Hawks improving, winning despite all the noise

One weird thing about this Hawks season is that the results haven’t gotten worse as the drama increased. I kept expecting them to sink to the bottom of the standings with all the infighting, ownership missteps, injuries and issues with roster construction. Yet the Hawks are 22-22 about three weeks before the NBA’s trade deadline and getting better.

The Hawks are healthy for the first time in a while. They’ve won three consecutive games against opponents that are vying with them to avoid the dreaded play-in tournament for the playoffs. After winning five of their past seven games, with four victories on the road, the Hawks are 2.5 games out of sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

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Winning won’t solve everything for the Hawks. In some ways, it could make things worse in the long run. Landry Fields, a neophyte as an NBA general manager, might get the idea that significant personnel changes aren’t needed. Team owner Tony Ressler could convince himself that it’s a good idea, actually, to have his son involved in the team’s basketball operations.

Still, winning always is better than losing. The off-court messes were wearing on the Hawks. They’ve released a pressure valve by playing better and being rewarded with victories. The Hawks still can salvage this season. That’s a strange thing to say when their record never has been more than three games below break-even, but it’s appropriate under the circumstances.

“You keep the outside noise to the outside noise,” Hawks guard Dejounte Murray said on TNT after the victory over the Heat on Monday at State Farm Arena. “And that’s what I’m trying to do in the locker room: keep us together, continue to work on your game, learn the game, study the game.

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“The outside is going to talk, man. We control what we can control, and that’s going out and trying to win basketball games.”

That’s the right approach for the players. There isn’t much they can do about the ownership and front-office foibles. Well, maybe star guard Trae Young can. He’s tight with the owner’s son, Nick Ressler, the director of basketball and business operations.

That’s clearly not a healthy dynamic for the franchise. It’s Tony Ressler’s prerogative to run the Hawks as he sees fit. But the reputation of his franchise suffers in league circles when experienced basketball executives leave as his son gains influence. It would become more palatable in the short term if the Hawks go on a run because the big move that Nick Ressler and Young endorsed pays off.

The Young-Murray pairing was looking shaky for a while. It always was going to be a challenge for two ball-dominant guards to figure things out. The experiment became harder with Young and Murray shooting well below their career norms. Reserve guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who typically finishes games, also plays a deliberate style.

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When the Hawks struggle to create good shots, that usually is because the offense lurches to a halt as one of those three dribbles and sizes up the defender. Teammates stand and watch a forced shot. In the NBA, even bad defensive teams can stop opponents who don’t force them to help and rotate. The Hawks recently are making teams work harder on defense.

Young and Murray are playing off one another instead of taking turns doing their own thing. The ball and players are moving with more urgency. The Hawks have underachieved mostly because they’ve plummeted from top five in offensive efficiency to bottom 10. There’s still time for them to reach their full scoring potential this season.

The Hawks didn’t collapse when the offense struggled because the defense was good over the first two months. It fell off after that. Related: Clint Capela sat out the past month because of a calf injury. The starting center returned as a reserve Monday. The Hawks were playing better defense before he came back, and surprisingly, Young is part of that effort.

After the victory over the Heat, Young said he feels free to be more aggressive on defense now because, with Murray as a secondary ballhandler, Young doesn’t need to worry about foul trouble. Laugh if you want – I sure did – but Young seems more interested in playing defense now, so sure, let’s go with that.

Young is shooting better, too. So are Murray and starting wing De’Andre Hunter. AJ Griffin was tied for third among qualified rookies in 3-point percentage after Monday’s games. There’s a big drop-off in shooting after those four, so that’s something for Fields to address.

It would help if Bogdanovic rounds into form soon. He’s been forcing it on offense and has been terrible on defense. Griffin deserves to take some of his minutes, but I get why coach Nate McMillan is trying to get Bogdanovic going. When he’s feeling right, Bogdanovic is a terrific shot-maker in big moments. The question is whether Bogdanovic’s surgically repaired right knee will allow him to do that consistently again.

Forward John Collins, the weak link in the starting lineup, could be on the move soon. He was great for the Hawks when the central element of their offense was his pick-and-roll partnership with Young. Collins’ fortunes have faded as the team advanced further into dribble, pass and shoot mode. He’s a good player forced into a bad fit.

It will be difficult for Fields to improve the team’s depth without pushing the payroll above the luxury tax threshold. Tony Ressler doesn’t seem inclined to pay it to improve the main product in his taxpayer-financed arena. Meanwhile, veterans Justin Holiday and Frank Kaminsky are sitting at the end of the bench (though I don’t know why McMillan doesn’t give Kaminsky more opportunities when his offensive savvy is needed).

The Hawks need more players who can operate within the flow of the offense even if they can’t shoot. Those type of guys can be had on the cheap at the trade deadline. The Hawks can use dead-eye shooters even if they aren’t playmakers and another big man behind Capela who can protect the rim and rebound. Those kinds of players tend to cost more.

The Hawks also need continued good health, less drama trickling down from ownership and better leadership from Young. All those things have been problems at times this season, yet the Hawks haven’t folded. They’ve created some harmony amid the noise by winning.