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Key questions ahead of the 2020-21 Atlanta Hawks season

While there is plenty of optimism ahead of the new season, the Hawks have questions to answer...

New York Knicks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

For a number of seasons now the Atlanta Hawks have been building towards the future, one where they are playoff and — eventually — title contenders.

The process started with the selection of John Collins at No. 19 overall in 2017 but took a dramatic upturn after the Hawks acquired Trae Young on draft night in 2018. Since then, the Hawks have been adding to their roster through the draft but their cornerstone player is their All-Star point guard.

As they worked through the draft, the Hawks also began planning for their future in free agency, with Hawks GM Travis Schlenk making various trades across his tenure to acquire large, expiring (or close to it) salary.

All of this culminated in the Hawks entering the 2020 NBA free agency with the most cap space in the NBA, a newly acquired center in Clint Capela and a youthful core of Young, Collins, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter.

While the Hawks previously had cap space and spent it signing players to short term deals, they decided to finally splash that cash and invest significantly and meaningfully into their roster and their future, signing Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic to bumper deals while also signing Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn.

A lot of detail has been already written about these signing and their impacts (you can read up on Bogdan Bogdanovic from Zach Hood here, and Brad Rowland on Danilo Gallinari here) but the upshot is that the Hawks have a legitimate NBA roster for the first time in a number of seasons to compete for a spot in the NBA Playoffs.

Previously, the only real objective for the Hawks in the regular season has been to develop their young talent and continue to seek a level of progression and development for their young players within their roster. This will not longer fly as the Hawks’ sole objective for this season — there will have to be some team success to speak of this season, which of course refers to the Hawks returning to the playoffs.

So, now that there are real expectations for the Hawks this season there are a number of questions to be asked, so let’s ask some of the big hitting questions and address some concerns that may lie before the Hawks ahead of what will be a big season all-around, and we’ll use these questions to perhaps determine a ceiling and what a realistic expectation could be, as well as hitting on some other topics along the way.

Who on earth starts (and other lineup questions)?

Not a bad place to start.

All teams — no matter what their expectations are for the season — need to either figure out what their starting lineup is, who might be better suited coming off of the bench and who even cracks the rotation.

If you need a reminder, this is how the Hawks’ depth chart currently looks.

  • Lead Guard: Trae Young, Kris Dunn, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Goodwin, Skylar Mays (two-way contract)
  • Wings: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Solomon Hill, Tony Snell
  • Bigs: John Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela, Onyeka Okongwu, Bruno Fernando, Nathan Knight (two-way contract)

For the Hawks, most of their starters seem to be fairly set in stone.

Young will obviously start, you would imagine new signing Bogdanovic will start alongside him in the backcourt and the front-court will consist of Collins (with the quotes coming from the Hawks that Gallinari will come off of bench) and Capela at center.

It’s that small forward spot that throws up a little more complication.

I personally think Reddish is a better option heading into this season than Hunter, but I think Hunter will probably be the one who starts. It’s important at this point to note that just because someone starts does not mean they’re the better player nor that they will finish the game — it doesn’t really matter who starts.

Hunter, for the most part, provided a steady influence at the three last season. The hope for the Hawks is that Hunter a player that won’t need the ball in his hands offensively to be effective. Hunter shot 35% from three on just under five attempts per game and this will be a key area of his game going into season two.

We’ll get into Hunter a little more later but I think that the fact you don’t need the ball in Hunter’s hands on offense, it makes inserting him in the starting a bit more viable.

I hear your concerns, we’ll get to it (probably).

When it comes to the Hawks’ closing lineup, you’d probably insert Reddish in place of Hunter. The question of the Hawks’ best lineup probably comes in the form of how the Hawks fare when it’s Capela at center or Collins at center with Gallinari at the four spot, flanked by Reddish, Bogdanovic and Young down the stretch.

