It’s been a noisy week in the Atlanta Hawks’ corner of the NBA, especially if Twitter is counted as part of that territory. There was an awful loss in New York earlier this week to a not especially good Knicks team. Then, there was word of frustration in the Hawks locker room. And finally, an infinite number of arguments seemed to ensue, all over the place, as to who should be considered most responsible for the perceived terrible current state of the franchise.
What better time to zoom back out and revisit the big picture aspects of this season?
How are Trae Young and John Collins doing?
Trae Young is seemingly approaching “lock” territory when it comes to making his first All-Star appearance in just his second NBA season. He has been in the top five in both points and assists per game for, basically, the entirety of the season.
Offensively, it’s hard to imagine how he could be doing more or better, especially when considering that this Hawks team has less perimeter shooting on the roster than it had last season and less skill versatility at the center position.
Young is getting even more defensive attention when operating in the pick and roll than he did last year. Teams are pretty consistently allocating a second defender to him in an attempt to force the ball out of his hands.
Yet his field goal attempts are up and he is producing more points on better efficiency. Young’s assists are down slightly on a per-minute basis, but that is more than understandable when considering he is playing with fewer shot makers this season.
John Collins has played just five games, due to his suspension. He is due to return next week with no playing time restrictions, according to Lloyd Pierce.
If one of the objectives for this season was to allow Collins the opportunity to take on as large of an offensive role as possible as to better evaluate his upside on that end of the court, then the roster construction overseen by Travis Schlenk might make a bit more sense than it otherwise would at this point in the season.
It might be an understatement to suggest that this Hawks team is not full of players that need shot volume to deliver on their potential value. Neither is it staffed with players that need to function in roles designed to feature their broader offensive creation skills.
Considering the roster makeup there is no reason that, upon his return, Collins can’t have the ambition to step into an enormous offensive role…. and that includes opportunities for him to create his own shot.
It is easy to criticize the absence of those skills on the current roster. With that said, if one of the more important considerations for this roster was to ensure that Young and Collins could take on as much offensive workload as possible for player development and evaluation purposes, the roster makeup does not seem so shortsighted.
Defensively, Young has flashed stretches of play in which he has been less of a liability and has made more of a positive impact than he did last season. Those examples are still more exception than the rule. But, since the loss of Collins, the enormous offensive workload Young has had to carry probably deserves some consideration, and young players are famously difficult to motivate to play hard on defense when team success is not reinforcing that effort.
The evaluation of the two-way play of both Young and Collins can be fairly scrutinized for the foreseeable future. Still, nothing has been shockingly bad in these areas to a degree such that new questions have arisen that impact the long-term outlook for the Hawks’ young core.
Are any of the young wings (Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish) being asked to play roles that are too big for them when considering the best interests of their long-term development?
The short answer is no. It would be easy to make a case that the trio’s roles would be too big if Atlanta has any real ambition this season to (for example) play .500 basketball or make a playoff appearance.
However, all three have been allowed to play on and off the basketball, offensively. They have been allowed to make mistakes without any specific miscue being fatal to the outcome any given game (apart from, perhaps, a turnover by Huerter late in a recent loss to the Pacers).
Of recent, Huerter’s ability to create shots for others has been evident and, generally, Hunter and Reddish have played with more effectiveness and efficiency in the offensive half court and in transition.
There are no obvious players on the roster for the coaching staff to turn to instead of the young wings when there might otherwise be an appetite to increase the likelihood of securing a win in any given game. And that, very likely, serves the developmental interests of the youngsters well.
Young’s ability to handle a massive offensive workload shields other players from being forced step into obviously over-sized roles that could undermine their development. Apart from a (hopefully unlikely) scenario in which Young misses extended time, the roles intended for Huerter, Hunter and Reddish seem to be serving them well.
Are the Hawks learning anything regarding how the team is currently staffed at the center position?
If there is any aspect of the way the current roster is constructed that warrants more universal frustration from fans and observers, it’s the way the team is currently designed to fill minutes at the five. Damian Jones is neither the perimeter threat nor the team defender that Dewayne Dedmon was for Atlanta the last two seasons. Alex Len, despite positive defensive impact, has not shot the ball nearly as well as he did last season. And, not surprisingly, Bruno Fernando hasn’t figured it all out yet.
The Hawks don’t really have a solution in any match-up against a team with one of the more physical or otherwise more dominant big men in the league. They also happen to be league’s worst team on the defensive glass, even with the caveat of Collins’ absence.
If there is a somewhat urgent roster upgrade needed to take place for this team in the future and the present, it has to be at the center position. Things have looked especially dire of late as Atlanta has been allowing opponents to score in the paint seemingly at will.
But, if one of the other developmental priorities for this season is to (significantly) develop players that defend on the perimeter, would having a big man in the paint that can consistently erase the mistakes of his teammates serve that objective constructively? Probably not.
Even if that’s the case, I would agree the exercise has likely gone on long enough (or will have hit that point soon). However, this roster limitation, likewise, hasn’t led to anything that should result in any sort of lasting negative impact for the young players on the team.
Are there any financial commitments beyond this season that could serve as a barrier to talent acquisition?
The Jabari Parker contract is the only thing that could remotely qualify as a possible ‘yes’ to this question. The $6.5 million player option he has for next season is still causing some onlookers to scratch their heads, but the contract would be a good value for any club based on how he’s played offensively for Atlanta, should he choose to exercise the option. Still, it would appear that the roster design (originally) called for Parker to carry a lot of offensive responsibility on the Atlanta second unit, and that was on display again during the match-up with the Jazz on Thursday.
Despite struggling to make perimeter shots, Parker is scoring at a career-best efficiency mark. While his defense has still been a struggle, that hasn’t been a surprise.
The bottom line is that the Hawks are on track to have an enormous amount of cap space to use next summer with a free agent class that is not expected to include many (if any) elite players.
It would, frankly, be shocking if Parker’s salary for next season, should he opt in, would have any negative impact on what the franchise looks to do next summer. Everyone else is on a rookie-scale contract.
Does the team have the right veteran leadership to support the young players?
This is a fair question to keep open at this point. The middle of a very rough stretch in a season is seldom the right time to heavily scrutinize a team and organization in a way that is intended to evaluate the potential need for immediate or short-term changes. It’s probably most fair to put this consideration into that category as well.
Veteran players not intended to play regular (heavy) minutes on a team with a lot of young players can’t step in and immediately correct issues by way of saying the exactly the right thing in any given moment.
Changes in this area of the roster could very well serve the team well over the course of the remainder of the season. Or, it might not matter all that much. Ultimately, there aren’t really any significant barriers to making these changes if it is deemed that it’s the right thing to do for the young players.
Overall, things are more fine with this team than they are not… and probably by a decent distance. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t changes that could help but, when considering what this season is really about for this franchise and the team, things are, truly, just fine.