The Atlanta Hawks made significant upgrades to a young roster this offseason. Will it be enough to surge into the playoffs?
1. Would what it take for Trae Young to finish in the top-5 in MVP voting?
Any answer to this question obviously accepts a rather rosy outlook on Atlanta’s 2021 prospects, but any path to this outcome would require a significant increase in team success. The loudest criticism of Young’s ascendant 2020 season was that his all-world individual production — over 29 points and nine assists on nearly 60 percent true shooting — didn’t translate into winning basketball. And it was undoubtedly true that the Hawks (20-47) seldom played winning basketball. But the degree to which that should be pinned on Atlanta’s point guard may have been overstated. For all his many defensive weaknesses, Young has already established himself as one of the most dynamic creators in the NBA, and leading his team into the NBA’s upper echelon on that end of the floor could generate moderate MVP buzz for the 22-year-old. While he probably shouldn’t be on anyone’s preseason shortlist for the award, Young could realistically put up numbers commensurate with recent MVP-caliber seasons.
It’s not just his statistical production that makes Young a devastating offensive weapon, but the way he bends and stretches defenses with his shooting, passing, and guile. One of just five players to shoot over 36 percent on at least nine 3-point attempts per game, Young possesses a level of on-ball gravity that demands special attention from opponents and has the passing acumen to punish manipulated defenses with high-value deliveries. The Hawks, however, were woefully ill-suited to capitalize on that gravity. Even with Young, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter shooting a combined 37 percent from deep, Atlanta ranked last in the NBA in 3-point shooting, which not only produced ceaseless missed jumpers but often fatally compromised the team’s floor spacing. When Young didn’t have the ball — and when opponents forced it out of his hands — the Hawks didn’t have nearly enough creative firepower to keep the offense alive.
The presence of quality shooters and competent secondary playmakers like Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari should give Atlanta a significantly more potent offense, even if Young remains in a fairly ball-dominant role. In theory, having more reliable shooters around him should both inflate Young’s individual stats and lift the team to a point at which those numbers can be taken seriously.
2. Does Danilo Gallinari end the season as a backup 4 or the starting 3?
For now, Atlanta appears intent upon giving De’Andre Hunter (for whom the team gave up quite a haul to draft in 2019) every opportunity to start on the wing, and one can see why. Hunter is perhaps the only player on the roster with the physical tools to defend elite wings (Cam Reddish remains on the skinnier side) and profiles as a low-maintenance fifth option on offense, provided he maintains a passable rate of 3-point shooting. Hunter shot more than four percentage points better than Reddish on catch-and-shoot 3s last season, and his lack of off-the-dribble prowess makes him a more intuitive partner with the more creative and ball-dominant Trae Young.
Gallinari is clearly a better offensive player than any of the Hawks’ young wings, but with the starting lineup already slanted toward that end of the floor, it makes sense to slot a more defensive-minded wing into that unit to maintain any modicum of defensive stability. That approach should also give Gallinari more opportunity to feast with second units and help prevent another catastrophic dropoff with Young off the floor. Yet if the offense falters early in the season, Gallinari’s ability to create his own offense and space the floor would seem a natural remedy in the starting lineup. It’s difficult to envision Atlanta sniffing a passable defense in that alignment, but Gallinari offer enough juice on the other end to outweigh the defensive costs.
At the moment all parties seem comfortable with the veteran coming off the bench, bolstering the second unit and clearing valuable developmental minutes for Hunter or Reddish. Gallinari will surely play a healthy amount of time alongside Young either way, and his offensive versatility allows him to fit next to most of his new teammates.
3. Who has the best nickname on the team?
A great sports nickname should serve four essential functions: describe at least one facet of the player’s game, refer to the player’s name or appearance in some way, sound cool, and be usable in both exciting basketball moments and more casual situations. “Ice Trae” is clever (ignoring the fact that it refers to a rather ordinary household item), and John “The Baptist” would be a real contender here if anyone actually called him that. “Bogi” and “Gallo” are practical and to-the-point (the latter also translates to “Rooster” in Italian), but are ultimately just abbreviations of their given names. No, the clear answer here is Kevin Huerter’s “Red Velvet” moniker.
The name fits three of the four above criteria (you’d never call him Red Velvet off the basketball court) and, just as importantly, might be solely applicable to Huerter, who combines a sweet shooting stroke with a smooth floor game. Other redheads in NBA history — Bill Walton, Matt Bonner, Robert Swift, briefly Dennis Rodman — didn’t play that sort of game, and the players comparable to Huerter don’t have red hair. If Huerter were a clunky athlete or mediocre shooter, he’d lose his claim to the title. If he had any other hair color, the name obviously wouldn’t make sense. Additionally, the nickname pays homage to an elite cake, which is tough to pull off on its own (could any other kind of cake be taken seriously as a pseudonym for an NBA player? Cheesecake Jokić, maybe?) and even more difficult to match with an NBA player’s aesthetic.
4. Are there enough developmental minutes for Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter and, if not, who drops out of the rotation first?
It’s hard to see an eventual scenario in which Reddish or Hunter drops out of the rotation entirely, given how much Atlanta’s future depends on both players reaching their respective ceilings. Atlanta undoubtedly has more than five players who are worthy of prominent roles in the rotation (or at least feel they’re worthy); inevitably, at least one will get squeezed to some degree. But the idea that only one or two of Reddish and Hunter (and Huerter) can play regular minutes may be a false choice, especially given the emphasis on wing play in the league right now. Huerter is a sneakily dynamic playmaker, while Reddish and Hunter are already the team’s best defensive options on the wing. All three offer enough shooting, complementary playmaking, or both to find regular minutes and are malleable enough to play multiple positions in various lineup combinations.
There will be stretches in which Hunter goes cold or Reddish presses too hard, and plenty of nights with both on the bench during crunch time. But Lloyd Pierce will depend heavily on both of his young wings this season, and their readiness to provide quality minutes on the wing will be a massive determinant of Atlanta’s success.
5. What does success look like for the Hawks this season?
For the first two years of Lloyd Pierce’s tenure, success was a largely nebulous idea for the young Hawks, who had no realistic playoff hopes and measured growth in theoretical terms rather than empirical ones. This season will be the first in which binaries matter — the team will either win games or lose them, make the playoffs or miss them — and the actual on-court results decide success or failure. Even before the team’s indulgent offseason, Pierce had long been on the record with 2021 postseason aspirations, and the additions of Gallinari, Bogdanovic, and Capela only make that goal more urgent. Meeting that expectation would likely qualify as a successful season, especially if the Hawks can eclipse a .500 record along the way.
The path toward that scenario would involve a massive jump in offensive efficiency, coupled with an improved yet below-average defense. Atlanta has the ingredients to be a devastating offense that won’t crater without Young. An optimistic projection of the defense would assert that internal improvement, increased effort from Young, and replacing the dead weight of last year’s frontcourt rotation with the competent Clint Capela will amount to more than the sum of its parts; an absolute best-case scenario could put Atlanta just above the play-in fray, though that would require one of the top six in the East disappointing well beyond reasonable expectation.
There are perfectly legitimate reasons to doubt this year’s Hawks, including their defensive personnel and how much they’re asking of young, unproven players. Even a promising finish in the standings would still put this team in danger of missing the playoffs. But the presence of an all-world offensive catalyst and an offseason influx of shooting and playmaking should give Atlanta an edge over similarly flawed teams like Washington, Orlando, and Charlotte.