Lou Williams makes Hawks better as East gets tougher at trade deadline

Hawks guard Lou Williams calls a defense against the Miami Heat during the first half of the exhibition opener at Philips Arena in Atlanta on Sunday , Oct. 7, 2012. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Hawks guard Lou Williams calls a defense against the Miami Heat during the first half of the exhibition opener at Philips Arena in Atlanta on Sunday , Oct. 7, 2012. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Lou Williams is coming home again. Rajon Rondo is gone. John Collins didn’t go anywhere. The net result is that the Hawks, who looked like a playoff team before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, are better after it.

The improvement is needed. The competition for Eastern Conference playoff spots got tougher. Three teams in the chase made big deals at the deadline. Victor Oladipo went to the Heat after averaging 21.2 points for Houston. The Bulls acquired All-Star center Nikola Vucevic from Orlando. The Celtics got high-scoring sharpshooter Evan Fournier from the Magic.

There will be a series of “play-in” games for the postseason this year for teams that finish seventh through 10th in the conference. Before Thursday’s games the Hawks (22-22) stood tied for fifth in the East with the Heat, seventh with tiebreakers considered. The Celtics (21-23) were eighth and the Bulls (19-24) were 10th.

The Hawks have 28 more games scheduled, including two against the Bulls. It’s possible the Hawks will slip out of playoff position over the final seven-plus weeks. I doubt that will happen. Since winning eight games in a row, the Hawks had their weaknesses exploited in losses to the Clippers and Kings. But the Hawks are a better team since getting healthier and replacing coach Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan.

Now Williams will provide another boost. Swapping him for Rondo solved three problems at once for the Hawks. They upgraded at backup point guard, added a good scorer and shed salary for next season. Williams will make the Hawks better now and will be a free agent this summer. Rondo was making the Hawks worse and is under contract for $7.5 million in 2021-22.

Rondo played poorly in 27 games for the Hawks. The assumption was that the fabled “Playoff Rondo” would show up when the time came. The Hawks decided not to wait. Rondo’s recent history indicates he needs to play for a championship contender to be fully engaged. The Clippers are counting on that.

Williams has carved out a fine NBA career since he was selected in the second round of the 2005 draft out of South Gwinnett High. This will be his second stint with the Hawks. His first tour spanned the gap between coaches Larry Drew and Mike Budenholzer. Williams was a solid player for the Hawks then before moving on and winning the league’s Sixth Man Award three times.

Williams, 34, isn’t the NBA’s top reserve anymore. He’s still a good 3-point shooter (38% accuracy on 119 attempts this season) and scores at a high rate. Williams can be a chucker, which should be OK for his role with the Hawks. His defense may be another matter, but that’s always been the trade-off with Williams.

Multiple teams reportedly inquired with the Hawks for Collins. General manager Travis Schlenk didn’t like the offers. It’s likely that any deal for Collins would have made the Hawks worse just as they were finding their rhythm. They are going to have to pay up to retain Collins beyond this season.

Collins will be a restricted free agent this summer. The Hawks have the right to match any offer he signs with another team. Collins will be the top power forward on the market. He’ll be only 24 years old next season. Collins almost surely will sign an expensive deal. The Hawks will have to match it if they don’t want to lose him for nothing or next to it.

That decision will wait. For now, the Hawks will make a run for the postseason after subtracting Rondo and adding Williams. The FiveThirtyEight statistical forecast, which is based on player projections, gave the Hawks an 88 percent chance of making the playoffs as of Thursday morning. That number probably won’t change much once the model is updated after trades.

The Hawks are a solid team with two major flaws that I see. One of them, perimeter defense, will be shored up with better health. De’Andre Hunter (knee) recently returned to the lineup. Cam Reddish (Achilles) should be back by May. And Kris Dunn (ankle) is expected to finally make his Hawks debut soon.

The other Hawks weakness is depth and fit in the frontcourt. That one will be harder for McMillan to solve. Collins and Clint Capela are a formidable duo on the backline. The problem is no reliable backup center has emerged, and Danilo Gallinari’s defensive limitations make him ill-suited as the big man in small lineups.

Against the Clippers on Monday, McMillan made the same mistake as Pierce when he had Collins and Capela on the bench at the same time. The Hawks led 88-68 in the third quarter when McMillan pulled his starters and used a lineup with Gallinari at center. The Clippers quickened the pace and attacked the basket, which made Gallinari a liability at one end while Rondo was flailing at the other. The Hawks’ lead was down to eight points at the end of the period.

The Hawks play at a top level on defense when both Capela and Collins are on the court. Their defense remains great when Capela is playing with Gallinari. It’s been good with Collins and Gallinari, depending on the wing defenders. But the Hawks can’t get stops consistently when Gallinari isn’t protected by Capela or Collins.

That creates a conundrum for McMillan. The Hawks need Gallinari’s shooting and passing on the second unit, but his defense limits the lineup options. Ideally, McMillan would be able to rest Capela and Collins together for a bit in the third quarter before bringing them back for the finish. The results show that’s not a good idea.

It would help if Hawks rookie center Onyeka Okongwu proved he belongs in the rotation. He’s been inconsistent while getting minutes here and there. Second-year center Bruno Fernando plays only in garbage time lately. Rookie Nathan Knight has been effective in limited minutes, so maybe he’ll eventually get more.

Backup center is a relatively small problem for the Hawks. They have many strengths, with Trae Young’s elite offense leading the list. The bench is better now that Williams is in the fold. He should work well alongside guard Bogdan Bogdanovic. The second unit can use Williams’ quicker playing pace, shooting and scoring.

Acquiring Williams was a small-but-helpful deal for Schlenk. Keeping Collins is a franchise-shaping decision. The Hawks are better after the trade deadline. They are good enough to hold off the East foes who made bigger trades. Then we’ll see what this Hawks group can do in the postseason.

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