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Hawks upbeat despite reality of rebuilding era

ATLANTA -- As one key player after another departed the Atlanta Hawks over the summer, Dennis Schroeder was caught off guard.

Just three seasons ago, the Hawks won a franchise-record 60 games, claimed the top seed in the East and reached the conference final.

Now?

"They say we're going to be the worst team in the NBA," Schroeder conceded Monday during the Hawks media day at a luxury hotel in midtown Atlanta.

The point guard isn't buying that assessment, of course. He and his teammates insist Atlanta still has enough talent to make a run at its 11th straight playoff appearance, though they are certainly in the minority on that one.

The Hawks hired a new general manager (Travis Schlenk) and embarked on a major rebuilding job, the kind that normally means several dismal seasons are on the horizon.

Four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap was allowed to depart as a free agent without so much as a contract offer. Dwight Howard was traded to Charlotte after one forgettable season in his hometown, a deal that was nothing more than a salary dump and not even a hugely significant one, since the Hawks agreed to take on Miles Plumlee's bloated contract. Tim Hardaway Jr. returned to the New York Knicks after the Hawks passed on a chance to match his four-year, $71 million offer.

Just like that, the Hawks lost three of their top five scorers and their top two rebounders. The entire starting five from that magical 2014-15 season -- Millsap, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll -- have either left as free agents or been traded away.

"Of course, you're wondering what's going on," Schroeder said. "But it's the business. The Hawks wanted to do something different. Everybody's got to accept it and we've got to go from there. We've got some pretty good players now."

Indeed, the Hawks have a few building blocks for the future starting with the 24-year-old Schroeder, who averaged 17.9 points and 6.3 assists in his first season as a starter. Forward Taurean Prince, a first-round pick in 2016, showed plenty of potential after moving into the lineup late in the season. This year's top pick, power forward John Collins, is an intriguing talent who figures to get substantial playing time right away. Kent Bazemore hopes to bounce back from an injury plagued season that made him look terribly overpaid after receiving a four-year, $70 million contract the previous summer.

Beyond that, the roster is filled with fringe players and marginal prospects. The Hawks were still sorting things out on media day, bringing back former Atlanta guard John Jenkins to compete for a spot when the team heads to a three-day training camp at the University of Georgia. They also acquired DeAndre Liggins from the Los Angeles Clippers but immediately waived him in a deal involving future draft considerations.

Hardly the look of a playoff contender.

"What I can promise is the team is going to play hard all 82 games," Schroeder said, in what sounds like a familiar refrain from someone on a talent-deprived team. "We're going to compete offensively and defensively and see what happens."

The Hawks slipped to 48 wins two seasons ago, losing in the second round of the playoffs. Last season, with coach Mike Budenholzer also serving as de facto general manager, Atlanta made an ill-fated decision to sign the enigmatic Howard rather than trying to keep Horford. Teague was also dealt away, clearing the way for Schroder to become a starter. The result: a disappointing 43-39 mark and first-round playoff setback to Washington .

Owner Tony Ressler decided a major overhaul was needed. Budenholzer lost his title as president of basketball operations , though he stayed on as coach. Schlenk was hired as GM after serving in the front office of NBA champion Golden State Warriors, making it clear right from the start that this was a long-term project. His immediate goals were to get more youth on the roster and gain the financial flexibility to go after big-name players down the road.

"These are scrappy guys, these are competitive guys, these are prideful guys," Schlenk said. "Now, we're going to be young. Historically, teams that are young take it on the chin a little bit. What we're looking for is to see that growth not only from individual players but from the collective group."

He said nothing about wins and losses -- in all likelihood, lots of losses.