You can only look at the 2019-20 NBA regular season as a disappointment for the Atlanta Hawks. Although still very young, Atlanta was projected to take a leap as a team and at least make noise as a team outside looking in on the playoffs. However, they were far from that. Atlanta was the 14th ranked team in the Eastern Conference and produced a bottom five offensive and defensive rating. To put it simply, they seemingly hit rock bottom.
However, what’s the best thing about hitting rock bottom? There’s only one way to go: up. The Hawks are young, yet talented, and have combined this young talent with veterans who know what it takes to win. It’s clear that the organization – from the ownership to the front office to the players – have committed to the present. All of the ingredients are there; now it’s time to see if Atlanta can find a winning recipe.
Flashback to the 2018 NBA Draft. The Hawks held the 3rd overall pick while the Mavericks held the 5th overall pick. The two teams made a trade that sent 5th and a first round pick that later turned out to be Cam Reddish for the 3rd overall pick. The Mavericks used that pick to select NBA superstar Luka Doncic, while the Atlanta Hawks used their pick to select Trae Young.
Despite leading the nation in both points per game and assists per game, Young had his skeptics. He was undersized even as a point guard, played absolutely no defense, and took a lot of bad shots in his one year at Oklahoma. He was the easily the most polarizing player in the draft that could either be looked at as the next Stephen Curry or the next Jimmer Fredette.
Well, he quickly shut his critics up. After a somewhat slow start to his rookie year, Young exploded in the second half of the season and was so good that some people started pining for him to win Rookie of the Year over fellow rookie star Luka Doncic. The hype for Trae Young was very, very real, and people were excited to see how he would improve in his second year in the league. Once again, he smashed expectations and became one of just two people to produce a top five season in both PPG and APG. He was also named an NBA All-Star Starter.
Yet, there are still people who discredit him for his flaws. He’s a porous defender – no one is debating that. When you combine his lack of size, athleticism, and effort, you can see why he’s a historically bad defender. However, his offensive impact is statistically one of the highest in the NBA. His ability to score from everywhere on great efficiency and make his teammates better with his passing ability is the reason for that. His defense is unquestionably bad, but you certainly aren’t doing yourselves any favors by surrounding him with multiple questionable defenders. The Hawks best statistical defender was Dewayne Dedmon, who didn’t even play a full season for them and didn’t receive many minutes when he was with the team.
Surrounding the worst defender in the league with terrible defenders was never going to work, especially when the offense isn’t making up for it. The Hawks didn’t have the talent on either end of the court to succeed last year and people who were somewhat high on them skipped over that. That’s not the case this year, as the Hawks finally have the talent both offensively and defensively to really raise the number in the win column.
You knew what you were going to get with Kris Dunn in the 2016 NBA Draft. He was a hard-nosed, committed defender who had terrific instincts. However, the offensive upside was a question mark due to his streaky jumper and age. Well, that’s exactly the kind of player Dunn has turned out to be. He posted his best defensive season of his career last year and was arguably the biggest snub for the NBA All-Defensive teams. His offensive stats aren’t pretty, but his defensive impact as a guard is very real.
Peanut butter and jelly, popcorn and a movie, Trae Young and Kris Dunn. Three of the greatest pairs in the world because they compliment each other extremely well. Young is a sharpshooter, shot creator who can’t play any defense at all. Dunn is a lockdown defender who doesn’t provide much if any offensive value. It’s a match made in heaven. These are the kinds of players that Trae Young needs to be surrounded by: defense-first players who play their role to perfection.
Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo both served as integral pieces for their respective teams in the 2019-20 NBA season. Gallinari was a sharpshooting stretch big who averaged a very efficient 19 PPG for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Rondo was a near liability in the regular season, but he showed up for them in the playoffs and has a steller combination of playmaking and defense off the bench. Having a plethora of young talent is never a bad thing in today’s NBA. But the veteran players with playoff experience and years of consistent production do truly make an impact. Some point to Ja Morant as the true “culture-changer” for the Memphis Grizzlies last season, but Chris Vernon of the Ringer said that it was really vets like Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill who set the tone for the youngsters.
The Hawks weren’t done yet either. They added Serbian shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic for a four year, 72 million dollar contract. Bogdanovic was a pleasant surprise in the bubble and provides good shooting, scoring, and shot creation for any team. You can plug him in to the starting lineup or keep him off the bench and he’ll play his role to the best of his capabilities.
They’ve got veterans to help win games and provide a winning culture but these veterans are also really good players. Gallinari is a near 20 PPG scorer and shoots the lights out from distance. Dunn provides elite perimeter defense, Rondo provides great playmaking, and Bogdanovic brings great scoring and shooting. The Hawks have put an emphasis on versatility both offensively and defensively with these additions, and that is what’s going to help them win.
But are these young guys outside of Trae Young actually ready for winning basketball? How many of these guys are truly battle tested? They’ve done a great job at finding talent in the lottery and outside the lottery, but there are guys that need to step up and start impacting winning very soon.
One of the guys I’m really fond of is Cam Reddish. Reddish started off the year really rough and it took him a while to adjust to the pace and physicality of the NBA. However, he really started to surge towards the end of the season. In the month of March before the world shut down, Reddish averaged 17.5 PPG on 55/48/86 shooting splits. Looking at his month-by-month production, Reddish made stride after stride and looked like a completely different player at the end of the year. Could this signal a full-on breakout in 2021? I absolutely think so. He’s got the shot creation, three point shooting, and defensive instincts to be an All-Star type player at his peak, and I truly think he could emerge as the 2nd best player on this Hawks roster.
John Collins and Clint Capela aren’t incredibly young, but both could be big pieces in the frontcourt for the Hawks next year. In the games that he played in, Collins averaged 21-10 on near 50-40-90 splits for a big man which is absurd. Capela is a rim-runner who protects the paint and can finish lob passes as a PNR threat. They also drafted the best big man, Onyeka Okongwu. He provides rim protection, rebounding, and defensive versatility while showing a lot offensive upside.
But, there’s more. De’Andre Hunter has shown great “glue-guy” potential as someone who can knock down threes, create off the dribble, and play awesome defense. Kevin Huerter in a way is like a Bogdanovic clone with his three point shooting and scoring. Even someone like Bruno Fernando could prove to be a solid backup big man.
The young talent in Atlanta is great. I am willing to guarantee that at least one of those guys will breakout next year. But the big question is whether or not they’ll be ready. They’re inexperienced and were quite lackluster last season when it came to production. They’ve got a lot of talent, but let’s see if this talent can start producing.
The Hawks have a foundation for success with their young talent. But, they’ve managed to surround this talent with win-now veterans that can produce big numbers. They went from a team with little offensive and defensive versatility and thin depth to a legitimate ten man rotation filled with guys who can impact the game in their own way. I truly believe that this team can generate a top five seed in the Eastern Conference. Going from a bottom feeder to a contender certainly won’t be easy, but the Hawks have shown that they are committed and ready. It’s going to be a fun year for Hawks fans, and I cannot wait to see how this team performs.
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