There’s only so much that we (collectively) can speculate until it takes form on the court. Everyone will soon learn the Hawks’ starting lineup to begin the season and discover what the best lineup is over time. No one has the answers to those questions just yet, not even the Hawks.

In terms of the rest of the rotation, I’d be surprised if Tony Snell and Solomon Hill play a ton under normal circumstances/injuries. One of those two may get some first half opportunities on occasion but if they were to play more than 10 minutes — again, under normal circumstances when everyone is available and healthy — I’d be surprised.

Something else worth noting is that we could conceivably see, perhaps, Dunn or Rondo (perhaps to a lesser extent) deployed at the two, pushing Reddish, Huerter or Bogdanovic at the three and further eliminating opportunities for Snell or Hill.

It might have to be that type of situation that Brandon Goodwin will need to play some minutes this season, because his path now is obscured by the signings of Rondo and Dunn. I feel for Goodwin. He influenced a notable number of games for the Hawks last season, didn’t get a proper run down the stretch hammer home that he should be the team’s backup point guard going forward and now he’s a victim of the Hawks’ front office making a run for the playoffs as they chose to invest a premium in Rajon Rondo and also added Kris Dunn.

Goodwin automatically slides behind both in the rotation and is going to have to be patient. I think he’s talented enough to break through but it’s going to be difficult to wrestle too much from an established player and large money signing in Rondo, so his path minutes might have to come at Dunn’s expense. Even that theory has its problems because Dunn is one of the very few players who can legitimately defend on this team and the Hawks simply need his talents on that end.

From what was a good situation to try and audition for a spot has now turned to one of great challenge for Brandon Goodwin.

Any of these players could end up receiving an opportunity should one of the rotation members contract COVID-19 during the season. I hate to talk about it or mention it, I hope no one (on any team) contracts it but it’s going to be a factor in the NBA this season and there’s no escaping that. That said, the Hawks are in a much better spot with their depth this season to deal with such an eventuality should it transpire.

As for the more prevalent members of the rotation who would appear set to come off of the bench (Gallinari, Huerter, Rondo, I’ll say Reddish, Okongwu, Dunn, Fernando), it remains to be seen what the best combination is for the Hawks’ second unit.

Is there some appeal of a Dunn/Rondo, Huerter, Reddish, Gallinari and Okongwu/Fernando lineup?

When you put it down on paper, you can see a potential issue at that center spot — your backup defense being anchored by a rookie/second year big does sound problematic. Perhaps the Hawks could deploy Capela in a similar way to Al Horford once upon a time: sub out at the six minute mark as the first starter out but then the first starter back in and plays with the second unit?

Ultimately it’s all just theory and speculation right now, but it’s interesting to think about and toss out there. You can get a sense of the selection dilemma Lloyd Pierce and his staff are going have this season and how they deploy their much deeper roster this season. A lot of decisions to be made.

What heights can the offense hit? Can the Hawks finally hit threes?

The Hawks have been built to be a more offensively minded team, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Hawks were a good offensive team last year with how many points they scored at times last year. They...were not, at least not in terms of efficiency.

The Hawks ranked 27th in offensive rating for the season despite being tied for 16th for the season in points per game with 111.8 points per game. While the Hawks did improve as the season went on — tying for 16th in offensive rating and sixth in points per game with 116.5 from January 1st — the Hawks still aren’t where they need to be offensively.

May as well start with an obvious area of improvement and a particular focus for the Hawks this off-season: three-point shooting.

The Hawks ranked dead last in three-point percentage on the season, shooting 33.3% from downtown. While the Hawks showed a notable improvement from January 1st (ranking a tied 19th shooting 35.1%), their three-point numbers still made for a poor showing, including the three-point percentage from the bench, which was, again, dead last at 29.7%.

With the bolstering of the three-point shooting to the starting lineup in Bogdanovic and the bench in Gallinari...that’s already a huge boost for the Hawks, but it won’t automatically turn the Hawks into three-point juggernauts. They’ll need their existing three-point marksmen to continue to improve.

