility is so important to us it allows us to go out and make deals like we did with the Jamal Crawford trade (which netted Hawks a top-three protected pick in the 2018 draft via Rockets) where we can get assets . . . as we invest in the future of this franchise.

Q. With a lot of roster turnover, going into this year what are some of the strengths and areas of concern?

A. I wouldn’t say that we really have a lot of areas of concern. Going into the season what we are really focused on is our young guys developing and getting better, individually and collectively. Our goals for this season is to see growth in all of our guys, from the start of the season. Hopefully it’s weekly, monthly (from) what we see here in October to when we get to the end of April.

Q. When you took this job you said you thought this team could contend for a playoff berth even if going through dramatic changes. From the outside looking in it looks like a total rebuild that’s going to be a painful few years. Can you address how long this might take? Or do you still think this team can legitimately contend for the postseason?

A. The one thing I would say about this group is these are scrappy guys. These are competitive guys. These are prideful guys. Now, we are going to be young and, historically, teams who are young take it on the chin a little bit. Like I said, what we are looking for is that growth not only from individual players but as a collective unit from the start of the season to the end of the season. I think we are going to show up every single night and we are going to play hard, and play together and play the right way and we are going to be able to live with the results.

Q. All coaches would love to have an All-Star roster. How has coach Mike Budenholzer accepted the transitional period for the team? Also, would it be better for this team not to be in the playoffs the next couple of years because of the draft lottery?

A. When I first got here, we spent a ton of time here getting to know each other, getting to know each other’s philosophies. He’s completely on board with what our plan was this summer. He’s excited about this upcoming season. He and his staff have proven that one thing they do well is develop young talent. So they are excited about this venture that we have where they are going to have an opportunity to develop, hopefully, a lot of great players that we are going to draft over the next few years. The second part of your question, listen, we drafted Draymond Green when I was at Golden State at (No.) 35. You can get franchise-type players, very solid players all over the draft. We are not worried about that at all. It’s never a negative for a team to be in the playoffs.

Q. What do you say to Hawks fans who fear the team will be bad like the Sixers for the next five to seven years?

A. The one thing that I would say about this group is that they are going to show up and play hard every night. We are looking for growth from the beginning to the end. We are going to be competitive. When you look at the guys we signed this year in free agency, those are guys that show up and play hard every night. We are laying the foundation for the future of the Atlanta Hawks, and that is to play the right way, to play hard and to give it everything you’ve got every single night.

Q. You said two goals were to have a younger roster and cap flexibility. Are there any other goals that can coexist with those two?

A. Yeah, obviously we are going to continue to accumulate assets and that’s where the flexibility comes in. Again, it’s just development. Now that we have a young core, we have nine draft picks in the next two years so there’s a high probability that we are going to be even a little bit younger next year. So we need to keep developing the young players that we have.

Q. Why did you swap the 31st pick for the 41st pick as part of the Dwight Howard trade with the Hornets?

A. When it got down (to it) with Charlotte, there was other players that were going to be in the deal that both teams decided wouldn’t be in there. Obviously the 31st pick was important to them. Us, when we look at our roster moving forward, when you look at the nine draft picks we have in the next few years, it wasn’t as important to us to add that young player this year because we have so many opportunities in next year with the three first-round draft picks. . . .  We would love to have the 31st pick, but to be able to get that financial flexibility for the future to make it worth it to slide down. . . . We did that trade for the financial flexibility, and we were able to use that flexibility this summer to acquire a draft pick in next year’s draft with the Clippers in the Jamal Crawford trade. It played out well for us.

Q. Is there growth that you would like to see from Dennis Schroder this year on the court?

A. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Dennis this summer. He played in Eurobasket with the German national team. He played very well over there. We are very excited by the way he played this summer. Any time you have an opportunity as a young player to compete in international competition, we feel like it’s a good thing. Dennis, from everything I’ve been told about the young man, has made a lot of strides not only on the court in his four years but also as a person. When you think about it, he come over here as a foreigner. He’s coming into a new culture, a new city. It takes some time for young kids to adjust. But, again, this is what I’ve been told by everyone here is that he’s shown a ton of growth already and we have no reason to believe that he won’t continue to have that growth on and off the court.

