To become like Heat, Hawks need major changes

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Heat made it to the 2020 NBA Finals, were swept by Milwaukee in last year’s opening round and then dominated the Hawks in this year’s first round. The Hawks say they can follow Miami’s example of getting back up after getting beat down. They aim to do the same after they followed a run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals with a five-game clunker against Miami in this year’s first round.

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The Hawks won’t do it if they stand pat. The Heat tried that last season and got diminishing returns, same as the Hawks this season. Taking the next step for the Hawks will require general manager Travis Schlenk to strategically shake up the roster, and not just on the edges. That’s necessary now that it’s clear that the ceiling for the current group is well short of the NBA Finals.

The Heat came to a similar conclusion after last season. They finished fifth in the East before the Finals run. They were the sixth seed when the Bucks swept them from last year’s playoff. They are the No. 1 seed this year.

The Heat got more from their best holdover, Jimmy Butler, and key role players this season. But they also added two starters with championship credentials, Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker. Those players fit Miami’s years-long, single-minded focus on playing tough defense. That’s how the Heat figured out how to stop Hawks star Trae Young when others couldn’t.

It’s possible for the Hawks to follow a similar path. It won’t be easy, though.

Unlike the Heat, the Hawks don’t yet have a baseline organizational identity. The Hawks are built to score, but so much of that relies on Young. Once Miami made scoring tough, the Hawks had no defensive grit to carry them. Adding players won’t be simple for the Hawks. Their payroll will approach the luxury-tax threshold once Young’s contract extension kicks in next season.

The Hawks can reasonably expect internal development . They are a young team with room to grow. Five of their key players will be 25 years old or younger next season: Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu. The Hawks would be a good team in 2022-23 with those players plus long-time veterans Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari.

But the Hawks wouldn’t be a true East contender if they stand pat. They have plenty of good players under contract for next season. They don’t have the right mix of players to beat teams like Milwaukee and Miami.

The current Hawks group doesn’t have a high-level scorer and passer to make opponents pay for loading up against Young. There aren’t enough guys willing or able to dig in on defense for every possession. It’s asking a lot for the Hawks to get those needed elements from the same players. The more realistic way to do it is to bring in players who have the attributes the team needs.

The Heat did that when they acquired Lowry and Tucker before last season. Lowry won an NBA championship with Toronto in 2019 but decided to join his friend Butler in Miami. Tucker was part of the Bucks team that eliminated the Hawks in the 2021 East finals before going on to win the championship.

The Heat acquired Lowry in a sign-and-trade with the Raptors. They parted with declining veteran Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa, who they picked 20th overall in the 2020 draft. Lowry is a great fit for the Heat. He’s a very good pick-and-roll playmaker to play pair with Butler and a much better defender than Dragic.

It’s possible the Hawks can make a similar trade for a standout veteran. They have players more valuable than Dragic and Achiuwa that they can include in trades. Plenty of teams could use, say, Collins or Bogdanovic. The Hawks also own an extra first-round draft pick. The Heat committed $90 million over three years to Lowry, who will be 38 years old at the end of the deal. That kind of risk is necessary to get a player of his stature.

The Heat’s acquisition of Tucker was more straightforward. He signed a free-agent deal for two years and $14.4 million with a player option. This summer the Hawks will have the same salary-cap exception Miami used to sign Tucker. Schlenk likely would have to shed payroll to use it while not paying the tax. One option: waiving Gallinari before June 30 so only $5 million of his $21.45 million salary counts against the 2022-23 cap.

The clear goal for the Schlenk in any moves he makes is building a team around Young. He’s a special talent. That’s why the Hawks signed Young to the maximum extension as soon as he was eligible. Young’s ability to control games with the ball is why the Heat built their game plan around denying it to him and preventing him from getting to his signature floater.

The challenging part about building a team around Young is that his relatively small stature means only certain complementary players will do. Ideally, the Hawks need multiple big wing players who can score off the bounce, pass and defend. Those type of players are difficult to acquire. Schlenk tried doing it via the draft with Hunter and Cam Reddish.

It hasn’t worked out. Schlenk traded Reddish to the Knicks in January. Hunter still has shown only flashes of being a guy who can create his own scoring chances and make plays passing. He said he plans to work on expanding his game. Hunter’s defense regressed this season, so refocusing at that end should also be on his list.

Young will have to be better, too. He had an awful series against the Heat. It happens to the best of them. It’s not an indictment of Young’s ability to take the Hawks places they’ve never been since moving to Atlanta. Nearly ever great player fails in the playoffs before they win big (LeBron James is, as usual, among the exceptions). However, the Heat series did highlight some of Young’s bad habits.

He tends to seek out mismatches at the expense of offensive flow. All players complain to officials, and Young’s gripes are sometimes legitimate, but he does it to the point of distraction. Young’s size means he’ll never be a great defender. He could much better. His smarts and feel for the game are reasons why he’s an elite offensive player. Young can use those same traits to become a defensive nuisance.

It’s up to Young to refine his game. He also needs more help.

You can ask Young to trust his teammates with the ball, but which of them have shown a consistent ability to go get baskets or set up teammates for easy scores? After the Heat eliminated the Hawks, Young said he’s willing to play off the ball more, but added that “it’s just really about putting in the right system for me to be off the ball, too.” Add that to coach Nate McMillan’s to-do list.

Young vows he’ll perform better the next time he’s in the playoffs. I don’t doubt it. Young has met every challenge so far in his young career. For his team to go further, Schlenk needs to add better players who fit the team’s needs. That’s the main lesson the Hawks should take from the Heat drubbing them from the playoffs a year after not winning a postseason game.