I’m still not buying more wins for Hawks in Year 3 of rebuild

Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce (middle) reacts from the bench. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce (middle) reacts from the bench. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The Hawks won 29 games last season, which was Rebuild Year 2. FiveThirtyEight projects them to win the same number of games during Rebuild Year 3, which officially begins Thursday in Detroit. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (37 wins) and the consensus of its human voters (34) are more optimistic. Bookmakers set the over/under at 33-1/2 victories.

I opined July 1 that the Hawks are likely to win fewer games this season. After that they made trades that netted Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons and Damian Jones. The Hawks also signed young journeyman Jabari Parker and re-signed old pro Vince Carter.

Those moves don’t move my needle. I still say the Hawks win fewer than 29 games this season. Growth and development were the Hawks’ watchwords in 2018-19. They ended up winning five more games than the season before (and were a lot more fun).

After the Hawks closed last season strong, I hoped they would aim for more wins this season. Now that the roster is set, I don't see that happening. I know some Hawks supporters see it differently, and they may be right. But when someone tried to make that case to second-year coach Lloyd Pierce, he defaulted to talking about growth.

“More than anything, as a coach, I’ve got to tamper my expectations and thoughts going into it,” Pierce said Tuesday. “As a whole, we’ve got a long way to go.”

He’s not sandbagging. A team that relies on so many talented young players can always overachieve. The Hawks did it last season. That was largely because Trae Young was a top rookie and John Collins made a big second-year leap. But they’ll have to be even better for the Hawks to improve because there are lots of question marks elsewhere.

There are injury concerns for a difficult early schedule. Four wing players are hobbled. Rookie Cam Reddish (abdomen) is on a minutes restriction. Kevin Huerter has a bothersome right knee. Veteran Allen Crabbe (knee) probably is out until at least late November.

The Hawks were awful on defense last season. Two good defenders from that team, Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon, now play elsewhere. The Hawks have candidates to do Bazemore’s work on the wings. They don’t have a big man who can defend pick-and-rolls like Dedmon.

The Hawks are thin in the front court. There’s no true point guard behind Young. There’s no proven shooter on the bench until Crabbe returns. The Hawks led the league in turnovers last season and that’s still a problem.

The Hawks have some major issues. Young and Collins are the biggest reasons to believe they can overcome them. Both players have All-Star potential.

Young immediately proved himself as a creative playmaker. By the end of the season he was better at everything else on offense. The league figured him out, and he adjusted. He’s a confident, fearless player.

Young was a bad defender last season. He said he won’t be a bad defender this season.

“Defense is all about effort,” Young said Tuesday. “That’s something I, of course, have to get better at this year. That’s something I try to take a lot of pride in.”

Based on what I saw in exhibition games, I believe him. As a rookie Young too often was a one-screen-and-done defender. That’s not the only reason the Hawks were bad on defense, but they’ll never be good as long as that’s the case. Young seems to get that now.

Young and Collins formed a terrific screen-roll duo last season. Young is a tough cover because of his ball-handling, change-of-pace, vision and floater at the basket. Collins is hard to keep away from the rim on rolls. Young and Collins have superb timing.

Thing is, all Hawks opponents know that now. Young and Collins got a taste of what’s coming during exhibition games: aggressive double-teams against Young on pick-and-rolls to cut off his space and options.

“He and John were great in pick-and-roll last year,” Pierce said. “I don’t expect that to be extremely great this year. I expect that to be an adjustment and we’ll have to play through other guys.”

It will take time to find those other guys, assuming they are on the roster. Huerter is a candidate. He was among the top-shooting rookies and surprised me with his ability to create shots around the basket. The options are less certain after Huerter.

Maybe Reddish or Hunter can be options sooner rather than later. De’Andre Hunter showed surprising ability to score off the dribble during exhibition games. Reddish fell to the Hawks at No. 10 in the draft because of disappointing season at Duke, but if health was his main issue, then he should be better than that.

Immediate help from those two rookies is part of a blueprint for the Hawks to be better than expected. It also includes better defense from Young and more playmaking from Collins as the roll man. Those four players and Huerter form a nucleus of young talent, and all the veterans except Carter have incentive to show their value for the next contract.

“Roster-wise, talent-wise, I feel like we stack up with whoever you want to put us up against,” Collins said. “We can compete. We know it’s on us to actually go up there and actually perform. We feel like it’s on us to go out and earn that playoff spot.”

I doubt the Hawks will come close to doing that. I know it will fun to watch them try.