Young shot 36% from three on nine attempts per game...if he can reign in some of the less than ideal three-point attempts, that percentage can improve almost immediately. Further three-point improvement can also come from players like Reddish and Hunter, and any further improvement from Huerter would be an added bonus. These players who I’ve mentioned will need to make up for the some of the three-point deficits that will be coming for Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn.

Collins is an interesting one when it comes to three-point shooting.

Collins has shown improvement in each of his three seasons (shooting 40% last season on 3.6 attempts) in the NBA but I think is facing a similar season from behind the arc that I saw for Taurean Prince in the 2018-19 season.

Prince lit it up from behind the arc behind a larger role when the Hawks were struck by injuries down the stretch in 2017-18, but it was unclear how he’d fare once the 18-19 season began and everyone previously injured returned to the action. While the scoring output wasn’t there for Prince, his high-end three-point shooting that he flashed turned out to be legit.

I think we’ll find out this season if Collins’ three-point shooting is legit. Given his improvement year-on-year, I think Collins’ numbers are legitimate. Perhaps he doesn’t shoot above a 40% clip, but if he’s able to keep it in the 38-40% range on a similar volume, that’s a successful season for Collins outside the arc. Either way, I think we’ll find out if it’s legit this season.

The Hawks probably should be aiming to get into the top-15 of three-point percentage shooting at the very least. How successful they are from behind the arc I think will play a fairly important role in their quest for a playoff berth.

Can they get into the upper echelons of three-point shooting? Yes, I think so but I do think it’s more than just the additions of Gallinari and Bogdanovic that will make it possible.

Outside of Young, the Hawks lacked for offensive creation — both from the starting unit and off of the bench. Now, some of that was exaggerated due to the loss of Collins to suspension for 25 games but also due to the roster assembly... Expecting Evan Turner to service as the backup point guard while continuing to rely on rookies/second year players in large roles just doesn’t help your offense.

On the off night that Young did struggle, there wasn’t anyone who could help carry the Hawks to victory. There were 12 games last season where Young scored 20 or less points...the Hawks lost all 12 of those games and averaged 99 points per game.

That will have to change this year.

Not only will Collins be there from the start of the season this time and, hopefully, not pick up a 25 game suspension, Bogdanovic and Gallinari will bolster the offense/scoring significantly for the Hawks — certainly enough to help the Hawks when Young is both on and off the floor and on nights when he struggles.

The addition of extra ball-handlers like Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn will mean the ball doesn’t have to be in Young’s hands at all times and can allow Young to be deployed a little more off of the ball, where he can put incredible pressure on the defense with his ability to hit threes from unlimited range and potential to attack on closeouts. Deploying Young off-ball will open up new avenues for the offense.

In addition, you’d also expect growth from the likes of Reddish, Hunter and Huerter at those wing positions too. A big season for all three of those players but we’ll talk about that separately.

The Hawks will also need to tidy up their turnovers, of which there were too many of last season: ranking 28th with 16.2 turnovers per game leading to 19.5 points for opponents a night (also ranking 28th).

The Hawks are also a much deeper team. They don’t have to solely rely on their younger players for basically all of their production anymore. In the not too distant past, the Hawks may have had a few veterans but not many veterans that actually contributed anything meaningful on the court, and the Hawks have missed that. Now it’s a very different story. They have meaningful veteran help and this, in addition to the Hawks’ younger players ever-growing tenure in the NBA, will only strengthen them.

With a much deeper team comes many different options and possibilities for Pierce and his staff to ponder upon.

They have a great variety now in their roster: guys who can handle the ball and make plays for others and allow others at the same time to be deployed off of the ball, they have shooters but also shooters who can do more than just shoot, they have variety in pick-and-roll, they have variety in their lineups (do they roll with Capela at center, do they go small with Collins at the five and Gallinari at the four)... etc.

