In 2023, Atlanta is no longer content with the status quo.
With an almost entirely new coaching staff compared to last season and new schemes soon to be implemented, the Hawks are trying to take advantage of formerly overlooked margins.
In quickly shipping off John Collins even before free agency began this summer, the franchise signaled their intent to make bold moves in an attempt to create a leaner basketball product. To be fair, Collins’ large annual salary and declining production were major impetuses for the move, but also his fit as a non-shooter in 2022-23 next to Clint Capela created major question marks.
De’Andre Hunter will turn 26 this December, but he has yet to put together the same professional résumé as Collins, who looked to be on the path to 20-and-10 type of production in his prime. Although ‘Dre’ has been a solid shooter spacing the floor in the spread pick-and-roll scheme in his four years in the league, his rebounding and creation for others remains well short of league average wings and forwards in today’s NBA. Most alarmingly, Hunter’s +/- from when he’s on versus off the court on a per 100 possession basis has been at least a point and a half below water in each of the past two seasons.
That brings us to this question: what is the path forward for De’Andre Hunter? He now has as much competition on the wings as he’s ever had since being drafted. Bogdan Bogdanović remains a proficient shooter and ball handler. Saddiq Bey acquitted himself well after coming over from Detroit midway through last season. Second year player AJ Griffin is looking to make a sophomore leap.
Hunter stepped into his role with the Hawks in the middle of a rebuild as the fourth overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He has started 200 of 206 regular season games since. In those 206 games, he averaged 31.1 minutes per contest. In essence, he has been the number one option at small forward for the four years since his arrival. But if Hunter struggles early this upcoming season with viable options behind him on the bench, his playing time may truly be in jeopardy for the first time in his career.
The four-year, $90 million base contract extension with incentives he signed last summer kicks in this season, and thus far his play has yet to warrant that price tag. The Hawks desperately need his wing and point-of-attack defense in certain matchups, but most advanced defensive metrics suggest his overall impact — and even his defense — has slipped in recent years. Per Basketball-Reference’s query tool Stathead, Hunter was one of six players — and one of just three non-rookies — with at least 2,000 minutes played and a Box Plus/Minus of -3.0 or less and a Defensive Box Plus/Minus of -1.0 or less in 2022-23.
As such, Hunter has been involved in myriad trade rumors, most often brought up as a key piece in any Pascal Siakam trade, although that may be pegged to salary matching rules in trades more than performance. Brad Rowland of Uproxx and Locked on Hawks on a recent episode of the Locked on Hawks podcast involving yours truly had this to say, “the one guy that I am very, very, very confident — 99% [sure] — will be in the trade is Hunter. Everything else, we’ll see.” In short, the smoke in the rumor mill is that there is high motivation toward moving Hunter as his salary appears to be bloated going forward on the aforementioned extension.
It is, of course, possible that with the absence of Collins, Hunter can and/or will play a lot more of his minutes at the 4 than ever before. In a reduced role where his spot-up shooting can be prioritized, that spacing effect can force defenses to stay home on Trae Young and Clint Capela pick-and-roll actions, for example. Questions may then arise about his ability to guard other big forwards or rebound at a higher clip, but in the short term one could do a lot worse in a stopgap power forward.
So this all brings the Hawks to an uncomfortable crossroads: on a team light on perimeter defense, can the Hawks afford to move Hunter? Or can they afford not to pull the trigger on any deal for pure salary relief in the same vein as the Collins deal?
Should the franchise continue to prioritize “financial flexibility” in an effort to avoid the luxury tax line, the Hawks may have no choice but to move Hunter for minimal in return and promote players like Griffin and Bey in his place. Either direction brings some unease, but in my view with a clearer vision this regime under new head coach Quin Snyder and relatively new general manager Landry Fields, now is the time to make a bold move and avoid complacency.