The Hawks won 29 games last season, which was above expectations. I predicted they’d win fewer games this season. They are on pace for 23 victories, but I’m not patting myself on the back because the Hawks’ Big Three has played together for only 83 minutes.
Now Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter have reunited and are finding their rhythm. It’s made a difference for the Hawks over their past four games. The Hawks beat the Magic and Pacers, who are in position for the playoffs (Collins didn’t play at Indiana). They faded late in losses to the Celtics and Nuggets, who are near the top of the standings.
If you think that’s a modest run, you should have seen the Hawks before.
“More than anything, it’s the spirit of having a total group,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said Tuesday. “It helps everyone. These guys really enjoy being around each other, supporting each other.”
There have been times it did not look that way. Part of Pierce’s good work in his first season as a head coach was developing a sense of togetherness for a bad team. This season has tested that bond. The Hawks had two 10-game losing streaks by the end of December and were regularly getting run off the floor.
The Hawks were not competing on defense. Young played at an All-Star level, but he and Jabari Parker were the only Hawks doing much scoring on most nights. Young sometimes grew visibly frustrated with his teammates, but he wasn’t blameless, especially on defense.
Now Young has more help. Huerter returned a month ago from a shoulder injury that cost him 11 games. He’s becoming the consistent scorer and playmaker the Hawks desperately need. Collins, two weeks removed from a 25-game ban for violating the NBA’s anti-drug program, looks ready to make a third-year jump.
For too long the Hawks had no reliable scoring options beyond Young making extremely long 3-pointers or pick-and-roll magic. Huerter and Collins significantly expand the menu. Both are both good 3-point shooters. The Hawks can use the Young-Collins pick-and-roll to create good scoring chances for both players and others.
“Once we build that chemistry, we are able to really show what we can do,” Young said.
Lately, the Hawks look like the team they were to begin the season. They can score with any opponent. Play enough defense, and they can beat good foes some nights. That part needs work.
The Hawks are among the worst defensive teams in the league. Related: Parker and Damian Jones were the frontcourt starters for a month. Both big men are poor defenders. Play them heavy minutes together with Young, and things can get ugly, which they did.
I don’t know if I’ve seen an NBA team give up so many scores around the basket. By that, I don’t mean talented opponents making good moves and converting tough finishes. I mean pretty much any competent player going straight at the rim and scoring with little resistance from the Hawks.
Collins will help with that. Pierce now is starting rookie Bruno Fernando at center. He sometimes gets lost, but can hold his own physically around the basket. Collins is a very good defensive rebounder, another area in which the Hawks have been awful.
Pierce helped turn the 76ers into one of the league’s top defensive teams. He doesn’t yet have the personnel to do that with the Hawks. He should be able to forge a respectable defense with Collins, Fernando and rookie wings Cam Reddish and D’Andre Hunter.
“I feel like it’s on us to lock in to what he’s doing because I feel like it’s effective,” Collins said. “We just need to execute it.”
This isn’t a good Hawks team even when at full strength. It’s hard to be good with three rookies in the playing rotation. That was baked into the season with two top-10 draft picks. But general manager Travis Schlenk added to Pierce’s challenge by giving him an unbalanced roster of marginal veterans.
There isn’t enough 3-point shooting. Young, Heurter and Collins are the only Hawks regulars making them at league average percentage (35.5) or better. Hunter (35 percent) has been respectable. Everyone else has been bad.
Young, Huerter, Collins and Hunter are starters. There’s no one on the bench to stretch the floor with shooting. Pierce keeps trying to get veteran Allen Crabbe going, but it’s not happening. After shooting 39 percent on 3-pointers last season Vince Carter is at 27.5 percent this season, proving that he’s mortal.
There also is no true point guard among the reserves. Schlenk traded for Evan Turner to serve as a makeshift option. He was out of the rotation by December. A bench with no veteran playmakers or shooters is, as they say, not optimal. Parker can provide scoring punch from the bench, but he’s out at least another two weeks with a shoulder injury.
Schlenk will have to make moves to significantly raise this team’s ceiling. He can add a veteran center to anchor the defense and an experienced point guard without disrupting the prime directive of developing young players. For trade bait Schlenk owns about $66 million worth of expiring contracts and lottery-protected draft pick from Brooklyn in the next draft (it’s shaping up to be a relatively weak one).
In the meantime, the Hawks will be better now that their Big Three is back together again.
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