This could be a franchise-altering offseason for the Hawks, who have plenty of decisions to make regarding the future of their roster. They have a legitimate star in Trae Young. They have intriguing role players who could fit with Young, but the playoffs showed it’s a flawed roster.
There’s been a lot of talk from both Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk and owner Tony Ressler on this season being a disappointment and how they’ll look to improve for next season.
To analyze the state of the Hawks, senior NBA writer John Hollinger, who was the Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball operations from 2012-19, and Hawks beat writer Chris Kirschner discussed Atlanta’s offseason priorities, its roster-building decisions, what to make of the core, free agency and trades they could make.
Let’s get to Part 1 of this two-part series. The second part of the conversation will run on Thursday.
Chris Kirschner: Atlanta’s season, coming off a run to the Eastern Conference finals, did not go according to plan in many ways. The Hawks started 4-9 after some bizarre play in those first few games where their identity was all over the place, stunning people inside and outside the organization. (Does anyone remember how many midrange jumpers they were settling for? Trae Young said the regular season was a lot more boring than the playoffs.) Atlanta lost 10 games in a row at home at one point. They had two different seven-game winning streaks. There just was no consistency all season long. Kevin Huerter summed it up perfectly to me near the end of the season, saying this year felt like a season-long climb out of a hole they could never get out of.
The Hawks’ season ended unceremoniously in Miami on a play where they couldn’t even get up a shot to potentially save their season, which was quite fitting for how the Heat defended them throughout the series.
Young, in particular, was surprisingly held in check all series long outside of a good fourth quarter in Game 3. I think we have to start by analyzing him because he’s the heart of this team. From what you saw out of him against Miami — on both ends of the floor — does it at all change your long-term evaluation of him and how the Hawks should build the roster around him?
John Hollinger: Not really. Young was pretty shockingly bad, to the point that I wondered if there was an undisclosed injury, but I also think it spoke to the limitations of the rest of the roster. The Heat could completely load up on stopping Trae and didn’t have to worry a lot about anyone else, especially once Bogdan Bogdanovic’s knee troubles flared up again at the end of the series. A healthy John Collins might have made a difference, but in the bigger picture, the Hawks need their players at the two, three and four to be more consistently threatening.
Also, this is more of a playoff concern than a regular-season one. In the big picture, Atlanta still had the league’s second-best offense with Young at the controls. The fact the Hawks still barely won half their games was because of the defense.
Kirschner: I think the entire Miami series exposed each of Atlanta’s flaws. I thought it was clear from the very beginning that the Hawks needed a go-to secondary option who could consistently break down guys off the dribble, and they simply need better role players.
Knowing how Young operates, he’s going to use this series as the blueprint for what he needs to get better. I’m not worried about him figuring it out. What I do worry about is Young still being engaged in games when things aren’t going his way. He’s expected to be the leader of this team. He has to do a better job at leading moving forward.
Switching gears to the Game 5 breakout player for the Hawks: the pride and joy of your Virginia Cavaliers, De’Andre Hunter. He scored 36 in the team’s closeout game and was the reason why the Hawks had a chance to win on the road. He’s extension-eligible this offseason, and I would be quite surprised to see Hunter and the Hawks agree to a deal unless it’s ultra team-friendly. He was beyond disappointing this season after coming off two meniscus surgeries and a wrist surgery in-season.
Hunter admitted in exit interviews that he feels like he’s not yet great in any one area, and that’s something I’ve been saying all season long. He certainly had his moments where he was a lockdown defender, but he was mostly OK on that end. He doesn’t pass well. He doesn’t rebound well. He doesn’t score at the rim well. Really, the one area where he excelled this season was shooting 3s. Maybe a healthy offseason can be the difference for him, because I thought he was exceptional to start last season before he got hurt.
Someone brought this up in my mailbag last week: His Game 5 performance was similar to Cam Reddish’s Game 6 last season against the Bucks. Those who didn’t watch the Hawks closely enough marveled over Reddish’s potential when he was well below average almost all season, and the same is happening now with Hunter, who didn’t perform as poorly as Reddish but was mostly a below-average starter this season.
So, a two-part question for you. First, what’s your evaluation of Hunter and how would you handle his extension? Do you believe in his long-term fit with the Hawks? Second, how should we evaluate how Schlenk handled the 2019 draft? They had two top-10 picks; one of them is already off the roster, and Hunter mostly has been disappointing or injured, and lest we forget that the Hawks gave up a haul to move up to No. 4.
Hollinger: There are two separate questions regarding Hunter and an extension. First, what is the state of his game? And second, what is the state of his knee? Extending him for multiple years after the next one requires a leap of faith that he can stay reasonably healthy for the next decade or so. Schlenk will need to get good answers from the trainers and medical staff on the probability of Hunter playing out that deal.
