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Hawks make amazing turnaround between 2015 and 2021 conference finals

Nuggets forward Paul Millsap and Hawks guard Trae Young

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 12: Trae Young (11) of the Atlanta Hawks drives on Paul Millsap (4) of the Denver Nuggets during the third quarter on Tuesday, November 12, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Denver Post via Getty Images

Hawks president-coach Mike Budenholzer and general manager Wes Wilcox were not long ago disagreeing on whether or not to rebuild as Atlanta declined from its peak – a 60-win season that culminated with a run to the 2015 Eastern Conference finals.

Just six years later, the fully rebuilt Hawks are back in the Eastern Conference finals.

It’s an incredible breakthrough.

Especially because Budenholzer – who wanted to stay the course – won that 2017 debate with Wilcox.

Despite Paul Millsap approaching unrestricted free agency, Atlanta kept him through the 2017 trade deadline and stated a plan to “make every effort imaginable” to re-sign him. Millsap helped the Hawks reach the playoffs for the 10th straight year, though they lost to the Wizards in the first round.

Then, suddenly, Atlanta reversed course.

The Hawks hired Travis Schlenk as general manager and didn’t even offer a contract to Millsap, who signed with the Nuggets. Atlanta slowly but surely rebuilt. By 2017, the Hawks’ four 2015 All-Stars – Millsap, Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver – were gone. By 2019, everyone from that 2015 team was gone.

Atlanta made Trae Young its centerpiece and drafted John Collins, Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter. The Hawks then accelerated their ascent by trading for Clint Capela before the 2020 trade deadline and signing Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari last offseason.

Everything came together for Atlanta in these playoffs. The Hawks crushed the Knicks in the first round, upset the 76ers in the second round and are now set to face the (Budenholzer-coached) Bucks in the conference finals.

For Atlanta to completely turn over its 2015 conference-finals roster and return to the conference finals just six years later is special. Only the Suns (1984-1989) have completely changed a conference-finals roster then returned to the conference finals more quickly since the NBA-ABA merger

Here are the teams that made the conference finals, built an entirely different roster then reached its next conference finals most quickly since the merger:

pbt hawks conference finals 2015 2021

The only other team that pulled of this feat anywhere near as quickly as Atlanta this century – the Celtics – took a different path. Boston traded most of its top 2010/2012 players (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo) for great value to get a massive head start on its next era.

The Hawks lost their best two 2015 players, Horford and Millsap, for no return in free agency. This Atlanta team was mostly built from scratch.

As he undertook this project, Schlenk made one gaffe. He said the Hawks didn’t want to dip down 2-3 years in a row. For competitive people, that much losing sounds miserable. Well, Atlanta lost 60% of its games his first three seasons.

But, really, that was a short slump.

The payoff has come exceptionally quickly.