The Atlanta Hawks begin their 82-game grind tonight in Detroit against the Pistons. For the first time in years, there is some national hype around these guys because of their young core. Many people are picking Atlanta to be the surprise of the Eastern Conference and even to make the playoffs after winning just 27 games last year. Their excitement is justified, but this remains an extremely young team with numerous flaws they have to fix from a year ago. Expectations must be tempered, or it is going to be much more difficult to enjoy what should be a magnificent 2019-2020 season.
Fixing defensive issues and turnovers
If you followed the Hawks last year, you know they were one of the worst defensive teams in the league. They finished 28th with a defensive rating of 113.1 – ahead of only the lowly Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers. Two things that attributed to that were turnovers and fastbreak points. They surrendered the most points off turnovers per game (21.1) by a wide margin and also gave up the most fastbreak points per game (16.5). In the preseason, the Hawks weren’t much better either. This is a trademark of a young team, but now that Atlanta has a year under their belt with each other, they must start moving forward in those areas. The positive way of looking at it: there is nowhere to go but up. The Hawks can be a substantially better team just by cutting down on their turnovers and focusing a little more on the defensive end.
Trae Young and John Collins All-Star bids
This duo burst onto the scene last year for Atlanta and are the primary reasons why people around the league think the Hawks are on the rise. Young put together one of the best seasons for a rookie point guard ever. Collins established himself as a player who could put up twenty points and ten rebounds on any given night.
A lot of the Hawks’ success this season will be based on the progression of these two. Can Young stay true to the player he was in the second half? Can he limit his turnovers and better himself on the defensive end? Will Collins develop a better one-on-one game and become more of a presence defensively? They both have the potential to become All-Stars as early as this season, and I’d bet at least one of them will be.
De’Andre Hunter establishes himself as a building block
As things stand now, the Hawks have two unquestioned building blocks for the future. Kevin Huerter has a chance to become another, as well as a few others, but I’m looking at De’Andre Hunter specifically. He’s fresh off winning a National Championship for Virginia, was the 4th overall pick, and has the ideal build and game for the NBA today. Hunter is a strong 6’7″ that can guard any position on the floor and shoot lights out from behind the arc. If he can develop other parts of his game, the sky is the limit. Lloyd Pierce has already said we’re going to love this kid, and I’m hoping he establishes himself as the third building block of the future of this organization. Of course, if Cam Reddish went off as a rookie, it would provide the same result, but I’m convinced Hunter has the potential to make a statement in year one.
The Hawks haven’t been shy about saying it; they believe it is playoffs or bust this season. I can’t argue with their aspirations. That should be the goal of every team in the NBA at the start of the year, and while their season won’t be a complete failure if they miss out on May basketball, they have the type of squad that can potentially take the next step forward.
I’ve already talked about Trae Young and John Collins. They are the catalysts of this rebuild, but they won’t be enough to carry this team to the postseason alone. Kevin Huerter needs to blossom into that third scoring option in the starting lineup. Hunter and Reddish must develop quickly. De’Andre Bembry has to turn into an anchor off the bench, and the Hawks need contributions from their new reserve pieces such as Jabari Parker, Allen Crabbe, and Evan Turner. Several things will need to go right, but the Hawks could make their return to the playoffs just two years removed from starting a complete rebuild. Kudos to Travis Schlenk if that happens.