There’s so many options now, and the beautiful thing for the Hawks will be that they can basically choose how they matchup based on their opponents on most nights. Traditional bigs, small ball lineups, shooting, diversity in playmaking where a bunch of different guys can go at you, or create something elsewhere...the Hawks can pick their poison.

Teams with this much variety and talent usually fare well offensively, and since the offensive end of the floor will be the Hawks will hang their hat on, I think they’ll need to be a top-10 offense in the NBA this season to make up for their defensive shortcomings (more on that soon).

The pressure will be on Pierce to try make that happen, but the Atlanta Hawks are set for a huge leap in terms of their offense. How high can they go?

How are the Hawks going to defend?

This is one of the biggest questions for the Hawks to answer this season and something that will impact their overall ceiling. Regardless what heights their offense hits, there is another side to the ball.

The roster that Travis Schlenk has built is an offensive roster and one that will excel offensively. Defensively... Things could be bad.

Let’s not beat around the bush, call a stone a stone: Young — as fantastic as he is offensively — is not good defensively and that is a problem given his position where a lot of the league’s star players play as well.

His size means it’s extremely hard to hide him on other players/positions. He is going to be the player teams target (and have targeted in the past). That said, the Hawks have some defensive players they can throw on an opposing team’s best player at guard (Kris Dunn), wing Reddish, possibly Hunter too) and center (Capela). For opponents, that secondary matchup (the player the Hawks try to hide Young on) is key.

Thankfully for Young, this time he has a lot more help behind him in the form of not only the improving Collins but now Capela to anchor that backline. While it would be ideal if Young provided more resistance in terms of effort when it comes to defending out front, there’s a certain level of comfort knowing that Capela/Collins will be somewhat nearby if things go wrong. But again, it would be ideal if they didn’t have to be relied on in the first place because when you’re beaten, someone else has to rotate and there will be openings to be found elsewhere.

With Young having more offensive help this season and the knowledge he doesn’t have to so much offensively compared to last season, perhaps there’s hope he will put in more effort defensively. No one is asking, or expecting, Young to be a good defensive player. Heck, not even an average defensive player. He just needs to be not the worst defender in the league, and I think he can do that.

The only plus defenders on this team are Dunn, Reddish and Capela. Hunter could get there, but was a little disappointing at times last season defensively to what was expected of him heading in. Collins, while improving, isn’t quite there yet.

The rest of the roster is going to struggle and perhaps the scariest thought defensively is we have no idea how a potential closing lineup of Young, Bogdanovic, Reddish, Gallinari and Collins is going to fare defensively. I have some reservations if I’m going to be honest...

A lot of the Hawks’ defensive hopes rest with at least three of those players (Dunn, Reddish, Capela) and even then there’s a problem.

Dunn is coming off of the bench and I can’t imagine is likely to play more than 20 minutes a game? Capela will almost certainly play under 30 minutes a game given how the Hawks will likely go small-ball in stretches, including possibly to end games.

This leaves an enormous amount of pressure on Reddish, and to a lesser extent Hunter, to be up to the defensive challenge every single game. You would imagine that only one of them is going to be on the court at any one time — unless the Hawks run a lineup where Reddish is at three, Hunter at the four and Collins/Capela at the five.

People will immediately lean to the tried and tired line of ‘Lloyd Pierce is a defensive coach, he’ll figure it out’ but when you’re given a roster like this, there’s only so much defense you can squeeze out of it no matter who you are.

It is not a hot-take to say that I don’t think the Hawks are going to be a good defensive team next season. That’s fine. They have the capability to make up for it on offense, but they cannot be one of the seven or so worst defensive teams in the NBA to the point where even a good — maybe even great — offense can’t bail them out, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think they could really struggle, could end up seeing a number of games where they score 120 points but still lose. Potentially like the Washington Wizards.

