Much like the Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks were considered a team capable of contending for a playoff spot in the East in 2019-20 if everything broke their way.
In the summer of 2019, the Hawks added a pair of top 10 lottery picks in DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish to their young stars, Trae Young and John Collins, and many analysts predicted a double-digit increase over their win total from 2018-19.
But just five games into the season, Collins was hit with a 25 game suspension for violating the terms of the league’s drug policy, and the Hawks sank to the bottom of the conference standings. Atlanta did show some improvement after Collins returned, but they still owned the fourth-worst record in the NBA at 20-47 when the regular season was suspended.
Collins’ suspension was the biggest factor in the Hawks’ disappointing season, but the coaching staff didn’t get anywhere near the production they expected from Hunter and Reddish in their rookie seasons. Hunter started 62 of the 63 games he played in, averaging 12.3 points and 4.5 rebounds. But after leading Virginia to the national title in 2019, the rook didn’t shoot the ball as well as the Hawks expected, converting just 41% of his attempts from the field and 35.5% from 3 point range.
Reddish was even worse, falling out of the rotation at times because of his erratic play. The former Duke star shot just 38.4% from the field and 33.2% from long distance, though he did play better later in the season, averaging 16.4 points over his last 10 games and shooting 50% from the field (40% on 3s).
Young was an All-Star starter in his second NBA season, ranking among the league leaders in points and assists with averages of 29.6 and 9.3 respectively. Even while being forced to take so many difficult shots against double-teaming defenses, Young’s shooting percentages of 43.7 from the field and 36.1 on 3s were respectable.
The Hawks were also hoping second year guard Kevin Huerter would make a jump, but his development was slowed by injuries. Huerter started 48 of the 56 games he played, averaging 12.2 points per game, but he only shot 41.3% from the field.
The Hawks made a couple of trades before the deadline to try and shake up their underachieving roster. The biggest one netted shot-blocking, rim-running center Clint Capela from the Houston Rockets in a multi-team deal, and even though he never got a chance to play a game this season with the Hawks because of a foot injury, Capela should be a good fit with their young perimeter players.
The Hawks also re-acquired veteran center Dewayne Dedmon, who left the team in free agency the previous summer, and he fits the team’s style of play with his ability to knock down open 3s. The two big men should help stabilize a defense that was one of the NBA’s worst, giving up an average of 119.7 points per game. Atlanta is also excited about the potential of former Maryland big man Bruno Fernando, who played well in limited minutes during his rookie season.
The Hawks could go in a number of directions with their high lottery pick. They could pursue a new backcourt partner for Young with Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball potentially available. Or they might go for the best player on their draft board with forwards Isaac Okoro and Deni Avdija, and big men James Wiseman, Obi Toppin and Onyeka Okongwu among the players considered possible top five picks.
Atlanta is also projected to have approximately $49 million in cap space, giving them the ability to chase some of the bigger names available in a down year for free agents. Second-year coach Lloyd Pierce has made it clear he would like to add more veterans to the locker room to lessen the burden on Young to carry the load in just about every area.
Pierce made it clear he’s tired of losing, telling a selected group of reporters, including The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, in a recent Zoom interview session, “There’s going to be a major shift for our team going forward, and the focus starts with our core five and the evaluation is about each guy’s growth individually,” Pierce said. “I put it out there, and I stand behind my comments of we need to make a major jump next year.”
With Capela signed for the next three seasons, the Hawks should be a better defensive team going forward. The key will be be in the development of Hunter and Reddish, and finding a veteran or two to stabilize a young roster. Vince Carter is expected to retire, plus the Hawks aren’t likely to bring back veteran point guard Jeff Teague, so general manager Travis Schlenk will have to shop wisely with his cap space this off-season. Reserves DeAndre Bembry, Skal Labissiere and Damian Jones will all be restricted free agents.
Having two young stars like Young and Collins to build around is a huge plus, but player development and free agent success will be the key to the Hawks possibly making a playoff run next season.