When Pierce first claimed the Hawks would make the playoffs this season, they had just been hammered by the Grizzlies, 127-88, falling to 19-44. They were one of the worst defensive teams in the league last season and were the third-worst 3-point shooting team (33.3%). They couldn’t score without Trae Young on the court running the offense (11.8 points fewer per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass), and although he plays a ton, he’s got to go to the bench at some point (having no other option to run the offense also meant Young had to play on the ball constantly, and couldn’t be freed to play off the ball much).
Those were all substantial problems, and upon getting some games under their belt, the Hawks will show whether they’ve fixed them.
The Hawks are hoping to go from a 20-47 team to a playoff team the very next season, but many teams in the East hope to take a sizable step forward, too (take Brooklyn, which will be better with a healthy Kevin Durant, and Charlotte, which just added Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball, for example). Can they get to the play-in tournament, which will involve the No. 7-ranked team hosting the No. 8 team to determine the No. 7 seed, and the No. 9 team hosting the No. 10 team to determine the No. 8 seed?
Can they bypass that and grab the No. 6 seed from the get-go, signaling an enormous turnaround? Or will they underperform, which at this point would mark an enormous letdown given the amount of talent they acquired and money they’ve spent? That last one seems unlikely, particularly given the way they’ve moved on from all the players who didn’t contribute last season and added a substantial amount of shooting. But we’ll have to wait and see.
2. What will the fit look like between John Collins and Gallinari? Also, what about Collins’ extension?
The deadline for the Hawks to extend Collins is Dec. 21. He has one more year left on his contract. It’s certainly an option for them to keep him another year and see how everything meshes, and although Collins could be a valuable trade asset for the Hawks, he’s quite a valuable piece for the team if he sticks around, as well. He’s a 20-and-10 player, improved on defense last season and is only 23. It seems both sides still want to get a deal done before the season, but it’s unclear if that will happen.
The fit between a few new Hawks players and Collins could be interesting, and it’s something to watch this season, if Collins is still here. How will he and Capela play together? Are their skill sets too similar, or will Collins’ versatility allow them to play together harmoniously (Collins led the Hawks’ in 3-point shooting at 40.1% last season)? Will it work to bring Gallinari off the bench, with Collins as a starter, as general manager Travis Schlenk said in a Zoom call with season-ticket holders? That makes Gallinari a pretty darn expensive bench player, and playing him at the 3 could make him a defensive liability. But Collins is a better rebounder and defender. How will they balance playing time between the two, and how can the Hawks balance all their bigs?
3. Did the defense improve enough?
The Hawks gave up 119.7 points per game last season, the most in the league. They seem poised to take a step forward on defense for a few reasons: center Clint Capela is finally healthy and ready to make his debut. For most of last season, the Hawks’ lack of a reliable, rim-protecting center, one who could act as a defensive backstop and also as a rim-runner, was glaring. He brings all that. They also have a backup for him: rookie Onyeka Okongwu, who projects as a strong defender and rebounder (Okongwu is recovering from a left sesamoid bone injury and is limited to shooting and conditioning for now, though he’s showing signs of improvement).
Also, they nabbed Kris Dunn from the Bulls. Dunn is an excellent defender who narrowly missed out on the All-Defensive team; he finished with a defensive real plus-minus of 3.01, second among all guards and 14th in the league. He was second in the league in steals (2.0 per game, behind Ben Simmons at 2.1). Dunn is dealing with a “cartilage disruption” in his right knee, so it’s unclear if he’ll be fully healthy in time for the season.
Snell is a good defender, and the Hawks obviously are hoping Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter will take a step forward on defense in Year 2. Will it be enough? This team has to think about that even more since Young, although fantastic on offense, is poor enough on defense that he must be surrounded by long, above-average to good defenders to compensate. Maybe the Hawks will outscore teams by so much that it won’t matter at first, but if they’re lacking on defense, that could start to show in the playoffs.
4. On such a deep team, how will roles shift?
A few days ago, Schlenk hinted that with the young talent and skilled veterans the Hawks have assembled, they’re in a pretty good position to acquire a star, should the opportunity arise.
For the moment, though, let’s discuss the players on the roster through the lens of them staying put, as opposed to their trade value: One unfortunate side effect of the Hawks acquiring the talented veterans they did is it may mean less playing time for their young and developing players, namely Huerter, Reddish and Hunter.
That’s not set in stone, of course, but it projects that way, given that Huerter plays the same position as Bogdanovic and there’s not many spare minutes to go around at the 4, another position Hunter can play. Both Reddish and Hunter can play the 3, so do they split time there? Reddish, in particular, showed progress toward the end of last season, on offense and defense.
That trio is more than capable of competing for minutes, and they can learn plenty from the older guys, and by nature of the minutes they do play likely being more meaningful, as opposed to another blowout loss in December. It’s just something to be aware of — if those guys are in your long-term plans, you don’t want to limit them too much or have them grow unhappy with their situation. You’ve got to find a way to balance “winning now” with ensuring you’ll be good for years to come.
5. What’s next for Young, and can the Hawks’ offense survive when he goes to the bench?
Young catches a lot of flack on social media for putting up unreal individual statistics despite the Hawks racking up losses. If you looked at the actual roster construction around him last season, though, it’s hard to blame Young for the Hawks not having a good center, not having a good enough backup behind him and not having any depth.
Even with far fewer reliable targets than he’ll have this season, Young ranked second in the NBA in assists (9.3 per game, behind only LeBron James at 10.2). He was fourth in scoring (29.6 points per game, behind only James Harden), Bradley Beal and Damian Lillard). He was an All-Star starter in Year 2.
So what’s next for Young? On an individual level, Young said a while back he wants to take his game to another level and get in better shape so he could play harder on both ends (that would particularly help his ailing defense). On a team level, it will be fun to watch Young surrounded by this many high-caliber NBA players for the first time in his career. The addition of a gifted offensive player such as Gallinari and a backcourt partner such as Bogdanovic, who can handle the ball well enough to free Young off the ball a bit, will be particularly helpful to Young. Accompanied by an improved roster, perhaps playoff-caliber, this season will be a better measuring stick for Young than the previous two.
Behind him, Rondo will assume backup point-guard responsibilities, which the Hawks hope will give their second unit a boost. Having more depth overall will help the Hawks, as they have enough shooters to come off the bench and pair Rondo to potentially keep the offense going. But we’ll have to wait to see it in action.