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Atlanta Hawks All-Star break mailbag

Atlanta Hawks v Orlando Magic Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks entered the All Star break with a modest two-game winning streak after making the move to dismiss Lloyd Pierce as head coach and naming Nate McMillan to the interim position.

The proverbial first half for Atlanta was dominated by unfortunate injuries, blown fourth quarter leads and the voices of frustrated fans.

What better time to take your questions in mailbag form?

To start with, I’m not sure the team is that far off from living up to the roster they have, fourth quarter struggles aside. They have a narrowly positive net rating after 36 games, even with so many new players needing to be integrated. The Hawks rank 11th on offense and 23rd on defense, and I think that’s within the ballpark range of what was expected.

You can’t fully control if shots go in or not, or maybe more importantly when they go in. But for me, the thing the Hawks can most control as to move the needle in terms of consistency is their defensive effort.

It’s hard to hold up defensively when you are missing your best on ball defenders, De’Andre Hunter, Kris Dunn and Cam Reddish (in a recent stretch). It’s put a lot of stress at the other levels of the defense. At the same time, we’ve seen what it looks like when they do it — such as the Feb. 24 win over Boston — and when they don’t do it — such as the Feb. 12 loss to San Antonio and the Feb. 26 loss to Oklahoma City.

It is a grueling season and most teams are seeing up and down performance in these same areas. Still, the teams that can find a way to bring consistent effort and communication on the defensive end of the court will see results in the standings.

The fourth quarter issues, I think, are growing pains. And they relate as much, if not more, to Trae Young and the offense as to the rest of the team.

As frustrated as fans seem to be about the team’s fourth quarter performance this season, I don’t think the issue should be all that surprising. They are building around undersized third-year point guard that is on a superstar trajectory. Players, even those as talented as Young, have to learn how to manage late-game situations and there is no real way to do that apart from learning from experience.

It’s important to note that, statistically, the Hawks played relatively well in the clutch during Young’s rookie season when he was often closing games with veteran players such as Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon.

Last season, things didn’t go as well as Young consistently closed games with two rookies, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, a fellow second-year player, Kevin Huerter, and a third-year player in John Collins.

The idea this year, at least in theory, was to have the option of surrounding Young with veterans to close games but the injuries have made that a challenge.

Smaller offensive creators face a different challenge on late game possessions. It’s simply easier for opposing defenses to take away optimal space.

One adjustment Atlanta has already shown under McMillan on late offensive possessions is setting up as to maximize the space with which Young can work.

As seen here:

The only teammate up the floor is the one, Huerter, bringing the possibility of a screen. This adjustment allows Young to have everything in front of him.

Contrast that with this:

It may seem subtle but having the additional defender up the floor requires Young to be ready for pressure, or a second defender, to come from nearby.

It is unquestionable that the Hawks should continue looking for ways to help Young find opportunities on these kinds of possessions as to set him up to have maximum control of the action. With that will likely come more growing pains still.

Returning players from injury at or after the trade deadline has long been a cliché for deadline-adjacent moves, but it applies to this year’s Hawks team as any in recent memory.

Bogdan Bogdanovic has just returned. Getting Cam Reddish back would help defensively, especially at the point of attack. Kris Dunn, yet to play this season, would bring a lot of help in that area as well.

The most impactful return would quite obviously be Hunter, who has easily been one of their two most impactful players on each end of the court this season.

The play at the backup point guard spot has been pretty awful. However, the investment they made in Rajon Rondo, as well as the equity he holds as an accomplished veteran in the league, make it hard for me to speculate about a change at that spot apart from Brandon Goodwin or Skylar Mays getting the occasional opportunity.

For me, the most important upgrade that is needed is at the backup center position. If rookie Onyeka Okongwu doesn’t play as much down the stretch of the season, it wouldn’t be all that surprising nor discouraging, at least in my view.

Bruno Fernando just isn’t a fit, right now, for what they need at center. The integration of Capela and Danilo Gallinari this year have shifted how the Hawks deploy their big men offensively. The center needs to be able to rim run, dive in the pick and roll and do damage on the offensive glass. The power forward needs to be able to shoot and, at times, help create.

As such, Atlanta has divested themselves of the heavy dose of “pistol” action we saw last season and this is where Fernando’s skill set best fit. He’s a good screener in the pick and roll but not a reliable lob threat. He has excellent speed to put to use as a rim runner but is a poor finisher at the rim.

A modest addition along the lines of a JaVale McGee or Nerlens Noel could help create some offensive continuity on the second unit and should provide a more stable defensive presence than Okongwu in his current rookie form.