A defensive improvement from all of the returning cast will be important and the pressure will be on Reddish and Hunter to be at the forefront on that end. If the Hawks were league average on defense, that’d be an huge achievement. How likely is it? I would not say likely...

Is there another step for Trae Young in Year 3?

Young has blossomed into an NBA All-Star in just two seasons. He’s put up some astronomical numbers in that time but none of it has led to a playoff appearance as of yet — the talent around Young hasn’t been up to par for that to happen. While he’s waited for help, he’s had the freedom on offense to do basically anything he wants, which has been fine because...there wasn’t much else to do and the Hawks weren’t pushing for a playoff spot.

Now however, things are different.

Young has a supporting cast around him and he’s going to have to trust them with the ball — is he going to average 20 shots again this season? Outside of Collins, the next highest number of a shots (not from Jabari Parker, who doesn’t count) came from Huerter who took 10.9 shots per game, and even he might struggle to get that many again this season.

A very large gap indeed.

Whether or not Young takes more/less shots than last season, the key to his next steps lies in improving his percentages.

In 2019-20, Young shot 43% from the field on 20.8 attempts (up from the 41.8% on the 15.5 attempts in his rookie season) and 36% from three on 9.5 attempts (up from 32% on six attempts) — an encouraging sign of progression for Young between years one and two in addition to the obvious scoring output increase, fourth in the league in scoring with 29.6 per contest.

A question for the Hawks heading into this season... is there even more to come from Young? Does he have another leap to make?

A ‘leap’ in the conventional NBA sense might be hard to come by for Young, certainly for someone who averaged 29 points and nine assists a game. To be fair, it wouldn’t be too unrealistic to think that Young will average more assists next year and could lead the NBA in assists next season — there is some improvement to come on this end.

To notch an assist, one must make the shot — this was the issue last season for the Hawks last season. With more shot makers on the team this season, it stands to reason that Young should be able to notch a few more assists. This might be balanced out somewhat by other creators on the team being present, such as Bogdanovic, Rondo and Dunn (and perhaps a few more opportunities for Reddish?) but there’s every chance that Young could average a double-double next season.

Something else that Young will need to improve upon, another step in his development, is cutting down on some of his turnovers.

Young led the league in turnovers per game with 4.8 a game, which is just too many turnovers. He’s gotten better not getting off of his feet (something he did often in his rookie season) and, to be fair, if the ball is in his hands less this season then that number has a strong chance of coming down.

Even if he doesn’t Young doesn’t improve his efficiency/turnovers, and his scoring output remains the same, another mark of a successful season for Young would be to do what he did last season but in a winning season. If Young can push up the efficiency, that’d be an added bonus but I’d honestly say it would be a successful season for Young if he did the same as he did last season and the Hawks make the playoffs.

What improvement will De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish make in year two?

In an otherwise disappointing season for the Hawks, one of the few bright spots were the flashes that rookie wings Hunter and Reddish showed in their rookie seasons.

While Hunter was a steady presence for much of the season, Reddish started his NBA career with a very tough stretch before appearing to turn the corner from the start of 2020, showing improvement as the year went on.

For the season, Hunter started 62 of the 63 games he played, scoring 12.3 points per game on 41% shooting from the field on 10.8 attempts per game, 35.5% from three on 4.5 attempts, 4.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 0.7 steals in 32 minutes per game.

As for Reddish, his season ended with averages of 10.5 points per game on 38% shooting from the field on 9.6 attempts per game, 33% from three on 4.3 attempts, 3.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.7 turnovers and 1.1 steals per game in 26.7 minutes a game in 58 games played.

Let’s start with Hunter...

Hunter provided a solid service in that starting small forward spot, producing at times scoring stints — usually in the second quarter — that kept the Hawks in a couple of games. However, his efficiency at times was concerning and that has to be a focus heading into year two.

