Coming into the season, all the talk around the Hawks was about sneaking back into the playoffs. Following a stretch of ten straight postseason appearances, Atlanta has been eliminated in April the past two years – thanks to a complete rebuild that saw everyone from their once 60-win squad (2014-2015) eventually depart. However, a strong finish to last season gave this new, youthful bunch enough confidence to believe they were on the right path to competing for a playoff spot in year three. And it wasn’t just the players. Several analysts picked this team to surprise and overachieve, mostly because of their budding duo of Trae Young and John Collins. But after 28 games, it is time for everybody to re-evaluate the Hawks’ goals.
If last night’s 143-120 loss to the pitiful New York Knicks was not a wake-up call, I’m not sure anything is going to do it for this group. Atlanta solidified themselves as the worst team in the Eastern Conference behind the one thing that has plagued the Hawks dating back to last year – porous defense.
The Knicks, who have been a stepping stone for even the worst NBA teams this season, dropped a season-high in points by a large margin. New York was only averaging 101 points per game heading into last night, easily the worst mark in the league. That number is now up to 102.7 per contest – still ranking last in basketball. The Hawks made R.J. Barrett and Mitchell Robinson look like prime Shaq and Kobe. They had no answers for anybody on the Knicks roster defensively – a trend that is not going to stop when John Collins returns.
The Hawks rank 30th in opponent’s points in the paint, 30th in defensive rebound %, 27th in opponent’s points off turnovers, 26th in opponent’s second-chance points, and have a miserable defensive rating of 114.4 – tied for last in the league. For a coach that was regarded as defensive-minded before heading to Atlanta, Lloyd Pierce’s squad is the worst defensive team in basketball, and they have only regressed over his tenure.
Now, I’m not going to be one of those ridiculous talking heads that suggests Coach Pierce should be fired. That is an absurd proposition, just look at the players he has been handed. The fact of the matter is, despite a talent such as Trae Young, this roster was put together to lose ball games, which is probably why Young has exhibited frustration several times postgame.
Travis Schlenk will never admit it because no GM could get away with doing so, but you don’t take on the abysmal contracts of Chandler Parsons, Evan Tuner, and Allen Crabbe for picks if you’re trying to put together a winning basketball team. All of those moves were made with the future in mind, knowing that the 2019-2020 season is not the ultimate goal, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But let’s call a spade a spade, even if the players are giving it their all on the floor, they’ve been put in a position where failure is almost certainly their only option. The Hawks are a tanking team, which is why the playoffs were always a pipe dream with this group.
John Collins returns from his 25-game suspension after the next two contests. His presence will help Atlanta immensely, especially offensively. But defensively, this remains a lost squad with no reason for hope. Collins is a decent defender at times. However, not enough of one to create some sort of seismic shift. Even when he returns to the floor, the Hawks are going to have problems they won’t be able to overcome.
The focus of the team this year was always going to be about the youth improving. If you were hoping for more as a fan, you were a bit delusional in your expectations. But that also might be the most discouraging part of this group thus far.
For a team that was supposed to have several blossoming talents, only Trae Young has shown any progress. John Collins can’t be judged yet, but his 25-game suspension also should not be overlooked. Unfortunately, Kevin Huerter has missed a lot of time as well with an injury. But even when he’s been out there, he doesn’t look much different than the player that took the floor a year ago. De’Andre Hunter has had his flashes, and I think he’ll develop into a fantastic option, but nobody will call Cam Reddish’s start to his NBA career promising.
The most significant issue through 28 games isn’t the Hawks 6-22 record; it’s the lack of progress from their young talent. This roster should not have been expected to win more than 40 games, but it was reasonable to forecast John Collins making the All-Star team and Kevin Huerter budding into a reliable third option on both sides of the ball. Those things haven’t happened, and the rookies are not off to stellar starts either.
The progress of Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish was always how this season was going to be defined, and so far, it’s challenging to give them anything other than a D+ at best, which is carried purely by Young’s transformation into a bonafide superstar. It’s time for the rest of the guys to start carrying their weight over the final 50+ games. If not, the Hawks will have tons of intriguing decisions to make this offseason.