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?