Having lost 18 of their past 20 games, the Atlanta Hawks appear to be nearing rock bottom.
“Frustration in the locker room has been building for some time as teammates have complained to each other about selfishness, not putting in the necessary work to turn things around and players not being held accountable,” Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported on Dec. 18. “A true vocal leader who commands the respect of his peers is missing from the roster, sources said.”
While head coach Lloyd Pierce is not on the hot seat at the moment, that could change “if the Hawks’ play and attitude continue to erode,” per Haynes.
Although the Hawks’ frustration is understandable given their dismal start to the season, they should resist the temptation to pull the trigger on panic moves. Third-year big man John Collins will return Monday from his 25-game suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug program, and Atlanta’s long-term trajectory still appears bright.
In his five games before getting suspended, Collins averaged 17.0 points on 52.5 percent shooting, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. The Hawks have been 8.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court this season, which is the highest mark of any rotation player (albeit in the smallest sample size).
During Collins’ absence, star point guard Trae Young has been forced to shoulder too much of the Hawks’ offensive burden on his own. He’s averaging a preposterous 29.0 points on 44.4 percent shooting—including 36.7 percent from deep on 9.3 attempts per game!—to go with 8.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 35.5 minutes.
However, Jabari Parker and rookie forward De’Andre Hunter are the only two other Hawks players averaging more than nine points per game at the moment.
Second-year sharpshooter Kevin Huerter has already missed 11 games because of a shoulder injury and started the season on a minutes restriction. He’s showing signs of life lately—scoring 31 points on 11-of-27 shooting against the New York Knicks and Utah Jazz this week—which should help give Young some much-needed help offensively moving forward.
Meanwhile, No. 10 overall pick Cam Reddish has carried his underwhelming play from Duke over to the NBA, where he’s averaging only 8.5 points on 32.5 percent shooting in 25.8 minutes per game. Both he and Hunter, this year’s No. 4 overall pick, have player efficiency ratings south of 10 and negative marks in win shares per 48 minutes.
When Collins returns and Huerter rounds back into form, Hunter and Reddish will slide into more complementary roles on offense, which should better suit them at this developmental stage of their careers. Even though both have struggled through the first two months of the season, it’s premature to give up on either.
The Hawks do eventually need to find a frontcourt complement to Collins, as Alex Len, Damian Jones and rookie center Bruno Fernando aren’t the long-term answers. They also need a true backup point guard rather than the motley assortment of Evan Turner, De’Andre Bembry and Reddish that they’ve been trotting out.
The Hawks may seek to rectify at least one of those needs prior to the NBA’s Feb. 6 trade deadline.
After their 130-118 home loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 4, “one high-ranking team official was seen telling Young that the team would be getting him some help on the roster soon,” according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
Charania didn’t list specific targets, but the Hawks have reportedly discussed Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams as one such possibility, according to Chris Kirschner of The Athletic. The 26-year-old, who is averaging 11.1 points on 62.1 percent shooting and 9.6 rebounds in 27.4 minutes per game, is owed $25.8 million this season and $27.5 million in 2020-21.
Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond could be another logical target for Atlanta if the Pistons decide to shop him. He’s posting career highs in both points (17.7) and rebounds (16.4) per game, which all but assures that he’ll turn down his $28.8 million player option for 2020-21 to become one of the NBA’s top free agents in July.
The Hawks have the expiring contracts of Chandler Parsons ($25.1 million), Turner ($18.6 million) and Allen Crabbe ($18.5 million) to use as salary-matching ammunition in trades. They could also dangle the lottery-protected first-round picks they’re owed from the Brooklyn Nets in 2020 and Oklahoma City Thunder in 2022, and they have all of their own first-round picks moving forward as well.
As such, it’s easier for the Hawks than many other teams to cobble together potential trade packages for Adams, Drummond or other players on hefty deals. However, the Hawks should be picky about who they go after on the trade market.
While they may feel tempted to go after a splashy name, prioritizing players on similar developmental timelines to Young, Collins, Huerter and the rest of their young core is far more important.
Since Adams and Drummond are both 26 and would fill a glaring need at center, they’re reasonable trade targets, even if the spacing issues they could create with Collins should give some pause. Collins would have to prioritize adding range to his game, and the Hawks would need to be willing to re-sign Drummond this summer even if he commands a max contract. (Though that shouldn’t be a huge issue with $62 million coming off their books in Parsons, Turner and Crabbe.)
However, going after someone like a 31-year-old Kevin Love or a 34-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge would make far less sense.
Sure, both bigs have plenty of playoff experience and should be able to command respect in the Hawks’ young locker room as a result. But the Hawks need to consider the trajectory of their centerpieces when evaluating potential trade targets. When Young, Collins and Huerter enter their primes, will Aldridge or Love still be productive enough to justify their bloated salaries?
Going after age-appropriate players on the trade market is imperative for a Hawks squad that remains in the beginning stages of a rebuild. As bleak as this season may seem thus far, Collins’ return should give them a swift kick in the pants moving forward.
If the Hawks add another top-10 pick and/or their mid-first-rounder (via Brooklyn) to the mix next year, they might have one of the league’s most impressive collections of young players. They also have plenty of financial flexibility moving forward, as both Young and Huerter won’t be eligible to sign extensions until the summer of 2021.
That gives the Hawks a two-year window to acquire the type of complementary veteran talent that they’re lacking at the moment.
Although they may feel the urge to expedite their rebuild in the face of a disappointing skid—this was considered a playoff-possible team in the preseason, after all—patience is the more prudent approach.
Leveraging the expiring contracts of Parsons, Turner and Crabbe to accumulate more assets or acquire players in their mid-20s who have no future with their current teams would set the Hawks up far better than going after win-now 30-somethings and still missing the postseason anyway.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.