If you are wondering about an addition on the wing... something has gone horribly wrong if they end up needing to add wing depth to this roster.

This is a classic coaching conundrum. Do you let your star point guard do the things he feels most confident doing? Like all of the time? Or do you implement more diverse action?

There is no doubt that Hunter will help, especially when opposing defenses switch up and put a bigger wing on Young. Hunter attacks cross matches with a ton of confidence.

Bogdanovic will help too. Playing next to Young, he has the potential to be one of the more reliable secondary creators in the league. He’s excellent using space on the weakside to attack a compromised defense.

For me, I’m still looking for them to run something, anything really, that takes advantage of Young’s elite ability to shoot off of the catch. His numbers are down this year but the sample across each of his three seasons leaves little doubt that there is a lot that could be generated with Young in this area.

To a degree, though, that starts with having confidence that someone other than Young can get them into a set. And that hasn’t been a slam dunk this season.

Do you play Young with Rondo? Can Hunter or Huerter give them what is needed as to do this? One would hope so, but there is more nuance to this role than it seems on the surface.

I’m also curious to see if they can do something to get Collins more opportunities to attack mismatches in the post. He’s only had 56 possessions but he has managed a whopping 1.52 points per possession on these opportunities.

Collins’ ability to create shots in the midrange is elite when he’s not being defended by bigger defenders, and that is one reason they have long preferred playing him at the power forward position.

I don’t think any of the young players, drafted in the first round, have fallen out of the category of being “worth continuing to groom.” But I think the question about how minutes get distributed with the return of Bogdanovic is an important one.

Huerter continues to flash a tantalizing combination of skills although his aggressiveness still comes and goes, as does his ability to make an impact on the defensive end of the court.

Reddish simply has too much upside, on both ends of the court. Wings that possess elite size and the raw package of traits he does are extraordinarily rare. And Hunter, of course, is just on a different trajectory right now.

In my view, they all should play meaningful roles, but it’s not the end of the world if Huerter and Reddish don’t close games when the matchup, or their individual play on any given night, doesn’t justify it.

I think the arc of Jaylen Brown, as one example, is instructive here. The former No. 3 overall pick started just 20 games in his rookie season. After starting 70 in his sophomore campaign, he went back to the bench in his third season and played just 26 minutes per game, and here he is an All Star in his fifth season.

There is no reason that Reddish would be diminished from a development standpoint on this kind of path. Expectations for Huerter aren’t quite the same, but likewise, he shouldn’t be hindered from making progress if Bogdanovic is closing games ahead of him.

From a development standpoint, the Hawks haven’t (yet) missed on any of their top-20 picks in the Travis Schlenk era, and that’s saying something.

Young is definitely in his own stratosphere here. It would take an earth-shattering development to even conceive of him in the context of a trade that makes any sort of sense.

For me, Hunter has moved into a clear second position, especially when considering contract situation. A second-year wing putting up 17.2 points per game on a 64 TS% while operating as the de facto point guard defender is remarkable and extremely valuable.

From the standpoint of generating value on the trade market, I think Reddish may be the next strongest asset. Collins is the better current player by miles, but Reddish is still under control for at least two more seasons after this one and offers size and skill potential at a position of scarcity.

Collins would have to be next, even with his pending free agency, because of his easy offense and improved defense. It’s just hard to reliably generate value on the trade market with players headed toward restricted free agency. To a degree, trade conversations alone send the signal that a team may not be looking to be aggressive in matching an expensive offer sheet come the offseason.

Huerter would rank ahead of Okongwu, in my mind, because he can handle the ball and shoot. He also has valuable size as a shooting guard and could still grow into being a reliable defender.

As a rookie big man that will be consistently asked to match up with bigger opponents, there are probably a mixed sort of evaluations on Okongwu (there were with him as a draft prospect) and a potential trade market would likely reflect that. I’m quite bullish on him still, but that, of course, doesn’t mean the market would be.

Personally, I barely know who is in this draft class yet. My individual process is that I can’t really dig into draft material until about playoff time when there aren’t so many NBA games on each night.

Having said that, their goals for the 2021 draft will be significantly shaped by how the rest of this season goes and by the outlook of their interest and commitment to retaining the talent of Collins, assuming he’s not traded for.... a potential lottery pick.

Thanks for all of the great questions. Enjoy the break in Hawks action. Once play resumes on Thursday, Atlanta will play 36 games in 68 days, and we’ll have it covered here.