‘We’re still in a good spot:’ Hawks GM Travis Schlenk on the season’s first half

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

With publicly stated playoff aspirations, the first 34 games of the first half of the season were tumultuous enough for the Hawks (now 16-20) to fire Lloyd Pierce with two games remaining before the NBA All-Star break.

Pierce had shortcomings, and blame is always going to fall on a coach when teams fall apart in the fourth quarter, which the Hawks had done several times. But it’s hard to ignore that many of their problems in the first half of the season weren’t really his fault. For example, six of the team’s offseason acquisitions either have not played or have been heavily hindered by injuries.

Kris Dunn has yet to make his debut, though that may happen by the end of March, Bogdan Bogdanovic was out injured from Jan. 9 until March 2, Rajon Rondo only played in only 20 games, and No. 6 draft pick Onyeka Okongwu was banged up for the first few months of the season. Tony Snell has played in 23 games. Danilo Gallinari injured his ankle early in the season and has struggled to find consistency.

That being said, having won their final two games of the first half under interim coach Nate McMillan, the Hawks really aren’t in the worst position heading into the second half, general manager Travis Schlenk said. They’re No. 11 in the Eastern Conference standings but only two games back from the No. 5 seed (that’s the Knicks at 18-18).

In the second half, we’ll find out if the Hawks truly have playoff potential.

“We don’t dislike where we are,” Schlenk said. “I wouldn’t say we’re happy with the way the first half went out, but all things considered, we’re still in a good spot. I don’t know what the standings are right now, but we’re a few games out right in the mix. It’s been a difficult year for all teams, not just us — whether they’ve been hit by COVID or injuries. The pace of games — I think we have a game every other day.

“I think we have 17 games in April this year and only one place in the calendar where we have two days off in a row. The second half of the year is going to be a grind for everybody. Hopefully, that’s where our depth can come into play once we get everybody back to be able to make it through that stretch.”

Entering the second half, the Hawks will hope to continue getting healthier and get into the postseason, whether that’s the actual playoffs or the play-in tournament. Pierce first stated that playoff goal in March last year, and players jumped on board, feeling the team is nearing the end of its rebuild.

Though they had a better record through the first 34 games, it wasn’t strong enough improvement, and Pierce was fired, with Schlenk saying the team needed a “new voice.”

Heading into the All-Star break, let’s break down what went wrong, and what went right, for the Hawks in the first half.

What went wrong

Injuries played a role in this, but many of the players the Hawks acquired in the offseason weren’t very good in the first half. In general, injuries limited the Hawks, with second-year forward De’Andre Hunter, one of their most consistent players, undergoing right knee surgery (meniscus debridement) Feb. 8. The Hawks will find out Friday if Hunter needs a second platelet-rich plasma injection, and if not, it’ll speed his recovery (7-10 weeks) by about a week, per Schlenk.

Rondo has been disappointing this season, leading to the continuation of backup point-guard problems for the Hawks. Gallinari has been up-and-down and often is a liability on defense. Bogdanovic hasn’t played much, but in the small sample size of 11 games, was averaging 9.4 points and 2.2 assists, and the Hawks need more from him than that.

Dunn hasn’t played yet. Rondo is averaging 3.6 points and 3.5 assists and hasn’t been consistent. Gallinari is averaging 11.7 points per game (seven points fewer than he averaged in OKC last season, though he’s coming off the bench and playing about eight minutes fewer). Dunn, Bogdanovic, Rondo and Gallinari are collectively owed roughly $50 million this year, but the Hawks aren’t getting enough consistent production from them on the court yet.

“I think it’s safe to say a lot of our guys, whether free agents or not, haven’t performed as well as they wanted to,” Schlenk said. “We’re not really in the situation that we wanted to be in, but it’s not a dire situation either. We can still accomplish all our goals we set out to start the season which was to have a winning season, so I don’t think anybody’s really satisfied with where we are as a team or how they’ve performed individually, if you went through the whole team.”

The backup point-guard issue is particularly glaring, since it was an issue last season, too. Schlenk pointed out the importance of Rondo’s mentorship for younger players off the court, which he said Gallinari contributes, as well.

“I still have a ton of confidence in Rajon at that position. … Off the court, maybe some of the stuff that you guys don’t see because you’re not able to come to practices or down on the floor, it’s just how he’s been able to positively impact our younger guys, just with the film study and stuff,” Schlenk said.

On offense, second-year wing Cam Reddish seems to have regressed, shooting 36.5% from the floor and 26.2% from 3-point range so far (he had made progress toward the end of his rookie season, finishing at 38.4% from the floor and 33.2% on 3′s).

For Reddish, it comes down to repetition, Schlenk thinks.

