Hawks believe the franchise is headed in the right direction

Not exactly numbers you aspire to: a 20-47 record, ranked 14th out of 15 teams in the Eastern Conference and one of eight teams excluded from the NBA's presumptive plans to restart the season in Orlando.

As a young, exciting, fast-paced team, the Hawks got a fair amount of buzz entering the 2019-2020 season, which ended prematurely for them when suspended March 11 due to the coronavirus. But too many things went wrong, and their “Core Five” group of players didn’t have enough talent around them to translate to many wins.

All of the Hawks “Core Five” players return, though, with a little added experience: Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter will be in their second year, Trae Young and Kevin Huerter will be in their third and John Collins will be in his fourth. In addition, they’ve shed some bad and expiring contracts and filled a big hole in adding Clint Capela, who will be the go-to center if healthy, as well as center Dewayne Dedmon.

That’s a big reason why coach Lloyd Pierce, general manager Travis Schlenk and players are encouraged about what the Hawks can do as soon as next season.

“I love the progress that we’ve made so far, throughout the two years I’ve been here,” said Young, who started on Team Giannis in the All-Star game at age 21. “I think we’re headed in the right direction as far as talent-wise, guys getting better each and every year, and I can’t wait to see guys like Cam and (De’Andre) and their progress and what they’re going to come back next year doing.

“If we’re all on the same path and we’re all getting better each and every year, I think this next year is going to be really good for us, especially with John going into his fourth year, me going into my third, Kev same thing. I think we’re all at that point now where we’re starting to be more comfortable. I’m excited about getting to play with Clint, and it’s going to be fun. I don’t necessarily want to say too much about what I expect for next year, but it’s going to be big things, for sure.”

Because of Collins’ 25-game suspension and two injuries to Huerter, plus Young missing a few games with ankle injuries here and there, that group of five players has only played 205 minutes together across 23 games (that starting lineup changed when the Hawks added Dedmon at the trade deadline, often sliding Collins to power forward with Dedmon at the 5 and Reddish coming off the bench, and Capela figures to start next season if healthy).

Pierce got used to not having all his options readily available. The Hawks also didn’t have much depth and their second unit struggled to score without Young.

But Pierce, who has gone 49-100 in his first two seasons with the Hawks, likes the group he has coming back next season, as well as the Hawks’ financial flexibility going into free agency, which could enable them to add more talent (they’re projecting to have about $50 million in cap space, though it’s unclear exactly how much the salary cap will take a hit due to financial losses from the coronavirus, and Schlenk has said they’ll utilize free agency to add depth).

They also improved as the season went on, finishing 12-15 after starting out 8-32.

“Extremely encouraged and excited about the guys that we have,” Pierce said. “We make a big deal about the ‘Core Five,’ and not only what they were able to accomplish in the minutes they shared the floor, but just the hope and seeing what (they did in a) small sample size, but good sample size.

“Add (rookie Bruno Fernando) into that mix and some of the things he’s capable of doing, and then you look at what Travis was able to do at the deadline and bring in some veteran leadership and some veteran experience at the center spot which was an area of need, you think of Clint and you think of Dewayne Dedmon, so we’re on the path that we’ve talked about for a long time. Really building through the draft and adding veteran leadership and looking forward, what we’ll be able to do with our cap space and going into free agency over the next two summers, is really encouraging. But it starts with our young guys and what we’ve seen from them, especially when they’ve been able to play together.”

Schlenk echoed Pierce’s confidence in the Hawks’ young talent, going back to Collins’ first season in 2017-18, after which the team and Mike Budenholzer parted ways. They went 24-58 and missed the playoffs, breaking the franchise’s streak of 10 consecutive postseason trips.

They have now missed the playoffs three years in a row.

“We’re excited about our young guys and the growth we’ve seen in them, really, the past three years going all the way back to John’s rookie year,” Schlenk said. “Since Day 1 when I got here we talked about maintaining our flexibility, using our cap space wisely, and obviously I feel like we’ve done that. To collect assets, this past draft as we all know, we cashed in some of those assets to go get guys that we wanted to get. But we’re still in a great place moving forward financially, with a ton of flexibility. We’re excited about our direction. Obviously we wish that we would have had the opportunity to finish out the season, but we’ll move forward as best we can.”

The nearly nine-month long gap between games (the 2020-2021 season is tentatively scheduled to begin Dec. 1) is disheartening for a team eager to turn things around. The Hawks, along with the seven other teams excluded from the playoffs, are working together to present offseason ideas/guidelines to the league and Players Association regarding what team activity they can do, whether that's working out as a team or scrimmaging against each other. Determining those next steps is key for the Hawks, particularly since they didn't get those last 15 games to keep developing, and since Capela didn't get to play at all due to injury.

Moving into the offseason, it feels like things are headed in the right direction, per Reddish: “It just seems like we have such a positive outlook on our future,” said Reddish, who at age 20 is the youngest player on the team. “It feels like we really believe in ourselves and we really do. So I feel like the future is bright for us and I’m looking forward to it.”