Tuesday brought both great and awful news for the Atlanta Hawks.
On one hand, second-year guard Trae Young returned from the ankle sprain he suffered against the Miami Heat last week to guide Atlanta to an upset win over the San Antonio Spurs. He finished with a game-high 29 points on 10-of-23 shooting, 13 assists and five triples, punctuating his virtuoso performance by breaking LaMarcus Aldridge’s ankles twice on the same play.
As for the bad news: Third-year big man John Collins was suspended for 25 games for violating the league’s anti-drug policy. Collins told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that he took a supplement that had been unknowingly “contaminated with an illegal component”—In other words, the same excuse every athlete gives?—but he’s unlikely to win his appeal of the punishment on that grounds.
If the NBA does uphold Collins’ suspension, he’ll be out until Dec. 23. After the Hawks’ game Friday against the scuffling Sacramento Kings, they’re headed on a five-game Western Conference road trip to the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers (on a back-to-back, no less!).
In other words, Collins’ suspension came at a hardly ideal time for a young team hoping to get back to the NBA Playoffs after a couple years’ absense.
So, can Young help guide the young Hawks through these turbulent waters until Collins returns, or are their postseason hopes already on life support? The early returns are inconclusive.
One day after their win against the Spurs, the Hawks laid an egg at home against the disjointed Chicago Bulls in a 113-93 blowout. When asked afterward to identify some of the positives from the game, head coach Lloyd Pierce replied:
"There were some bright spots."
Lloyd Pierce: "No, there weren't."
"What were some of the positives?"
Lloyd Pierce: "That the game is over." pic.twitter.com/F6SPeed3wB
— FOX Sports: Hawks (@HawksOnFSSE) November 7, 2019
It’s difficult to draw grand conclusions about the 3-4 Hawks two-and-a-half weeks into the 2019-20 season. Beyond their loss Wednesday against the Bulls, they dropped a pair of games against the Heat—one of which Young missed, and the other of which he left early after spraining his ankle—and blew a 13-point lead against the Philadelphia 76ers at home. Meanwhile, they have wins over the Spurs, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic.
Young has been sensational in the early goings, averaging a team-high 24.2 points on 46.2 percent shooting, 7.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 3.2 triples across his first six games. Remove the game he left early against Miami, and he’s at 28.0 points on 46.5 percent shooting, 8.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 treys over the remaining five outings.
He’s been doing his best Stephen Curry impersonation, too.
Young ranks third league-wide in made shots at least 27 feet away from the basket (eight), trailing only Portland’s Damian Lillard (16) and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (nine). In Atlanta’s win over the Pistons, he hit three shots from 30-plus feet away.
That type of shooting range stretches defenses beyond their breaking point, as they’re forced to guard Young out so far behind the three-point line, thereby opening passing lanes and cutting opportunities for teammates. Young’s elite vision and passing ability have helped him boost his assist percentage from 40.5 percent as a rookie to 48.7 this season, the third-highest mark league-wide behind only LeBron James and Derrick Rose.
The Hawks will only go as far as Young takes them—and that holds true even upon Collins’ return—but he can’t single-handedly keep them afloat for the next month-and-a-half.
Luckily, Jabari Parker has been up for the challenge thus far.
The 2014 No. 2 overall pick has averaged 15.1 points on a career-high 56.0 percent shooting through his first seven games with the Hawks. Over the past two contests, he’s even moved into the starting lineup to replace Collins.
Defense remains a concern with Parker, as the Hawks have allowed 2.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with him off the floor. However, they’ve scored 7.0 more points per 100 possessions with the former No. 2 pick than without.
With Collins sidelined, Parker can play exclusively as a small-ball 4 rather than an ill-fitting 3, which is what caused his tenure with the Chicago Bulls to go belly-up after only 39 games last season before he was dumped to the Washington Wizards. (He had more productive seasons to start his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, albeit injury-shortened and “tweener” marred.)
Parker isn’t likely to lock down elite wings like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Hawks can give those assignments to rookie De’Andre Hunter and spare Parker from getting roasted.
In the meantime, Parker can now moonlight as Atlanta’s clear No. 2 offensive option behind Young—a role he’s been well-equipped for since starring at Duke.
The Hawks will need more out of their supporting cast in Collins’ absence, too.
Rookie forward Cam Reddish is shooting only 24.6 percent from the field, while sophomore sharpshooter Kevin Huerter hasn’t been much better at 34.7 percent overall and 26.9 from three-point range. Collins was the team’s second-leading three-point shooter at 1.8 makes per game (at a 47.4 percent clip!), and Atlanta is currently 26th in made triples and 29th in shooting percentage from deep.
Outside of Young and Huerter, the Hawks don’t have many reliable long-range threats. The latter figures to regress positively toward the 38.5 percent three-point clip that he buried as a rookie, but Atlanta still may need to grow another bomber, to steal a phrase from Sixers head coach Brett Brown.
To stay afloat without Collins, the Hawks must handle business against fellow middle-of-the-rung teams at the very least. That starts with Friday’s game against Sacramento, but it extends to upcoming matchups against the Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers later this month.
The Hawks’ schedule softens considerably in December outside of games against the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz. They kick off the month against the Golden State MASH Units and face the Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks before Collins’ return.
This upcoming five-game road trip out West is unlikely to be kind to the Hawks, which will put them in an early playoff hunt hole.
Fortunately, Atlanta’s top competitors for the final few seeds in the Eastern Conference bracket have likewise gotten off to slow starts this season. Between the Orlando Magic’s anemic offense, the Bulls’ inability to hold a fourth-quarter lead and the Pacers’ mounting injuries, the Hawks might not have to make up all that much ground even if they do get clobbered for the next few weeks.
Given Young’s ability to single-handedly take over games, Parker’s encouraging start to the season and the likelihood of the supporting cast performing better moving forward, the Hawks should have an opportunity to stay within reach of the postseason hunt even without Collins.
Just don’t expect this next week-and-a-half out West to treat them kindly, which may put that much more pressure on them to take off as soon as he’s back.
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.