“There’s a lot of guys who come into the league who weren’t known as shooters or didn’t have good shooting numbers, and then over the course of two or three years, they become reliable shooters,” Schlenk said. “I think the hard part about this is patience. We’re still talking about a 21-year-old kid who played last year in a shortened NBA season. He didn’t have a typical offseason to work because of the pandemic and is back out there again.

“I don’t see any reason to be concerned. I just think it’s natural. We want instant success out of all these guys right away, and certainly we saw the big jump De’Andre was able to make this year from last year. Not everyone does that from Year 1 to Year 2. I think for Cam it’s going to be about repetition and keep working at it.”

It’s a similar concept for Okongwu, who was limited by a stress fracture coming into the season and didn’t get to participate in training camp or Summer League. Okongwu is 100% healthy now, but his fitness still needs to catch up.

“He was thrown into the fire, full speed, and we’re just trying to bring him along slowly,” Schlenk said. “And I think what we’ve seen, especially the last couple weeks, is flashes of who we think the player can be. So we’re certainly still very high on him and think he’s going to be a good player in this league. It’s just all about giving him experience and bringing him along.

“And certainly there have been some times when it hasn’t looked great out there, where it looks like the game is just moving too fast for him, but the more we get him out here, I think you’re going to start to see longer and longer flashes of what he can be, just as far as he’s a physical, athletic young guy, who can run up and down the floor and be a factor in the paint, defensively.”

Overall, the Hawks have seen flashes of potential, but inconsistencies have plagued them, particularly late in games. Not being able to put together a full 48 minutes of basketball has been the most frustrating thing about the first half, for Schlenk.

What went right

As Schlenk mentioned, although the Hawks have struggled in the fourth quarter, they’ve competed much better deep into games this season. Last season, blowout losses were a common occurrence.

Overall, they’re a better defensive team (though there’s definitely room for improvement) and they’re better at rebounding, a lot of which can be traced to a healthy Clint Capela, who averages a league-leading 14.2 rebounds per game and has been a major upgrade for the Hawks at center. Capela and John Collins have worked well together on defense, with Capela adding 14.7 points per game and Collins adding 18.

“I think Clint has certainly been a bright spot for us,” Schlenk said. “He’s been the anchor for us defensively with rim protection, certainly on the glass. I don’t know if he’s leading the league in rebounding, but he’s certainly one or two in rebounds in the league. That’s important for us. Offensively, I think he’s shown more than maybe people thought. I think he was just viewed as a roller. You’re seeing that he has a good left hand hook in the lane. We’re very excited about Clint. He shows up every single night and gives you everything he’s got. You don’t have to worry about him.”

Young’s scoring and playmaking (26.4 points, 9.4 assists) put him in the All-Star conversation, though he didn’t make the cut for reserves. Teams are trapping and covering Young differently this season, and he’ll continue to have to adjust, as he’s adding 32.2 points in wins and 21.2 points in losses.

But, he’s been more active on defense, which was a necessity, and has been more vocal, as well.

“I think you see that as you’re watching the games, you’re seeing him start to direct more, and all that’s going to come with more confidence and more experience,” Schlenk said. “It’s hard for a young guy to come into this league and command a team, and especially, Trae’s personality, he’s not the boisterous, outgoing guy, but he understands that as the point guard, that’s his responsibility out there to get guys in the right spot, and I do think you’re seeing growth in that.”

As far as new additions that have excelled, Snell shot an NBA-best .625 (25-40) from 3-point range in February and has been a stellar sharpshooter for the Hawks, shooting 56.5% from distance this season. He has stepped up with Hunter out, who certainly represents something that went right for the Hawks before he was injured. Hunter was named to the Rising Stars roster and was averaging 17.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. If the Hawks can get Hunter back and Bogdanovic up to 100%, they bring more shot creation to the mix.

Another thing that went right for the Hawks, in relation to the rest of the Eastern Conference — as inconsistent as they’ve been, they’re only four games below .500 and one game out of the play-in tournament. If they get healthier and continue trending in the right direction under McMillan, it’s not hard to envision them playing meaningful basketball late in the season, which would be a first for many young Hawks players on the roster.

For Schlenk, the goal is to have a winning record and demonstrate improvement, and with that, the postseason will come.

“I think there have been plenty of comments out there from our guys, and certainly from coach Pierce at the beginning that we wanted to have a successful season,” Schlenk said. “We want to show improvement. We want our young guys to have the opportunity to experience postseason basketball. I think what I’ve said is I just want to continue seeing the growth. I think some of our players have gone out and said that is our objective. My objective is to have a winning season. Certainly that was the goal. That is the goal. That has not changed.”