The best Hawks lineup, for now and the future

Taurean Prince (left) and Dennis Schroder are part of coach Mike Budenholzer’s best lineup. (AP Photo)

Covering this Hawks team has been a new experience for me. I started covering the Heat when they traded for Shaq and became instant championship contenders (they’d win it all a year later). When I took over the Hawks beat for the AJC back in January, 2010, the team already had emerged from a rebuild to become a perennial playoff team.

Now the Hawks are in full rebuild mode again and, honestly, it feels a little weird. Are they to be judged by how many games they can win with this roster? Should they be evaluated for how effectively they increase their odds of winning the lottery and this set themselves up for long-term success? Is the sweet spot somewhere in between those seemingly-contradictory goals?

I bring all of this up because I’ve been thinking about what is the best starting lineup for this Hawks team. By “best” I mean the collection of players that gives the Hawks the best chance to win games. But, again, that runs up against the reality that the long-term fortunes of the franchise may best be served by getting as many ping-pong balls as possible now, before the worst teams have dramatically lower odds of winning the lottery.

(Disclaimer: I say all of this as a dispassionate observer of the Hawks. I recognize that it’s easier for me to say the lottery is the best outcome for the franchise than someone who invests time, money and emotional capital in pulling for the Hawks to win. That’s why I never blame fans who do not like it when their team rebuilds.)

Yet there can be some overlap in what’s best for the Hawks now and what’s best for their future. What I didn’t point out in my blog post about Budenholzer and the rebuild is that even if he wants to squeeze as many wins as possible out of this roster, that wouldn’t necessarily undermine the long-term plan.

That’s not just because being competitive with vets should prevent the losing from seeping into the team’s culture as young players are learning how to be pros. It’s also because the Hawks have so many veterans on one-year deals (albeit some with player options for Year 2) that GM Travis Schlenk could plausibly flip them to playoff-bound teams for draft picks and/or young prospects (or even productive veterans with deals that expire after next season, to be flipped later).

Ersan Ilyasova, Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala, Marco Belinelli and Luke Babbitt vary in the value they offer but all are established NBA players who could be legitimate role players for playoff teams. In that sense, the top 10 that Budenholzer used during training camp and for the exhibition game at Miami on Sunday may be best for winning as many games as possible now, creating value for veterans who can be traded and developing young players.

That’s a starting lineup that includes Ilyasova and Dedmon with Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince. It’s a second unit that includes Belinelli and Muscala along with Malcolm Delaney, Nicolas Brussino and John Collins. (Sub DeAndre’ Bembry for Brussino once Bembry is healthy.)

The devil might be in the details. How many minutes does Budenholzer give Collins vs. Ilyasova, Muscala and Dedmon? Will Quinn Cook supplant Delaney in the rotation if the latter starts slowly? Will Babbitt earn enough minutes to create any trade value? Does Budenholzer find minutes for Tyler Dorsey over Belinelli?

But, in general, I’d say that the top 10 Budenholzer has been using should keep the Hawks competitive (especially defensively) while also keeping the franchise’s long-term plan on track. The truth is that the Budenholzer doesn’t have a lot of other options outside of the margins of this roster, which is why general managers (and owners) do the tanking for coaches.

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