To be fair to Hunter — and what should help his efficiency — I don’t think he’s going to shoot over 10 attempts again this season and there shouldn’t be as much pressure for him to provide a ton of offense, again, due to the other offensive reinforcements signed in free agency.

Given the nature of the roster now, I think you’ll see a more prominent role of ‘3 and D’ from Hunter this season, especially if he’s starting games. It would help if he can improve his finishing close to/near the rim (certainly off of any closeouts) but his priority this season has to be taking advantage of the shots he is going to get (and he should get good looks if he’s with that starting unit) and increasing his overall efficiency, and his defense.

Hunter would be an ideal player for the Hawks to get going early in the first quarter with much of the attention going to players like Young, Collins and Bogdanovic early on — Hunter is going to be somewhat of an afterthought for opposing defenses, so it’s on Hunter to make the most of the shots he’s going to get.

What will definitely need improving is that Hunter — and it sure felt like this was the case watching him last season too — shot 32% from three on what NBA dot com considers “open” shots (when the nearest defender is 4-6 feet away). To his credit, he did shoot 38% on catch-and-shoot threes in his rookie season, so there’s definitely reason for optimism that Hunter can cash in on those attempts this season but he has to hit the open shots.

Reddish is a slightly different story.

Reddish would appear to project to have a larger offensive role than Hunter but it’ll be important to establish which Reddish Atlanta is going to see this season. How likely is it that Reddish replicates his averages from January 1st? Is he shooting 39% from three again? Is it the 27% we saw in the early parts of the season? Somewhere in between, perhaps 36%?

Either way, Reddish’s percentages will absolutely need to rise from his rookie averages, but I feel very comfortable saying that this will end up being the case. Reddish was looking more and more comfortable offensively before the season was suspended, and if he could put together a similar showing than he did at the turn of 2020, I think that would be a very successful season indeed for Reddish, who could do with the stability after a wild ride last season.

Defensively he’s going to be under a lot of pressure to be the Hawks’ best defender on the wing (and maybe overall defender) — a big ask for a second year player who will have to guard the liked of Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler and other such All-Star calibre wing players.

With his defensive abilities, the Hawks will absolutely need to run Reddish in their closing lineups. Regardless of whether they play Capela or Collins at center, they need Reddish’s defense on the floor. I would expect Reddish to play more than the 26 minutes he averaged in his rookie season but how far minutes north of 30 remains to be seen, if any.

Offensively, I do think there’s a larger role to be had for Reddish this season, certainly a larger offensive role than Hunter. Like Hunter however, it’ll be important for Reddish to cash in on the open/easy attempts from three-point range. Reddish converted on 34% of his catch-and-shoot three-point looks last season and, like Hunter, this will need to be improved on in his second season. On open/wide open threes, Reddish shot 32% and 34% respectively.

Again, these percentages were much higher from January 1st onwards but there’s absolutely no guarantee that Reddish replicates, or improves for that matter, that form for a full season.

Fans will need to temper some of their expectations for Reddish, because as talented as he is the sample from January 1st is a small sample size and putting all your Reddish stock in what he did from January 1st would be unwise. None of this is to say Reddish can’t do it again or improve on it — it’s to recognize how difficult and impressive it would be to do over the course of an entire season rather than a sample of just over 25 games.

If he did, that would be a remarkable second season — averaging 13 points, shooting nearly 45% from the field? Shooting 39.7% from three? Shooting nearly 40% on those open three-point looks? That would be a great second season, to produce those numbers over the course of 72 games would be enormous for the Hawks.

Whether this is possible, time will tell, but Reddish’s largest impact will probably come defensively.

Is this is a ‘make or break’ season for Kevin Huerter in Atlanta?

There has been plenty said for the Hawks’ other wings: Bogdanovic, Hunter and Reddish...

But what about Huerter?

Roster moves would appear to suggest he is being replaced, possibly on the way out as he enters his third season and edges closer to restricted free agency.

