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The Hawks need to decide what kind of team they want to be

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Denver Nuggets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As of Monday evening, the Atlanta Hawks have just parted ways with head coach Lloyd Pierce and sit at a record of 14-20, two games out of qualification for the play-in in the Eastern Conference “awarded” to the 7th through 10th place finishers in the conference.

Needless to say, this season hasn’t come close to expectations set by the owners or fans alike. After a combined record of 49-100 from 2018-20, Pierce finally fielded a squad that could — at the very least — win half their games and move past regular season play for the first time since the 2016-17 season.

Pierce was brought to Atlanta at a time of transition, with the Hawks recently saying goodbye to franchise stalwarts Paul Millsap and Al Horford, and choosing to build through the draft to form a young core that would truly compete among the NBA’s elites.

In 2018, they pitched Dennis Schröder to the Thunder to clear his recent extension off the books and, in doing so, acquire a future pick via absorbing Carmelo Anthony’s exorbitant salary. The big draft move of 2018 needs not rehashing, but it did essentially result in the draft rights to Trae Young and Cam Reddish. A year later, the team would flip Taurean Prince to the Nets to net a pick that would be used in a trade up to No. 4 in the draft to select De’Andre Hunter.

Up until the whirlwind of events that unfolded in November 2020, the Hawks were engaged in a steady and patient rebuild. They maintained roster and financial flexibility, stockpiled picks, and executed the team’s draft picks on what they hoped to be future building blocks.

Save for giving up a first rounder in a 2019 trade deadline deal for Clint Capela, a move virtually no one could pan given Capela’s play this year, the Hawks formed a wall around draft assets and eventually landed Collins, Young, an emerging De’Andre Hunter, a useful weapon in Huerter and defensive havoc machine Cam Reddish with five top-20 first round picks.

But sitting on some $40 million in cap space, and with a clear message from ownership to push towards better results, the front office tried to supplement that young core with veterans they figured could and would push the team over the top.

Certainly it will take time for the young team to learn how to win in big moments, but the veterans haven’t aided that cause in any way. $19.5 million man Danilo Gallinari is shooting decently well but has been nearly immobile on both ends, $7.5 million man Rajon Rondo has been almost unplayable, and the injured Kris Dunn and Bogdan Bogdanovic have hardly broken a sweat in a Hawks jersey for a combined $22 million plus.

The team was built with depth in mind to withstand the uncertain 2020-21 season, and yet they are rather top-heavy in production, with just five players significantly greater than replacement level if VORP is to be believed.

But why rush things? Why shift the timeline of the rebuild so quickly and haphazardly?

The fourth quarter ineptitude is the starkest and most obvious lightning rod for criticism this season. Per the NBA’s stats, Atlanta’s net rating (point differential per 100 possession) is -8.2 in the closing period, the worst mark in the league. The fingers certainly point blame the head coach’s direction for poor execution in the clutch but with the free agency flops (so far), the core has been pressed into learning how to finish games on the fly.

That group of five young players who led the team in 2019-20 would each be no older than 23 years of age by the conclusion of the regular season, and success in the NBA with a core than young is very hard to find in its annals.

This has been a large reason between their three win gap between their actual record and their expected record based on point differential — i.e. Pythagorean record. The team has actually profiled as a perfectly average team, giving up just two more points than they’ve put on their opponents for the whole season.

Just 34 games into having a supposedly competitive roster, Lloyd Pierce has not even made it to the All-Star break, despite the festivities occurring in the arena he has called home since 2018. Does Atlanta want to be known as a destination that constantly churns through coaches and then wonder why a consistent philosophy and identity never sticks?

Between contentious, but ultimately necessary, extension discussion posturing with John Collins, the reported locker room rifts, and a hodgepodge of suboptimal free agency investments, the Hawks have quickly accelerated from future contender to “oh what could have been” in just a couple of months.

As a result of a multi-year contract splurge on free agents that have yet to provide much in the way of positive contributions, the Hawks have essentially no cap space in the summer of 2021, even accounting for cap holds.

Does Nate McMillan save a foundation with so many structural cracks? Probably not.

The long-time head coach does take over the role in an immediate honeymoon period. McMillan is a commanding, defense-first mind who has had a winning multi-year stint as coach of the Seattle Sonics, Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers who came to the Hawks bench just this past season.

So the shift seems to be from a player development-minded coach to one who leans on his veterans to set the tone defensively. But in those 16 years leading a squad, McMillan only has one playoff series victory. Clearly, stability is what the team is looking for in the interim, with postseason success a more distant outcome.

To be fair, it’s not all doom and gloom. The Hawks have been struck by the injury bug to a large degree, and with reports of Bogdanovic’s pending return along with Hunter’s later return on the horizon, the team will pick up some much needed reinforcements. Trae Young was still an All-Star as a second year player and may yet get in his third, John Collins has tangibly improved his defensive play into becoming a formidable, two-way player and Clint Capela has greatly elevated the Hawks’ previously moribund interior defense.

But short term wins pale in importance to a long term plan. And the organization has yet to prove there is a knowable trajectory. In some ways, trading in Pierce for McMillan just feels like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.