Trades make Hawks better but still not good enough to beat East’s best

070122 Atlanta, Ga.: Atlanta Hawks general manager Landry Fields. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

070122 Atlanta, Ga.: Atlanta Hawks general manager Landry Fields. (Jason Getz /

It has been clear to me for a while now how this Hawks season will play out. Assuming they make the playoff field, the Hawks will draw the Celtics, Bucks, 76ers or Nets. That’s where the season ends. The first round is the ceiling.

The trades the Hawks made before Thursday’s NBA deadline didn’t change my outlook. The Hawks have a better bench after adding wing players Saddiq Bey and Garrison Mathews and center Bruno Fernando. The Hawks still aren’t good enough to knock off the East’s top teams unless they reach a sustained level of play that we’ve yet to see.

But the new players should help the Hawks finish at least sixth in the Eastern Conference and avoid the play-in tournament. The Hawks began Thursday three games behind the Heat for that slot. If they make the playoffs, then the Hawks now have a better shot of upsetting Boston, Milwaukee or Philadelphia. And the Nets no longer are a worry after they traded superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Hawks general manager Landy Fields didn’t execute a trade that makes the Hawks a true contender. That was unlikely after the Hawks surrendered three first-round draft picks for Dejounte Murray last summer. That left Fields with little draft-pick capital. Then he found a soft market for forward John Collins before the trade deadline.

Fields did the next best thing to making another big splash. He improved the roster without giving up much or ballooning future payroll.

The Hawks acquired Bey from Detroit in a three-team deal that cost them five second-round picks. Fields traded wing player Justin Holliday and center Frank Kaminsky along with two second-round picks to Houston for Mathews and Fernando.

Fields said the three new players fit “what we’re defining (as) what it means to be a Hawk.”

“Guys that are competitive, guys that bring us versatility, guys that love the game and work hard. We found that in all those guys. They all have their different toles and things that do make them special individually.”

The Hawks sent away two players who weren’t part of coach Nate McMillan’s playing rotation and a bushel of second-round picks. In return, they acquired at least one player who should get regular minutes, Bey. Mathews might also earn a role because he’s a solid defender. Both Mathews and Bey are good 3-point shooters, another weak area for the Hawks.

The Hawks were short on rotation-quality wing players before this trade. Now they are deep behind Murray and De’Andre Hunter with Bogdan Bogdanovic, AJ Griffin, Bey and Mathews. McMillan can deploy lineups that emphasize outside shooting or defense. Hunter and Bey can play power forward as part of small lineups.

The Hawks also needed more rebounding and rim protection. Fernando isn’t the answer. He has the size (6-foot-9, 240 pounds), but the only time Fernando has earned regular playing time was for the tanking Hawks in 2019-20. Fernando is back in Atlanta after stops in Boston and Houston.

The Hawks remain in no-man’s land. The payroll is pushing up against the luxury-tax line and the results have them headed for the play-in. If they are going to do better than that, then improvement will have to happen internally. After Thursday, the Hawks will have 26 games to make a move after failing to do so over the previous 56.

The Hawks are healthier than they’ve been all season, yet they’re still treading water. The defense remains substandard even after backstop Clint Capela returned to the lineup. Murray and Young continue to lapse into bad decision-making at winning time.

The Hawks followed last month’s five-game win streak with six losses in their next nine games. There are excuses available should they want to use them. Seven of those games were on the road and Young didn’t play in two of the losses. But good teams win more than they lose, even under difficult circumstances.

Young said he believes the Hawks will hit their stride late in the season because “we’ve done it before.”

“I’ve got belief in myself and my teammates that we can do it again,” Young said.

The Hawks will try to do better against a difficult closing schedule. There’s an opportunity for them to move up if they can get it together.

The Hawks have just 10 road games left. They’ll play seven against teams that currently stand fourth through seventh in the East: one against the Knicks and two each versus the Cavaliers, Nets and Heat. That’s a lot of chances to gain a full game in the standings.

None of those teams improved their roster with a major trade before the deadline. The Knicks acquired guard Josh Hart from Portland for Cam Reddish. The Cavs traded for All-Star Donovan Mitchell in September and didn’t make another more before the deadline. The Heat didn’t acquire a player with an in-season trade.

The Hawks got better. They still would have little chance against Boston or Milwaukee in a seven-game series if those teams are at full strength. The Celtics are the most complete team in the East. The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Hawks would need a lot of things to go right to beat Philadelphia in the playoffs. The Sixers were one of the teams the Hawks beat on the way to the 2021 East finals. These aren’t the same Sixers.

Ben Simmons was Philly’s point guard then. He’s a playmaker who no longer shoots or drives to the basket. James Harden is the 76ers’ point guard now. He’s a playmaker who scores efficiently at a high rate. Harden and Joel Embiid form a terrific tandem for the Sixers.

At least the Hawks got the Nets out of the way. Brooklyn abandoned its superstar experiment after getting little results from it. Two years ago, the Nets assembled a super team by acquiring Harden to join Durant and Irving. Last year they swapped Harden for Simmons. Now the Nets are down to just Simmons.

The Hawks are better than Brooklyn after the trade deadline. They have a better chance to make the playoffs and will be a tougher out should they get there. That’s probably the best the Hawks could hope for under the circumstances.