Huerter has the most to lose out of those three guys this season, starting, first of all, with his starting shooting guard role. Huerter also stands to lose some minutes too. He was one of the players Pierce has relied upon the most, averaging over 31 minutes a game last season. From January 1st, only Young averaged more minutes per game (35.8) than Huerter (35.3).

It would seem fairly likely that Huerter will average fewer than 30 minutes per game coming off of the bench but he can still deliver a significant impact in that role. In fact, there may be more value to be had for Huerter coming off of the bench.

Shooting will always be a valuable commodity, whether it’s in the starting lineup or coming off of the bench, and it’s the same for Huerter, who shot 38% from three last season on six attempts per game. There is huge value to be had here and any improvement from this point onwards and Huerter begins to move closer to elite shooter territory.

Coming off of the bench might allow the Hawks to continue to utilize Huerter’s ability to create some plays. I personally believe a lot more in Huerter’s ability as a secondary creator off of the bench than, say, Reddish. Huerter is efficient when in this role, posting a 2.45 assist-to-turnover ration. Young, for reference, posts an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.9.

I believe it would be a waste not to tap further into Huerter’s playmaking abilities because it’s always been clear he’s more than a shooter, and coming off of the bench I think gives Huerter more opportunities to do that than if he was starting. He would be a solid secondary creator off of the bench.

I expect Huerter to be motivated this season, more aggressive in his shot-taking too. I think we (collectively) can expect to see the best season from Huerter so far, but if he has a substandard season then perhaps that could be it for Huerter in Atlanta.

The Hawks have many young wings and I don’t think they’re all going to stay long-term — something will have to give at some point, be it in a trade or otherwise. I’m inclined to think the wing they’ll end moving on from will Hunter (since he doesn’t quite offer the defense Reddish does, nor the shooting Huerter does) but whether this will actually be the case will be anyone’s guess — it’s just speculation on my part.

Huerter might not have a similar luxury of time that Hunter might. It’s a big season Huerter, but I think the opportunity will be there for him to produce a strong season, contrary to the events in last year’s draft and this year’s free agency.

Does John Collins finish the season with the Hawks?

I am going to be honest: I was shocked that Collins wasn’t traded in the aftermath of the Gallinari signing, and more shocked when the Hawks said their plan is to have Gallinari come off of the bench behind Collins (not too often does your 20 million marquee signing agree to such a thing).

I laid out some of these thoughts on Twitter when the news came that Gallinari was signing with the Hawks and received a fair amount of pushback, including sentiments like ‘We would never trade JC!!’ and various other replies from people who lean with their heart and not necessarily logic. I get it.

I certainly wasn’t the only one who believed Collins’ days — especially with a likely max extension on the horizon that the Hawks might not want to extend to him — in Atlanta might be numbered.

He might start the season with the Hawks but there is absolutely no guarantee Collins finishes the season with the Hawks.

I’d argue that one of the reasons Collins is still with the team is that the Hawks didn’t get an opportunity to see Collins alongside Capela, and perhaps some would think it would be rash to trade Collins without seeing how that lineup worked. Now, in saying that, I thought that argument went out the window when the Hawks signed Gallinari but apparently not! I was wrong!

If that lineup doesn’t end up working and Collins and Capela can’t quite gel... I would not be surprised if the Hawks began to look at their options on the market in a deal for the impending restricted free agent.

There should be considerable demand for Collins, who I think is a terrific player with All-Star potential. He has shown improvement in all areas of his game each season and while his 2019-20 season was hugely impressive for many reasons, it was marred by his 25-game suspension...

Can he fit in with Capela on the court?

This is a question with a relatively short answer because we just don’t know how it’s going to work on the court. I think a Gallinari-Collins front-court would work wonders offensively but if Collins-Capela is leaking points like no tomorrow, then that is a problem... Not that a Gallinari-Capela front-court would fare any better in that regard (in fact, it would probably fare much worse).

