Few teams had a more disappointing season than the Hawks. Fresh off a trip to the conference finals, expectations were sky-high in and around the building. Fans and ownership alike were hopeful for another deep playoff run, but instead, they got an inconsistent and underperforming product that ended in a first round exit.
The Hawks started off sluggish, which was only compounded when Trae Young said the regular season was boring. Atlanta lost ten straight home games at one point, and the team struggled to establish an identity.
It wasn’t until after the All-Star break that the Hawks seemed to find a sense of urgency, but it was too little too late. The Hawks were unable to pull themselves out of the play-in tournament before the postseason, and even though Atlanta topped the inexperienced Hornets and Cavaliers, the series against the Heat was a microcosm of the season.
Trae Young was a non-factor and had the worst five-game stretch since his rookie year. Miami’s suffocating defense forced the Hawks’ supporting cast to step up, which didn’t happen. Atlanta didn’t have the go-to secondary option to alleviate the pressure of their star point guard, but it wasn’t just the offense. The Hawks’ defense was non-existent for much of the series. And to make matters worst, in the final seconds of Game 5, Atlanta wasn’t even able to get a shot off. It was the perfect bow on a terrible season.
Tony Ressler and Travis Schlenk spoke on the disappointing product put on the floor, and Hawks fans can expect significant changes this summer. “We made the decision last year to run the same group back and we probably should have tried to upgrade as opposed to stay status quo,” Schlenk stated. “The way the season ended we’re going to try to upgrade the roster moving forward into next season.” With upgrades comes the potential for a higher payroll, but that isn’t scaring off ownership. “Going into the tax doesn’t scare us,” Ressler said.
Even though the Hawks have obvious needs for defensive upgrades and another star to pair with Trae Young, they’re in an excellent position to improve the roster. The team is still financially flexible despite handing out lucrative contracts to Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Clint Capela. Besides the need for an influx of talent, on the list of to-do’s for Schlenk is De’Andre Hunter‘s looming contract extension, which will surely be a hot topic this offseason.
Hunter was supremely disappointing this season outside of a heroic performance in Game 5. The Virginia product dropped 36 in the team’s closeout game and was the only reason the Hawks had a chance to push it to Game 6. He’s extension-eligible this offseason coming off three surgeries — one on his wrist and two on his meniscus.
However, the Game 5 performance was an anomaly; it isn’t who Hunter has been for most of his career. He’s an average defender at best and a poor ballhandler. His shot from beyond the arc was decent this year, but the rest of his game is mediocre.
The former fourth overall pick averaged 13.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 44.2% from the field and 37.9% from beyond the arc. Hunter’s performance against Miami in the playoffs was atypical — averaging 21.2 points and 3.8 rebounds per game on 55.7% shooting from the field and 46.2% from three-point range.
Hunter’s three seasons in the NBA have been a roller coaster. His rookie season ended due to the pandemic, his second year was hampered by knee surgeries, and the most recent season was riddled with inconsistent play. Given all of these factors, I think it’s unlikely the Hawks and Hunter hammer out an extension unless it’s extremely team-friendly.
It doesn’t make sense for either side. Hunter should bet on himself this year, and the Hawks shouldn’t lock him in at an unreasonable price point. He’s a restricted free agent next offseason, so Atlanta should be able to retain him if he proves worthy this upcoming season. The Hawks could even look to move Hunter, which would get more complicated if they handed him a new contract.
Schlenk has done a masterful job remaining flexible, and I don’t expect things to change. Hunter will look to prove himself this season, similarly to John Collins during the Hawks’ magical playoff run.