Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George, left, shoots while Sacramento Kings center Dewayne Dedmon defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.
Photo: AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo
Photo: AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo

After trades, Hawks finally can be winners again

The Hawks are 6-6 over their past 12 games. FiveThirtyEight’s statistical model predicts they will win half of their final 30 games to finish 29-53 this season, same as last. The Hawks were so bad before, that a .500 record over half the season wouldn’t be good enough for a playoff spot. But after the trade deadline the Hawks, after three years of losing for the draft lottery, finally are ready to start winning again. 

What we see from the Hawks over these final 30 games will tell us a lot about the 2020-21 Hawks. Seven of their rotation players are under contract for next season. Four of them already are good NBA players. All signs are pointing up for the Hawks. 

The Hawks significantly upgraded their talent by trading for centers Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon. That’s two good players at a position of need. Both are under contract for next season. Adding them to Trae Young and Crew makes the Hawks a tougher out. 

The Hawks can rekindle the good team spirit they developed over the final weeks of last season. That dissipated this season as injuries, John Collins’ 25-game suspension and a mismatched roster took their toll. The Hawks were 7-27 through December with some ugly losses on the ledger. 

The Hawks have improved since then, mostly because they stooped being so easy to score against. Capela and Dedmon make them stouter. Both are good defenders and rebounders. They’ll help the offense, too, Capela as lob man and Dedmon as a “stretch” center. 

I’m assuming Dedmon’s performance in 34 games with the Kings is an outlier. They signed Dedmon to a three-year, $40 million contract last summer after he became a legitimate 3-point shooter in two seasons with the Hawks. Dedmon remained a good defender and rebounder for Sacramento, but was awful on offense. 

Dedmon wasn’t happy there. The NBA fined him $500,000 last month for publicly requesting a trade. Now Dedmon, 30, returns to a happier place. He was a big part of the Hawks’ strong team spirit last season. Dedmon’s return is significant because the Hawks will be a little older next season, but still relatively young. 

Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has repaired most of the holes in the roster he built this season. He did so while surrendering none of the team’s core players and one of two first-round picks in the 2020 draft. There’s more work for Schlenk to do between now and October. 

Schlenk traded for backup point guard Jeff Teague last month. Teague can become a free agent this summer, and he hasn’t looked good in 10 games with the Hawks. The Hawks need a fourth big man. A veteran wing player would help, too. 

Schlenk will have salary-cap room to make improvements. The Hawks are projected to have about $45 million in space, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. The Hawks will have a much deeper team next season if Schlenk makes better moves this summer than last.

It’s been a while since the Hawks were a playoff-worthy outfit. Their 10-year playoff run ended after they hired Schlenk in 2017. He stripped down the roster and accumulated draft picks, vowing not to “skip steps” in the rebuild. 

Schlenk’s first pick, forward John Collins, is a good starter. Young is an All-Star in his second season. I like Kevin Huerter’s chances to become a good player. De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish are to be determined. Adding Capela and Dedmon helps everyone. 

Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce built a good defense as a 76ers assistant. Now he has better personnel to do the same with the Hawks. And Pierce’s point guard, Young, is a budding superstar who lifts the team’s offense with his scoring and playmaking. 

I like what Hawks have going. I’m interested to see how good they can be. There’s a lot of variance in the outcome because Hunter, Reddish and the next first-round pick are part of the equation. In the Eastern Conference, the Hawks don’t have to be drastically better to make the playoffs. 

This isn’t the West, where most of the superstars play. In that conference, seventh-place Dallas has a point differential (plus-5.9 per game) that’s better than all but three teams in the East. In the East, Brooklyn and Orlando, standing seventh and eighth, were a combined 11 games under .500 entering Thursday. 

The list of superstars is shorter in the East: Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Miami’s Jimmy Butler, and Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (once both are healthy). The Raptors are still good without Kawhi Leonard. The Celtics are on the come with Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, but the Sixers are having trouble fitting their pieces together.  

Rosters change and players decline, but if the stars for those six teams stick around, the Hawks eventually will have to go through them. The Hawks are good enough to take on the rest of the conference. The Hawks have a chance overtake most rivals with growth from their young players. 

FiveThirtyEight’s model forecasts the Hawks to finish this season tied for 11th in the East with the Wizards. That’s ahead of the Cavaliers, Knicks, Hornets and Pistons. It’s two games behind the Bulls in ninth. None of those teams has a player as good as Young. 

Now he has more help. The Hawks won’t make the playoffs this season, but a strong finish would be good reason to believe the wait is over in 2020-21.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.