Five games under .500 (17-22), this is not at all where the Hawks expected to be approaching the season’s halfway mark.
It’s similar to how they looked last season (14-20) before surging and going on a run to the Eastern Conference finals. But that’s part of the problem, wing Bogdan Bogdanovic thinks. All this talk of last year.
“I think we’re taking that for granted like we’re going to win because we were winning (last year),” Bogdanovic said after the Hawks’ loss to the Clippers Sunday in Los Angeles. “That shouldn’t be the mindset… We are playing bad right now. We cannot say we are a good team right now, because we are not. Simple as that.”
Bogdanovic is correct in his blunt assessment — the Hawks are not good right now.
Over the past several weeks, COVID-19 has upended the roster, and coach Nate McMillan is actually still out in health and safety protocols. But they should still be competing better than this, especially given they’ve got most everyone back at this point. Still, the Hawks went 2-4 on their recent six-game road trip, the longest of the season, ending on a sour note losing to the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George.
The maligned defense was better, but the Hawks as a whole still weren’t good enough.
Credit: ArLuther Lee
Credit: ArLuther Lee
“I don’t know, to be honest with you,” star guard Trae Young said of his mindset with where the Hawks are at. “I feel like this is getting repetitive since my early years losing, you try so hard to find a way to win and it’s just not enough, and you’ve just got to find a way. It’s tough. I don’t know how to answer that question. I think that stays between myself and myself.”
“... We’re finally getting some guys back, but we’ve got to win. For me, I mean obviously, it’s frustrating. I hate losing. That’s pretty much it. I’m not the happiest guy in the world right now, but we’ve got to find a way to win.”
This much of a regression is almost bizarre, with Atlanta just coming off a trip to the conference finals, until you remember Bogdanovic’s point. Some of the Hawks’ problems you can easily pin on defensive breakdowns, others seem to be more mental. Either way, frustration as to why the Hawks can’t find any consistency are growing.
The trade deadline is one month away (Feb. 10), and general manager Travis Schlenk has already hinted the Hawks will be active (the Ben Simmons rumors are already whirling). It’s true that lack of defense has been the main problem for the Hawks, and a move to address those could make sense, if they want to go from No. 12 in the Eastern Conference standings into playoff contention.
They’re massively struggling on that end, giving up 130-plus points seven times in the past 16 games (one of those came in Portland Jan. 3, to a short-handed Blazers team playing without Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum). The Hawks own the No. 27 defensive rating (113.1) in the league, and their transition and perimeter defense, in particular, have given them fits.
Battling heel pain and now a left ankle sprain, center Clint Capela has not been the dominant force he was for the Hawks last year, though he’s still cleaning up ample messes in the paint. Wing Cam Reddish hasn’t played up to his potential on defense, and De’Andre Hunter (right wrist injury recovery), another key defensive cog for Atlanta, has only played in 11 games.
And, there seems to be a disconnect for the Hawks when it comes to the urgency and effort consistently required to win at a high level.
That’s not just coming from the eye test, with the Hawks so often looking out-of-sync and like they’re not going full-tilt on defense. Just ask power forward John Collins, the longest-tenured player on the team.
“I’ve banged my head on the wall a couple times trying to figure it out myself,” Collins said after another night of yielding 130-plus, Friday’s 134-118 loss to the Lakers. “There’s really no excuse. For me personally, I don’t have any excuse to not show up to my job and do it the best I can, that’s what they pay me to do, that’s why I’m a professional, that’s why I’m in the National Basketball Association. So I really don’t have an answer for you, all I can say is it’s unacceptable and just got to dig down and do the things necessary to win, or this is going to be the result every night.”
The Hawks shouldn’t have put themselves in this position, but still have confidence they can turn the season around, Collins said, especially given they’ve done it before. And given they’re getting healthier.
But none of it will matter if their mentality isn’t right.
“It starts with us believing in one another and buying in,” Collins said. “That’s sort of the start of the mission is to be bought in together as a group and commit to win. So we’ll figure it out. Got to do it. Got to try our best.
“... I feel like that’s one of the biggest positive sides of this team is we’re deep, extremely deep. But we’ve got to give a damn. We’ve got to give a damn for any of that. ... For any of that to matter. We’ve got to care.”
That word choice from Collins is quite telling. Young also called attention to the Hawks’ game plan and desire to win after that loss to the Lakers, mentioning Atlanta has to “want it more” on defense.
“As far as the defensive end, it’s more about effort and just your want and then a lot of it’s game plan,” Young said. “So those two things go hand-in-hand and I think we’ve got to do better on both of them. And I feel we’ve got to want it more. ... There’s a lot that goes into playing good defense. You’ve got to have a good game plan, you’ve got to have the want to get a stop. You’ve got to have the care factor, too, to win.
“We play fast, so there’s going to be a lot more possessions than most other teams, so obviously teams are going to score more, but you can’t let a team get 130. It’s a collective thing. It’s not just one particular thing. I think we’ve got to have a lot. We’ve got to have a lot of changes when it comes to having just a better game plan, have guys out there that really want to win.”
It’s a pretty significant indictment that Young, the team’s star and centerpiece, and Collins, the team’s longest-tenured player and first cornerstone of the rebuild, have called out the Hawks’ effort and desire to win.
After the loss to Portland, Capela addressed the Hawks in the locker room, calling out the defense. He said the Hawks have to become a multiple-effort team and that defenders have to be able to do more than one thing on defense at a time.
More so than anything schematic, though, Capela said the Hawks simply have to play with more heart on defense, aligning with Young and Collins’ message. Otherwise, the team’s success in other areas, including its No. 3 offensive rating (112.6), means nothing. Because ultimately, that alone isn’t enough to win.
“It means to me that defense is not easy,” Capela said. “It’s really effort, it’s not something really fancy to do. We’re not necessarily going to talk about it, there’s no numbers about it, so it’s something you have to put your heart into to win the game. You’re going to score points, because everybody loves to score points, but to win the game, that’s when the defensive side comes in. We have to put more heart on it, because this is what’s going to make us win games at the end. Because it doesn’t matter how many points that we score, if the other team scores more or the same, it doesn’t matter at the end. So I think our defense is going to make us win games.
“... Everybody was obviously frustrated and no one said anything, it was just me and I think someone else said something. I had to say it because it just can’t happen. We can’t just be scoring a lot of points and the other team score the same amount of points, everything that we’re doing, we’re not rewarded for it.”