No. This likely comes down to how the Hawks value and view Collins, if they see him as a max player and if they’re willing to pay out for that. I think it’s possible they wait and see how much of an influence he has on winning and if he can replicate those stats on a winning team and in winning efforts they might reconsider whether he’s worthy of said max contract (providing they don’t reach an agreement on an extension beforehand).

I personally think yes, Collins should be paid the max or close to it, and I think the Hawks should keep him but I don’t feel comfortable about the whole situation — it’s not safe to say he won’t be traded.

What is a realistic expectation for the Hawks this season?

This is a very simply question, but because it’s ‘safe,’ it won’t be popular.

A realistic expectation for the 2020-21 Hawks season seems to be a playoff appearance in the 7-8 seed range. There is a segment of the fan base that will likely be in an uproar over that. I’ve seen homecourt advantage as a projection, I’ve seen conference semi finals... I’ve even seen conference finals.

I understand the excitement — believe me, I’m excited at the prospect of covering a team that might actually be good — but let’s not get carried away just yet.

There are 10,000 questions regarding this team heading into the season and so many variables at play: it is too aggressive to think a 4-seed — or anything higher — is a likely outcome.

This should be fairly obvious, but let’s just go through a very basic list of teams the Hawks will not be better than this season (please, save your pitchforks until the end of the presentation):

The Milwaukee Bucks. Should be fairly obvious.

The Boston Celtics. Again, should be obvious.

The Miami Heat. They made the Finals and have largely the same team. This shouldn’t be a debate.

The Philadelphia 76ers — continuity and a better coach. Next.

The Toronto Raptors. Yes, there’s no Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka returning but there’s still Kyle Lowry, there’s still Paskal Siakam, there’s still Fred VanVleet and there’s still Nick Nurse. A Siakam injury would throw a few things up in the air perhaps, but otherwise that’s still an easy playoff team and it’s not a discussion.

Those are five teams immediately better than the Hawks and, barring injury, should absolutely finish ahead of them. The others?

Throw in the Indiana Pacers as a team that could conceivably finish ahead of the Hawks. While that team did punch above its weight last season, they’re largely the same team again this season — no one should be surprised if they’re the sixth seed this season. But that is the first team the Hawks could conceivably knock out of the playoff picture.

You also have to account for the Brooklyn Nets. Now, there’s a lot of questions for the Nets to answer with their roster (how Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving fare returning from injuries for example) but if the Nets hit anything close to their ceiling they will automatically be ahead of the Hawks. Because there’s a bunch of factors at play, like injuries, I don’t think you can guarantee it happens but I’d feel comfortable saying that if Durant and Irving are anywhere near what they were prior to injury then they should be in the mix for the top six of the Eastern Conference standings.

I think it’s likely the Hawks end up duking it out for a 6-8 seed with the likes of the Nets (because one would assume Durant and Irving will be rested often this season with an eye towards the playoffs), the Pacers, the Washington Wizards (Westbrook and Beal are going to be an issue) and maybe the Charlotte Hornets? Maybe. I don’t feel great about putting the Hornets in that conversation but it’s possible they’re in the mix?

The upshot is this: the Hawks should make the playoffs. I think most people are in agreement on that, certainly in contention for the play-in.

Ideally, they’re not in the 8-seed and have to go through that play-in with even less safety. I can imagine a situation where they come against, say, the Wizards, and in that setting — a playoff setting — I could see a scenario where the more experienced Wizards (led by Beal and Westbrook) overcome a young and inexperienced Atlanta team in a short sample.

The 7-seed would provide more safety, and should the Hawks finish in the 6-seed, I think that would be a massive achievement for them on the season.

So... Those are some of the big hitting questions ahead of the Hawks this season. 2020-21 has the potential to be a season to remember for Atlanta. There’s a lot in the air, a lot of questions, concerns but also a lot to look forward to as well should it all come together.

Can they return to the playoffs? Time will tell...