At 10-30, the Atlanta Hawks are the worst team in the NBA. They’re worse than the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that has to contend with Lonzo Ball’s crazy dad. They’re even worse than the Dallas Mavericks, whose only bright spot this year has been retiring the jersey of Derek Harper.
The Hawks’ season hasn’t been a total loss, though the courtside fan who fell asleep in the December matchup against the Brooklyn Nets might say otherwise. Visitors to the Phillips Arena have been blessed with highlights from rookie John Collins, and Taurean Prince has made leaps in his second year.
Highlights, however, don’t win games, and the Hawks are strapped for talent to lean towards competitiveness for a full 48 minutes. With the absences of Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard and Kyle Korver, Dennis Schröder has continued to up his scoring and lower his turnovers in his fifth year, but his increased buckets haven’t changed the dreary outlook in the win column. Even Coach Mike Budenholzer has chalked this season up to a loss, stepping down from his role as team president to focus on player development.
Amidst the changing tides in Atlanta, Kent Bazemore stands as the one Hawk still under everyone’s radar. The 28-year-old forward is in his sixth year in the NBA and fourth with Atlanta. For comparison, he’s older than Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond, who were drafted in 2012 when Bazemore declared, though he went undrafted.
In those six years, Bazemore has been commended for his defense, and his locker room persona, talents that netted him a four-year $70 million contract extension in the summer of 2016.
Deserving of the salary increase, Bazemore has been nigh invisible on recent Hawks teams. Posting a meager 12.5 points per game this year, Bazemore has done little to shine a light on the floundering Hawks.
Perhaps expectations are too high, but the Hawks quickly descended from being a 60-win team in 2015 to a lottery prospect in 2018, in part to Atlanta’s free agents vying for clearer skies. Al Horford took flight to Boston, Millsap coasted to Denver, Jeff Teague cruised to Minnesota and Korver sailed to Cleveland without fuss, leaving the poorly equipped Hawks adrift in the Eastern conference.
Expecting a team to turn around when four of its key players leave is a tall order. Still, Bazemore’s play is unlikely to draw attention for the remainder of his stay down south. In 2007-2008, when the Miami Heat managed just 15 wins, Dwyane Wade kept the franchise, and his future trade prospects, alive, posting a selfish 24 points per game and a career high 4.4 turnovers per game.
Sure, comparing Wade and Bazemore is even more unfair than the Hawks chances at breaking 20 wins this season, but the idea stands. For a season, Wade became the “great player, bad team” guy, giving hope that free agents would consider Miami as a destination to play alongside a talented Wade (spoilers: in 2010 they did). For that season, Wade’s presence was the same as always; he was a savvy offensive mind with a knack for blocking guards’ shots and a positive voice in the locker room. It just happened he took more shots that year.
Copying Wade’s way this season might be slightly out of touch for Bazemore, who has always stood as a better defender than scorer. But given the three years remaining on his contract, Bazemore needs to take a leap towards either making Atlanta a place to play, or give other teams a reason to pick him up.
When Bazemore signed the deal in 2016, he was on cloud nine.
When you have an unconventional route,” Bazemore said to Sports Illustrated, “nothing is ever certain.” First it was trying to get in,” he continued. “Now it’s trying to be great.”
Almost two years removed from inking the deal, however, Bazemore still has to fulfill the latter half of that quote. Any team would be happy to have a lanky, agile defender. Tayshaun Prince was much the same for the championship Detroit Pistons in 2004. But continuing to improve his offensive game to be on par with a Prince-like player will give Bazemore a career boost when Father Time takes his legs from beneath him.