Q. What are the expectations for veterans like Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala as far as helping younger players develop?

A. No question, when you have a young team it’s very important to have quality vets in the locker room to help show those guys the right way to go. When you look at all of the guys that we added veteran-wise or we brought back, they are great guys, high-character guys. That’s something I’ve said from Day 1 is that we are going to focus on high-character guys. They are going to work hard every day. We want to have a good locker room so our young guys see vets doing it the right way.

Q. Are there any philosophies and experiences that you will bring from your time with the Warriors?

A. One of the things we did at Golden State is that we looked to bring in high-character guys, and that’s one thing we are doing here. We look to bring in high-skill guys. When you look at some of the guys we’ve added, with Quinn Cook and (Nicolas) Brussino, those are maybe not big moves, but those are guys that can make shots. Tyler Dorsey, the guy we drafted in the second round, 40-plus percent 3-point shooter in college for two years at Oregon. Those are the things we looked to do at Golden State, too. I bring a lot of those things: athleticism, length, multidimensional and then as I’ve stated several times already, the high character.

Q. One thing I’ve seen written is that you were part of a group that collectively made decisions. Is that a tradition that you will continue here and, if so, who’s in the group?

A. I’m very fortunate when I got here there was a great staff in place. Those guys are still with us. Going through the draft process with them, their organization was really strong. Going through free agency we were extremely prepared for free agency. That group is Jeff Peterson, who is our assistant general manager. He does a great job for us. John Treloar, our director of player personnel. Obviously coach (Mike) Budenholzer. Mike McNieve, our director of basketball operations. Those are kind of our senior management group and then we have younger guys that are involved in the process.

Q. In Golden State you called yourself kind of the pessimist of that decision-making group. What do you mean by that and now that you are the head guy how does not being afraid to say no help this team?

A. I guess I was kind of the “no” guy there. Here, I’m a little more upbeat I suppose, by changing the position. I think every organization needs somebody that’s not afraid to say “no.” Obviously when you sit in this (GM) chair you have the final say so there are going to be times when I say no. But it’s important to get everyone’s opinions and their different opinions. You don’t want a group of people that are all going to give you the same like, unless it’s right opinion. It’s important to have different voices in the room.

Q. What was your assessment of the team’s scouting department when you got here?

A. We did bring in a few people. Rod (Higgins) is a gentleman I worked with all the way back in Golden State. He was the general manager there when I was a back-row assistant coach. . . . He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience. I’m very comfortable with the staff that we have here, but I thought that bringing in someone with a little more experience could be useful for us.

Q. You’ve been a coach and video guy. How do you think those experiences being with teams in that role have influenced you as an executive?

A. I think the biggest thing that it does is it gave me my base for chemistry and character of players. When you are a coach you are around the team all the time and if you have guys that are negative it he locker room or negative on the court, it just kind of deflates the whole group. I’m sure you’ve been around teams like that where there’s a guy who brings the whole group down every day. And these guys end up being around each other more than they are around their families. So it really kind of drove home the point we need positive guys, good guys. Guy when you come to work you don’t walk into the building and think, ‘Aw, man, I’ve got to deal with this guy again.’ The season is too long to deal with that.

Q. You’ve mentioned that the focus for the team is developing young guys and that you might take it on the chin. I think ‘rebuilding’ has taken on a negative connotation with some NBA teams because they see teams that seem to be in perpetual rebuild mode. I know you don’t want to go through years and years of losing. At what point do you think this team can become what you think it can be?

A. That’s why when you look at the veterans we have signed, guys to good contracts that are positive individuals, high-character guys that are going to show up and play hard every night. . . . To give it an exact (timeframe) is hard to do. But if you get—like in this year’s draft, getting John (Collins) at (No.) 19, he’s a guy that we thought that would be gone in the lottery and he was available at 19. So there’s some luck involved in it. There has to be players available when you are picking, whether you are picking 19th like we did this year or seventh. Every draft when you go back and look at it in past years, there have been some where every guy in the top five were all All-Stars: The (2003) Lebron (James), Carmelo (Anthony), D-Wade (Dwyane Wade). And then there is some drafts when you look at the guys taken in the first four or five picks and none of them panned out. Or maybe there are guys in the middle of the rounds. So it’s really having the opportunities or, like I say, swings of the bat with picks. We have four picks in this year’s draft, three in the first round and one in the second. Having those four swings and hopefully getting three of them right. Like I mentioned, in Golden State we got Draymond (Green) at 35. Does it make it easier to get a player that can help your franchise at the top? Sure, you have a better chance but it’s not a guarantee for success.

