Hawks will reward Travis Schlenk for keeping team together at trade deadline

Hawks guard Trae Young would like to see the team make another deep playoff run this season. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)

Credit: AP

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Hawks guard Trae Young would like to see the team make another deep playoff run this season. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)

Credit: AP

The Hawks passed on making a trade near Thursday’s deadline. They will try to make another postseason run with essentially the same squad as last season. It’s a talented and deep group that hasn’t had more wins than losses since Dec. 6. General manager Travis Schlenk is counting on coach Nate McMillan and his players to figure things out again.

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It’s a good gamble. There was a bigger risk in breaking up the core of this Hawks team just when it’s showing signs of finding its footing. Their floor is flaming out in the play-in tournament for the playoffs. Their ceiling might be lower than last season’s run to the Eastern Conference finals because the East is deeper. I’m looking forward to finding out.

Trae Young is the No. 1 reason to believe the Hawks will make the playoffs one way or another and beat expectations again. He was fantastic in his playoff debut. He’s been better this season. The Hawks are a tough out so long as Young is in good health.

Schlenk didn’t get Young more reinforcements at the deadline. There are good reasons to believe the Hawks have the right players around him to be threats in the playoffs again. FiveThirtyEight’s statistical forecast gave the Hawks a 59% chance of making the playoffs as of Thursday morning. Those odds slipped to 57% as reported trades were input into the formula later in the day.

The forecast had the Hawks finishing 43-39, tied with the Nets for eighth in the East. That potential matchup is one of many reasons why the Hawks need to avoid the play-in tournament. We know this Hawks team can beat favored foes over a seven-game series. But who knows what happens in a one- or two-game sample? Randomness plays a big role then.

The Hawks avoided the play-in game last season by finishing fifth. They may have to go that route this year. The Hawks (26-28) are 10th in the East. The play-in tournament includes the seventh- through 10th-place teams. The ninth- and 10th-place teams must win twice to advance to the playoffs. The Hawks began Thursday 4½ games back of sixth-place Toronto.

That’s a lot of ground to make up over 28 games. But the schedule is favorable in two ways for the Hawks. It’s sixth-easiest in the league by the (imperfect) measure of combined winning percentage of all remaining opponents. The Hawks also will have plenty of chances to put losses on the ledger of teams above them in the East.

Among the Hawks’ 28 remaining games, 11 are against East opponents with better records. Four of those games are against teams that stood seventh through ninth before Thursday’s games: two at Boston, one at Charlotte and one at home vs. Brooklyn. The Celtics are rolling, but the Hornets and Nets are fading.

The Hawks lately have summoned the underdog spirit that animated their climb from 14-20 on March 1 of last year to the East finals. They lost that round in six games to the Bucks, who went on to win the NBA championship. McMillan got a four-year contract, and Schlenk kept the core of the team intact. The Hawks appear to be peaking late in the season again but, if they make the playoffs, their task will be tougher this time around.

Their potential first-round foe will be better than the 2021 Knicks. The Hawks upset the 76ers in the 2021 East semifinals, but Philly made a blockbuster trade Thursday to acquire James Harden. The Bucks added center Serge Ibaka to fill the hole left by Brook Lopez’s injury. The Heat, Bulls and Cavaliers all made major moves last offseason that have paid off.

The Hawks have some significant weaknesses, but every team in the East does except maybe the Bucks and now the Sixers. The Hawks could use another rotation-quality wing player. They have an open roster spot, so it’s possible they’ll add one when players become free agents after being bought out of their contracts.

The Hawks are down a wing after trading Cam Reddish last month. The player they acquired in that deal, Kevin Knox, hasn’t played meaningful minutes. That leaves four Hawks players as regulars on the wings: Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Lou Williams and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Hunter and Bogdanovic have a recent history of injuries. A bad knee limited Bogdanovic in last season’s playoffs, and a sore ankle has cost him games this season. Hunter played only 19 games last season because of right knee pain. He had surgery after playing well against the Knicks in the playoffs and sat out nearly two months this season after left wrist surgery.

An injury to either player would leave the Hawks thin at the wing positions. They are due for some good injury luck. Young was playing on one good ankle by the end of last year’s East finals. The Hawks beat the Sixers without Hunter, their best two-way wing. They need Bogdanovic at full speed for his secondary scoring and playmaking, either as a starter or off the bench.

The Hawks are a very good team when whole and fully engaged. We’ll see if their recent run of good play really means they’ve really turned the corner. They have six games left against the top four teams in the East entering Thursday: Miami, Milwaukee, Chicago and Cleveland. Winning most of them would signal that they’re truly ready for the playoffs.

If the Hawks reach their goal of finishing sixth in the East, their first-round opponent is likely to be one of Miami, Milwaukee, Chicago or Cleveland. If it’s not one of those teams, then it could be the Sixers. It took everything the Hawks had to beat Philly in last year’s playoffs. That was with Joel Embiid playing on a bad leg and Ben Simmons eventually disappearing on offense.

Now Embiid is in MVP form and his point guard is Harden, an all-time great scorer and playmaker. Simmons went to the Nets. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will handle the scoring. But Durant (knee) isn’t expected back for a couple of weeks, and Irving only plays away games because he refuses to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

The Hawks have created good vibes lately with better health and defensive intensity. They beat the Bucks, Heat, Hornets and Celtics during their seven-game win streak. Then the Hawks lost twice in five days to the Raptors. Those defeats were sandwiched around a great victory over the Suns, who own the NBA’s best record.

The Hawks haven’t quite hit their full stride. They are getting close. Instead of breaking up the team, Schlenk decided to wait and see if they can do it over the final two months. If the Hawks stay healthy, then McMillan and the players will reward Schlenk’s faith with another good playoff run.