The Hawks have upgraded. A bigger upgrade is out there

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The guess is that the Hawks aren’t done. They did well in the draft, landing AJ Griffin with a non-lottery pick. They traded for All-Star guard Dejounte Murray at a cost of Danilo Gallinari, who couldn’t defend, plus three – ouch! – No. 1 picks. They shed Kevin Huerter, whom Murray rendered expendable, receiving Justin Holiday and a No. 1 pick.

Oh, and they signed Aaron Holiday, Justin’s brother. Neither is the best player in the family. That remains Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday, who along with Khris Middleton ended the Hawks’ run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals with Giannis Antetokounmpo indisposed.

If the Hawks stop here, they’ve effected an upgrade. Griffin is intriguing. Murray probably is – though not certainly – a better fit alongside Trae Young than Huerter. Murray does defend, and the Hawks haven’t done much defending since … oh, the 2021 Eastern Conference finals. He’s not the shooter Huerter is, though.

Gallinari will be missed offensively. He’s the essence of what basketball folks call “hard to guard.” His issue came at the other end, where he rendered every opponent hard, if not impossible, to guard.

The Hawks snagged Gallinari as part of a sign-and-trade with Oklahoma City in 2020. That was the offseason they also added Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn and Tony Snell. They were tired of losing/rebuilding. They started 14-20. They fired coach Lloyd Pierce. They started winning.

The trouble with sudden success is that the “sudden” part of it can mislead. The Hawks liked what did in the 2021 playoffs so much that they did as the Falcons did after reaching a Super Bowl in which they took a 25-point lead. In short order, the Falcons made Devonta Freeman and Matt Ryan the NFL’s highest-salaried players at their positions. (They already had made Julio Jones the highest-salaried receiver.) In the five seasons since, they reached the playoffs once.

Young signed a five-year extension for $173 million. John Collins re-upped for $125M over five seasons, Clint Capela for $46M over two. Had the Hawks won the 2022 NBA title, it would have been money well spent. As it was, they went 43-39 and landed in the play-in tournament. In their Round 1 series against Miami, they won one game by one point.

By then, they’d dumped Cam Reddish, the ballyhooed No. 10 pick in 2019. The roster they loved became a roster they didn’t much like, especially on the first and 15th of every month. Of the Hawks’ 11 top scorers in the 2021 playoffs, four – Huerter, Gallinari, Reddish and Solomon Hill – are gone. Lou Williams is an unrestricted free agent. Those monitoring NBA chatter continue to insist Collins and/or Capela are outbound.

The Hawks haven’t crossed the luxury-tax threshold. Owner Tony Ressler said he’s prepared to do that. The four 2022 conference finalists were above that line. The Hawks can afford it. In 2018-19, they sold 81.8% of tickets for home games, third-worst among NBA clubs. Last season they sold 97.2%, 11th-best.

As of noon Saturday, the Hawks had changed one starting position – Murray for Huerter. That wouldn’t seem enough to push them into the East’s upper tier of Boston, Milwaukee and Miami. Among remaining free agents, DeAndre Ayton might move the needle. He’s restricted, which could mean a sign-and-trade with Phoenix, which could involve Collins.

There is, however, this one guy. He’s 33. He’s under contract for $194M over the next four seasons, which would take him to 38. He’s Kevin Durant.

Normally I hate pie-in-the-sky speculations – could the Braves get Aaron Judge for Adam Duvall? – but the more I think about it, the more I keep thinking. The Hawks are on record as being displeased with their roster. Young’s deal likewise has four seasons to run. The Brooklyn debacle is proof the clustering of superstars doesn’t always work; LeBron James’ career is evidence that sometimes it does.

Durant is due to make $42.9M next season. That’s Collins plus Capela. If the Nets insist on a young big man, there’s Onyeka Okongwu. If they want a Round 1 pick, the Hawks plied one from Sacramento, though it’s lottery-protected. Bogdanovic is another option, De’Andre Hunter still another. You can’t trade everybody. You can trade several somebodies.

With Durant as the prize, everything under Hawks control is an option – except Young. They still would need him. But imagine him with KD. I mean, just imagine.