After reaching the conference finals in the 2020-21 season, the Hawks slid in the Eastern Conference standings but still clinched a winning record and a playoff berth, needing a late regular-season surge and two wins in the play-in tournament to stay alive. But the top-seeded Miami Heat extinguished any hopes of a Hawks run to the Finals, winning the first-round series, 4-1.
Following the early playoff elimination, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk spoke to the media Wednesday and gave his perspective on the season, players’ performances and the team’s direction this summer.
Q: Only 12 hours or so to digest the rest of the season at this point, but how would you describe the season from your point of view?
A: It’s something we’re going to spend more time going through, but as a whole – and I told this to most of the guys today in the exit interviews – it just felt like after the success we had last year, coming into the start of the season, there was a sense that, “we’re a good team.” It took a while for us to understand that even though you’re a good team, you have to show up and give that consistent effort every game. I think that’s what we saw in the first half of the season. Second half of the season, they told me 26-14 or something we finished the last 40 games. We feel we’re closer to that kind of team than we were the first half of the season, but it felt like we didn’t show up and give that effort every single night the first half of the season. That’s disappointing, but the bright side is, we learn from it and hopefully won’t have to deal with it moving forward.
Q: How challenging is a season like this when you have five guys that weren’t able to participate in preseason, and then there’s COVID issues that happen, and you have to find that chemistry moving forward?
A: Those are things that factored into the slow start, no doubt about it, the short turnaround. We still have to go out and play the games, we have a roster full of guys, even though five guys (are missing), we still have 10. We’re certainly capable of going out there and being competitive, we’ll learn from it and we’ll get better.
Q: Did the playoff series against Miami show you what the team needs moving forward?
A: I wouldn’t say one series. Miami is a good team, a really good defensive team, they had a game plan that proved to be effective. Miami is a great example. Miami was in the Finals two years ago, last year they get swept in the first round of the playoffs. I told the guys that this year as well. The NBA, for the most part, is not linear. It’s ups and downs, each season has its own life, so to speak. We’re always going to look to improve. This series, Miami is a lot like Milwaukee in a sense. Very physical, big defenders. We saw that last year, a switching defense, those are things we have to continue to work to get better at.
Q: One of the guys you added, Delon Wright, how do you assess his performance this season?
A: I’m a big fan of Delon’s game, always have been. He’s one of those guys that just knows how to play basketball. He’s got a great feel for the game, he’s got great natural instincts. One of the reasons he really stood out in the Miami series is, he’ll go to the offensive glass. Obviously, defensively, he did a great job against Tyler Herro throughout the series. He makes those little plays, those winning basketball plays.
Q: When Onyeka (Okongwu) was here, he said, “next time you see me, I’ll have a jump shot.” When you look at his collective game, what do see for him and where do you want him to grow?
A: What I told him today, to me really the one thing he has to get better at is defensive rebounding. He’s got to become a more dominant defensive rebounder. I told him, “if you do that, you have the potential to be an All-Defensive performer in this league,” with his ability to block shots, with his ability to switch on pick and rolls, with his ability to guard on the perimeter. It’s something he can do - he’s a great offensive rebounder. We know he can go get it, it’s just actually doing that. That’s a real big focus for him. And then on the other end of the floor, I do think he has to have the ability to make mid-range jump shots. Hopefully over time he can stretch it to the corner 3′s, and that’s one of the things he wants to work on this year and the summer as well.
Q: How do you assess (Trae Young’s) performance in the playoffs this year?
A: I don’t think it’s any secret that he didn’t have his best series. Again, they made him the focal point, and they made it really tough on him. Trae’s a competitor. The one thing I know about him is he’s going to go back, he’s going to work his tail off this summer and come back a better player next year.
Q: Do you feel like there is anything that the team can do to make sure that method isn’t successful in the future and in future playoff series?
A: Yeah, you saw us starting to adjust to what they were doing as the series went on. Bringing Trae off the ball, letting him come off screens from the baseline up as opposed to dribbling up the court and letting them be set on him. Things of that nature are one of the things we can certainly do.
Q: Last two seasons, the roster has been about the same and had similar vibes, but going forward, do you think this is the year you guys maybe make a big splash or keep the same roster going forward?
A: We’re always going to look to try to make the roster better. Last summer, a lot of our guys were under contract and had multi-year deals. This summer, we have some more free agents on the roster, so there will probably be more turnover because that’s the way the NBA works. Change is the only constant in the league. Yeah, I think from last year to this upcoming year, there will be more change than there was the previous season.