As to his level of play, while that Game 5 against Miami was encouraging, that’s not who he was in the other 57 games he played. Statistically and from the eye test, he looked like a minimum guy for long stretches. While he has the theoretical size-defense-shooting package to be a plus 3-and-D wing, he’s only really showed that for the one stretch at the start of the 2020-21 season. He’s a poor ballhandler, and his shooting is iffier than promised (35.9 percent from 3), while his defense is more “good for a Hawk” than truly impactful.
As a result, I agree that I don’t see a resolution on an extension. There is no reason for Hunter to lock in a low number and no reason for the Hawks to commit to a higher one, even setting aside the knee issues. Because of restricted free agency, the Hawks should be in a good position to retain him next summer if he proves he’s worth paying. Additionally, not paying him makes it easier to put him in a trade, which the Hawks need to be open-minded about since Schlenk and Ressler have made no secret of their desires to pursue upgrades.
As for the bigger question of the 2019 draft, I wasn’t a big fan of the move at the time, and we’re seeing it now in how the deal played out. I watched a ton of UVA games that year as we rolled to the national title (had to get that in there) and never saw the type of high-end upside in Hunter that would lead one to take him in the top five.
It was an expensive trade-up, too, costing the Hawks pick Nos. 8, 17 and 35 in that 2019 draft, two future seconds and taking on the $12 million in dead-ish money on the last year of Solomon Hill’s deal. Trading up always costs more than the sum of whatever you think the pick values might be, because that’s usually what it takes to compel the other side to action. But even allowing for that, this was an overpay. In 20-20 hindsight, the Hawks would have been much better off taking either Tyler Herro or P.J. Washington at eight, and one of Brandon Clarke, Keldon Johnson or Grant Williams at 17. (While we’re here and being snarky, taking Daniel Gafford instead of Bruno Fernando also might have helped.)
Of course, you can do that with any draft: There will almost always be somebody taken later who turned out better. The real, underlying story is that Schlenk reached because he wasn’t going to take Darius Garland with Trae here and was underwhelmed by his other non-Hunter options. The fact that players like Jarrett Culver, Coby White, Rui Hachimura, Jaxson Hayes and Reddish were the next five non-Garland players taken after Hunter at least redeems that point.
It’s also fair to point that the three players New Orleans selected with Atlanta’s picks in 2019 aren’t exactly setting the world on fire (Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who was eventually traded to Utah, and Didi Louzada) … except that the Hawks also gave up a future pick in that trade the Pelicans eventually used to draft Herb Jones at 35 in 2021. Ooopsie. (There is one pick still left to resolve that trade, the 47th pick in 2022 that currently belongs to Memphis.)
Kirschner: I don’t think I realized until you said it that the Pelicans used one of those second-round picks they got from the Hawks on Jones. Yikes. I think Jones is already a better individual defender than Hunter, which is not great. I think the 2019 draft as a whole has been an under-discussed point when it comes to Atlanta’s roster around Young, because none of those guys panned out as expected. I still believe in Hunter and feel like this offseason is a critical one for his development, but there’s a long way to go in becoming the player we saw at the start of the 2020 season.
That brings me to my next point. How do you feel about the core of this roster? Of course, this group was just two wins away from the NBA Finals last season, but it does feel like that might’ve been the best possible outcome for the Young-Huerter-Hunter-Collins core.
Obviously Young is here to stay, so let’s keep him out of this conversation. But around Young, is there anyone on this roster who you’d be extremely hesitant in moving from? We can include Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu in the mix here, too, because they have both shown importance the past two seasons.
Hollinger: I didn’t think there is one player on this roster that I would consider untouchable. The Hawks have to get better on defense and have to add at least another reliable wing creator to take some of the load off Trae. Bogdanovic was brought in to be that guy — and often has been — but his knee issues are becoming worrisome enough to wonder how long that can continue.
Really, if there was a high-level wing or combo forward on the table, who would you say “no way” to on including? Even with Capela and Okongwu, the fact the Hawks have both makes it much easier to trade one of them.
Instead of declaring somebody off limits, let me say something else: I do think the Hawks need to be a bit careful about throwing Collins out with the bathwater. He’s not a superstar, but he does a lot of things well, fills a few different niches depending on need and is entering his age-25 season.
Kirschner: To your last point, this is what I said Monday in my story on predicting who stays and who goes: “Collins is the ultimate team guy and someone any franchise should want to have on its roster.” He puts up efficient numbers every season, can pick-and-pop at a high level and has turned into a good defender. But if the Hawks have a desire to get a second star in Atlanta, Collins might have to be in the deal, because he’s valuable and you usually have to part with a good player in those kinds of trades. Ideally, he could still be a part of the team moving forward, but it might be tough.
This is a good point to pause our conversation, because we will discuss how the Hawks might look to upgrade the roster.
(Photo of Trae Young: Jasen Vinlove / USA Today)