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Peachtree Hoops mailbag: Welcome to the dead zone

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Atlanta Hawks Introduce Evan Turner Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Greetings, friends.

The “dead zone” of the NBA calendar is here and the Atlanta Hawks are pretty quiet, even with two roster spots open in late July. To help pass the time, we’re diving into the mailbag and, as the summer progresses, we might check in with other installments.

Alas, here we go.

Joseph (via email) — I’ve seen some projected depth charts that make it seem like DeAndre Bembry could be on the outside looking in for playing time. Is that true and why would that be after his improvement last season?

For the sake of transparency, this is (roughly) what I’d project for an old-school depth chart as the 2019-20 season approaches.

  • Point guard — Trae Young, Evan Turner, Brandon Goodwin (Two-Way)
  • Shooting guard — Kevin Huerter, Allen Crabbe, DeAndre’ Bembry
  • Small forward — DeAndre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Charlie Brown (Two-Way)
  • Power forward — John Collins, Jabari Parker, Chandler Parsons
  • Center — Alex Len, Damian Jones, Bruno Fernando

We’ll have plenty of time to discuss the rotation in the future and, for the record, traditional positions aren’t always instructive in the modern game. For instance, there are myriad guys on the roster (including Bembry at the 2 and 3) that can and will play multiple positions. With that said, Bembry may not have the smoothest path to regular playing time.

We can assume Huerter is the starting shooting guard (projected to lead the wings in minutes this season) and, in my view, it will be fairly shocking if Hunter isn’t the starting small forward if healthy. After all, the team’s investment in him as a top-five pick is noteworthy and Hunter should be able to defend and make shots immediately. From there, you have Crabbe, Reddish and Bembry.

Crabbe’s shooting, at least for me, is going to be critical off the bench, particularly when you consider that Turner is a non-shooter and there isn’t the same dynamic spacing from the center position when Jones or Fernando is playing. Crabbe struggled last season and probably isn’t a part of the long-term future but, in the same breath, he is an established veteran with a pedigree as a floor-spacer.

Reddish is a wild card in that he struggled badly at Duke but everyone agrees he is (very) talented and the Hawks invested a lottery pick in him. Is it possible Bembry is better than Reddish right now? Absolutely, but I have to think that Reddish is a significantly bigger priority moving forward and he would get the nod in any tiebreaker scenario, particularly given his length and potential to defend four positions.

There is a scenario in which Crabbe is the odd man out but, from a lineup construction standpoint, it would be very, very difficult to play Turner and Bembry together. It’s possible that a stagger could align to have Huerter playing the lion’s share of minutes when Young is off the floor and that could squeeze out Crabbe but, at the very least, Bembry’s struggles as a perimeter shooter don’t make it easy on him.

Lloyd Pierce wasn’t shy about playing 10, 11 or even 12 players in the rotation at times during his maiden voyage as Atlanta’s head coach, and he has always been complimentary of Bembry’s defensive skill set and aggressiveness. That should leave the fourth-year wing with a role as he enters his final season under contract, but I would take the “under” on the 1,931 minutes (and 82 games) Bembry played last season and wouldn’t think twice about it.

@HerrrJemine (on Twitter) — “Can any of the experienced guys currently on the Hawks roster fulfill the role of a veteran leader and mentor? What free agents could fill that role?”

In some ways, teams are often led by star players and there is certainly gravity from Young and John Collins in that regard, particularly as they add another year of experience. The more traditional “leader” role on this team isn’t as defined as it was last season, though, with Vince Carter still unsigned.

If Carter were to return (and there are open roster spots for that possibility), he would act as the conduit between the players and coaches, bringing two decades of NBA experience to the table and a beloved reputation. Outside of that, though, there are other veteran options but the Hawks haven’t been formally linked to other free agents at this juncture.

As for veterans already on the roster, Evan Turner checks the most leadership boxes, even as a player that is newly arriving. In speaking to a number of people with experience covering him in other markets, Turner seems to be well-liked in the locker room and brings more experience than the majority of his teammates. It wouldn’t be fair to ask him to be Carter, or even Kent Bazemore (as a player who had been in Atlanta as the longest-tenured member of the roster), but Turner seems to be a real candidate for that veteran leadership role.

David (on Facebook) — “There has been a lot of talk about Evan Turner as the backup point guard and it makes sense in theory. My question is what happens if Trae Young gets hurt for any period of time? Is there an alternative or are we going to see Turner at PG for 30 minutes per game and Brandon Goodwin as the backup? That doesn’t seem like a recipe for success.”

This is something I’ve talked about on my podcast quite a bit but the short answer is that the Hawks would be in deep, deep trouble if Young missed any extended time. I would make a similar case for Collins but, with the way this roster is constructed, Young is pretty easily the most irreplaceable piece and the backup situation plays into that.

I don’t love the idea of Turner as the primary backup but I do understand it. His biggest value as an offensive player comes in his play-making and, because he’s a virtual non-shooter, Turner needs the ball in his hands to be even reasonably effective on that end. Having Turner’s defense on the floor is useful, too, and the Hawks could actually deploy some solid defensive units when Young sits.

If Young is out for what the questioner describes as “any period of time,” though, it could be really ugly. Turner isn’t set up to be a 25-30 minute player as a lead initiator and, with respect to Brandon Goodwin (I liked the move to sign him), I don’t think you want him in that role either right now.

Removing Young would make the team worse, no matter who is backup was, because he’s very good at basketball and the Hawks are constructing their offense around him. The absence of a proven NBA backup magnifies that issue, though, and Atlanta would go from a team with realistic playoff aspirations to a team that would be one of the worst in the league during any extended absence for Young.

@HaggisMacBrum (on Twitter) — “Assuming Collins and Young progress this year to the realm of quality starters in the tier below all-star level, the likes of Huerter/Len continue to operate as decent starters and then one of the rookies pop up early - how long till we see the playoffs? This year, next year, the year after?”

As noted above, I do think that the Hawks have realistic playoff aspirations for the 2019-20 season. I also don’t think that the Hawks are likely to make the playoffs this season and the wise guys in Las Vegas (and off-shore) don’t see Atlanta as a projected top-eight team in the East.

With that out of the way, I think the 2020-21 season is a very realistic “arrival” projection for the Hawks as a playoff team, even with some real uncertainty about the roster. As of now, Atlanta has only six players under contract for the 2020-21 season and that number grows to only seven if Jabari Parker chooses to exercise his player option. Granted, those players are all intriguing and youthful pieces (Young, Collins, Huerter, Hunter, Reddish, Fernando) but the Hawks are going to have to build out a solid roster in order to make the requisite improvements that many expect.

On the bright side, the Hawks will have more than $70 million in salary cap space next summer to surround that nucleus and Travis Schlenk has things set up (very) well for the future. I do think that 2020-21 is the first season in which I will flat-out pick the Hawks to make the playoffs but, again, it isn’t crazy at all to think that, with some internal growth, Atlanta is challenging for the No. 8 seed when March and April arrive.