Months later, though, their goal hasn’t changed. From their hotel, the Hawks have been watching the Western Conference and Eastern Conference finals as a team, and though they know they’re not at that level yet, Huerter said, it doesn’t feel like they’re all that far away from a talent perspective.
“There’s definitely teams that we think we can jump ahead of going into next year and we’re trying to make the playoffs,” said Huerter, the wing who will be entering his third season. “That’s kind of the main focus for us. It’s something we talked about even at the beginning of this training camp is a lot of individual stats and individual accolades have to be put aside, and we have to really try to come together as a team. For the most part we felt like even though the last three years have been a growing process and a rebuild, whatever you want to call it, we felt in some areas we’ve underachieved. As a team. I know players-wise, it’s tough to come in and lose a lot of games and not feel like you’re underachieving. So we want to change that around and we want to make the playoffs.”
It’s clear Hawks players are excited about potentially nearing the end of their rebuild — Huerter’s statement about getting to the postseason follows up Trae Young’s, who on Friday said he’s hoping to prove that the pieces of their rebuild are falling together.
There’s reason for enthusiasm: they acquired Clint Capela at the trade deadline, hopefully fixing their weakness at center, they seem to be past the point of taking on bad or expiring contracts, their extremely young team has gotten a year older, they’ve got the No. 6 pick in the draft to work with and will have the most salary cap space in the league.
Whether they can go from 20-47 to the playoffs, though, remains to be seen, and would be a remarkable turnaround. From Huerter’s perspective, it’s not an unrealistic leap, taking into account the predicament in the Eastern Conference.
The Orlando Magic (33-40) ended up claiming the No. 8 seed and the Washington Wizards (25-47) were invited to the bubble for the season’s restart in Orlando, as they were within six games of playoff contention (both of those records are a little skewed, as the regular season was cut short and teams only got eight “seeding” games in the bubble). So let’s go back to teams' records at the time of the season’s suspension, March 11, with 15 games left on the Hawks calendar they never got to play.
The Magic were 30-35, the Wizards were 24-40, and the records of the other Eastern Conference teams below those two in the standings didn’t change, since those teams were not permitted to resume their season: Hornets (23-42), Bulls (22-43), Knicks (21-45), Pistons (20-46), Hawks (20-47) and Cavaliers (19-46).
Teams will have a clean slate next season. But Huerter feels the Hawks will be able to compete with teams who will be in those playoff spots, and therefore challenge for one themselves. After the Hawks got healthier and John Collins returned from his 25-game suspension, they had the same record as the Magic (12-15) in their final 27 games before the season’s suspension.
“The crazy thing is, it doesn’t feel as significant as it might look,” Huerter said. "I think the eight seed this year was Orlando, and there were times where, we were going through rough stages in our season and we still weren’t that many games out of the eight seed. Going into the year from a talent perspective, we don’t think we’re that far off from Orlando. They’ve got guys who have been in the league a little bit longer and a team that’s been together a lot longer than we have. And that’s just one team, not to nit-pick them, but the significance of how far away we are, I don’t think is that significant as it might look from the outside.
“We know we’ve been putting in a lot of work. We’ve got guys that are getting better. I think we’re going to bring in different guys that are going to help the guys we have here. There’s a lot of games, I know that we can get better, and they go a different way than they did this past year, keep guys on the court a little bit longer, I don’t think it’s that crazy. I think it’s definitely attainable.”
The Hawks have nine players under contract for next season, so there’s still plenty of roster construction to do, but Huerter is encouraged by their core group of players that are returning (and the addition of Capela, who has playoff experience). Adding more experience or guys who are older than Huerter (22) would be a plus in his eyes.
He also mentioned the value of having players who will be in Atlanta for seasons to come.
“I know just from watching these playoffs and seeing the different lineups that work, I think as a team we have a lot of versatility," Huerter said. “And I think for a lot of times, the last two years, different guys we brought in have definitely been, I would imagine, guys we knew wouldn’t be here very long. So I think we’ve got a core group of guys that we know works, and have put together really good minutes for us at times and have been really competitive.
"And we just kind of mixed in different guys and whoever we bring in or draft or obviously guys we have here that have been great for us, whoever we mix in and just being able to put together guys we expect to be here past one year, guys that are going to be committed to building something and competing for something bigger than just that individual year and possibly their next contract. So like I said, we’ve got a core group of guys that we think works and has been really good together, we’ve just got to find pieces to compliment that.”