Q. Part of that draft luck is having the right picks in the right year. Without mentioning specific prospects, what is your early impression of the 2018 draft at the top?

A. Obviously, there has been a couple guys reclassify here late that really gave the class a boost. We are excited about it. We’ve got a staff that is already planning out their schedule of all the games they are going to be at. We are going to have four or five guys out there going around to all of the practices around the country. With the three first-round draft picks, for our front office that’s a big thing for us.

Q. You’ve said how important player development was in Golden State. What goes into player development? What are some of the most important aspects?

A. One of the first things, in my opinion, in the NBA is that the player has to be mentally driven, internally driven. If you don’t have that desire to get better, to achieve your goals whatever those may be—whether it’s All-Star, MVP, whatever your ceiling is going to allow you to get—you have to want to reach your ceiling. What we are fortunate enough to have here is a coaching staff that puts in the time with the guys. We had all of our young guys stay here this summer. After our press conference for the rookies, 30 minutes after they are on the practice floor working getting ready for summer league. Coach (Mike Budenholzer) and his staff have done a great job establishing a player development program here.

Q. Is Collins purely a four in your mind? Can he be a small-ball five?

A.  I think he’s got the ability with his athleticism to be a small ball five as well as a four. We are working on stretching his range out as a shooter. Obviously with his athleticism he can finish in the lane. He’s got a nice, soft touch. Certainly he can guard fours switching out on the perimeter, which you obviously have to be able to do in today’s NBA. But against some of your more finesse fives, he certainly is going to be able to play some.

Q. You’ve said Bud is on board with this transition, and he does have a track record of developing young players. But he’s been a playoff coach for four years. The team has been a playoff team for 10 years. That’s what people are used to around here. It’s going to be different. What do you think that will be like? How do you get through those growing pains?

A. That’s part of my job, right? Part of my job in this seat is to keep everyone on an even keel. One of the first things I learned in the NBA as an intern, Chuck Daly used to always say, ‘You are never as good as you think you are, you are never as bad as you think you are.’ You’ve been around for a long time so you know the emotions, you can get wrapped up in that. You win four or five games and you are like, ‘Life is great.’ On the converse side, if you lose three or four games it’s like you are never going to win again. Last year In Golden State we lost four games in a row for the first time in three or four years and I remember having to go on the radio and the hosts and fans were like, ‘What’s wrong?’ This is reality. For the last three years you’ve lived in never-never land. There’s ups and downs to a season and a big part of my job, with the staff and Bud and the players—is to keep everybody on an even keel. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. There’s going to be some ups and downs. It’s just trying to keep everybody leveled out and working every day and try to get better.

Q. You said you think this will be a scrappy team. Bud has had good defensive teams since he’s been here. Going through the roster, I think you have a foundation to be a pretty good defensive team. Is that a fair assessment?

A. I think we will. One of the things this team struggled with last year was with their shooting. We made a conscious effort to be able to go out and improve that. Acquiring Marco (Belinelli) in the Dwight (Howard) trade, got a shooter there. Drafting (Tyler) Dorsey, got a shooter there. (Nicolas) Brussino and (Quinn) Cook, those are both guys that can knock down shots.

Q. Last year was Dennis Schroder’s first as a starter and he pretty much proved himself to be solid. Is there more for him?

A. I think so. He’s only 24-years old. I don’t know how close you watched Eurobasket but he really played well over there. I haven’t had a chance to spend a ton of time with him but everyone I’ve talked to (says) his growth not only on the court but as a person has really been great. One of the things people forget, he didn’t grow up in the United States. There’s a cultural change between growing up in Germany and growing up in Atlanta. That takes some time.

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