Will the Hawks rebuild what they rebuilt?

Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins' name has been mentioned in trade talks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins' name has been mentioned in trade talks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The Hawks need to do something. According to both their president of basketball operations and their principal owner, they should have done it sooner. In-house, their corporate decision to stick with a roster that fell two games short of the NBA Finals has been labeled a mistake, though at the time it seemed prudent. Why change what had just begun to work?

Last year’s draft marked the first since 2017 in which the Hawks picked outside the lottery. They spent the 20th pick on Jalen Johnson, a one-and-done at Duke. He split his rookie season between the Hawks’ bench and the G League.

The Hawks got lucky with John Collins, whom Travis Schlenk, at No. 19, made his first pick. Over five seasons, Collins has averaged 16.5 points and 8.3 rebounds. For years, though, he has been tabbed as the Hawk most apt to be traded. This team might soon need to give Johnson a look at power forward.

The Hawks went 41-31 and won 10 playoff games in 2020-21. They were 43-39 last season, winning one playoff game. (They did win two play-in games.) They essentially were the same team – their biggest addition was backup guard Delon Wright – with lesser results.

These Hawks were denied the new-coach bounce they’d gotten after firing Lloyd Pierce on March 1, 2021. For his inspired interim work, Nate McMillan banked a four-year contract. The defense the Hawks finally decided to play under McMillan backslid to Pierce-like pliancy. After rising to 15th among NBA teams in defensive efficiency, they sank to 26th.

In the cold light of hindsight, it’s possible to recast their 2021 playoff run as less a breakthrough than a blip. They upset the Knicks, who’d overachieved, in Round 1. The Hawks upset Philadelphia, which fell apart so completely that Ben Simmons hasn’t played since opting not to dunk in Game 7. In the Eastern finals, they were tied 2-2 with Milwaukee, which found itself without Giannis Antetokounmpo; they were beaten in Games 5 and 6 by Khris Middleton.

One year later, here they sit. They’re still a young bunch. Trae Young and Kevin Huerter are 23. Collins and De’Andre Hunter are 24. Onyeka Okongwu is 21. Clint Capela is 28. Bogdan Bogdanovic will be 30 in August. It’s difficult to believe such a team has peaked, but it’s the Hawks themselves who keep suggesting they can’t get where they want to go with what they have.

Under contract through 2026, Collins remains the first name mentioned in trade scenarios. This makes us wonder if the Hawks deem their re-upping of him as a major mistake. Capela does everything a center once needed to do, but would they prefer their 5-man to be a stretch-4, which Capela isn’t? Is Danilo Gallinari, who’s 33 and no defender, worth the $21 million he’s due next season?

As for Young: He’s great. We can’t say he’s selfish. He had 737 assists, the most of any NBA player. He’s the guy you want with the ball in his hands. That he’s too slender to do much guarding always will be a minus, but not one a clever team can’t work around. There’s thought that the Hawks are still seeking an ideal backcourt complement, though Huerter and Bogdanovic haven’t cramped Young’s considerable style.

It would be a surprise if Collins, Capela or Gallinari – pick one, maybe two – is a Hawk much longer. Sacramento holds the draft’s No. 4 pick and is in listening mode. Assuming the first three taken Thursday are Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero, a Hawks trade with the Kings could yield Jaden Ivey, an off-guard from Purdue.

Such a move could include Collins and another veteran (Huerter?) plus the No. 16 pick. That would leave an opening at power forward. Is Okongwu ready? Could the Hawks get sleeker by making Hunter their starting small forward? Is Ivey, who made only 32.2% of his college 3-pointers, enough of a shooter to function as the Klay Thompson to Young’s Stephen Curry?

An even bigger question: Is it too soon to shuffle enough of this rotation as to initiate another rebuild? Consider the 76ers, who once, albeit briefly, stood as a model for rebuilders. They amassed Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler. Had they not traded up to take Markelle Fultz No. 1 in 2017, they might have landed Jayson Tatum. Today Philly is down to Embiid and an aging-fast James Harden.

Four years ago, you wouldn’t have minded being the Sixers. (Heck, the Hawks hired Pierce, long an assistant coach there.) You wouldn’t want to be Philly today.

It will be fascinating to see how the Hawks look come July. Different? Yes. But will different mean better?