NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.
The Hawks went 20-47 last season with a 21-year-old All-Star.
How should they build around Trae Young?
The question is incredibly difficult, and there’s no real blueprint to follow. Yes, having a young star is a nice start. But the situation is ripe with peril.
Only one other team in NBA history – 2012-13 Cavaliers (24-58 with a 20-year-old Kyrie Irving) – has been so bad with an All-Star so young.
Irving seemed unhappy in Cleveland amid losing. The Cavs added LeBron James and won a championship. Irving was still unhappy in Cleveland, this time for taking a backseat to LeBron.
But that’s not a good comparison. Young isn’t Irving, who has his own personality and ambitions. Atlanta has no LeBron who’d sign with a bad team just because he was born nearby.
The Hawks face unique complications.
Young has already shown frustration with his weak supporting cast. That can lead to a toxic team culture. Losing is miserable, especially to a competitor like Young.
But realistically, Young – unless he breaks from precedent – will sign a max contract extension next summer that grants Atlanta control through age 26 or 27. It is far more important he’s satisfied with the organization then than now. If the Hawks commit too many resources to winning now, they could be depleted/trending in the wrong direction as Young approaches unrestricted free agency in five or six years.
Atlanta’s best method of getting players who’ll be helpful then is securing high draft picks. The Hawks already have a deep group of B(-ish)-level prospects: John Collins, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, De'Andre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu (No. 6 pick in this year’s draft). But what’s the confidence level that collection of players produces a sufficient supporting cast in five or six years? The Hawks could use more time in the lottery, and this team wasn’t yet necessarily bound to surge ahead. Even Young has deficiencies – defense, ball security – that inhibit winning.
But, again, another losing season would have been miserable. The star player didn’t want that. Ownership didn’t want that.
So, Atlanta used its massive cap space to build around the 22-year-old Young with veterans:
- 28-year-old Bogdan Bogdanovic (four years, $72 million)
- 32-year-old Danilo Gallinari (three years, $61,425,000 or two years, $45,950,000)
- 34-year-old Rajon Rondo (two years, $15 million)
- 26-year-old Kris Dunn (two years, $10 million)
Some of these signings look better than others.
A shooting guard, Bogdanovic brings a quality all-around skill set. He should start, take advantage of the attention Young receives and unlock Young’s off-ball ability. Bogdanovic could still be a good player in several years. Though it’s often concerning when an incumbent team – which presumably knows a player best – declines to match an offer sheet, the usual warning doesn’t apply here. The Kings have a new front office and more latitude to rebuild. Though the Hawks had to make a large offer to pry Bogdanovic in restricted free agency, it wasn’t wildly high.
Gallinari is not only older, he carries major injury history. But getting his third season only partially guaranteed helps. If he’s truly willing to come off the bench behind Collins at power forward, that’d ease another concern. Gallinari is a superb scorer and shooter.
Atlanta was especially atrocious when Young sat last season. Rondo should shore up those backup-point guard minutes. But the Hawks probably could have gotten more bang for their buck. Though Rondo is coming off a nice playoff run with the Lakers, his recent regular-season performances have generously been uneven.
Dunn is an elite perimeter defender. His offense lags. On one hand, he’s the youngest of these signings and has the most room for improvement over the next few years. But he’s also signed for just two seasons.
Atlanta’s smaller moves – trading Dewayne Dedmon to the Pistons for Tony Snell and signing Solomon Hill to a minimum salary – were perfectly fine. Snell is cheaper and more helpful than Dedmon. The Hawks could use Snell’s wing shooting far more than another center in Dedmon. Atlanta has a new starting center in Clint Capela, who was acquired last season but has yet to play for his new team.
Which gets to yet another potential pitfall: The Hawks might suddenly be too deep.
They have about 12 rotation-worthy players when everyone is healthy. The logjam is particularly tight with bigs Capela, Collins, Gallinari and Okongwu. There ought to be more temptation to play small lineups with Hunter at power forward than big lineups with Gallinari at small forward, where he’d be an absolute defensive liability.
Maybe that depth will be an advantage amid the coronavirus pandemic and related training issues. Or perhaps it’ll create tension as players want more minutes. Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce could have a tough job, especially with former Pacers coach Nate McMillan looming down the bench. McMillan knows plenty about helping a team be good but not great.
The Hawks are chasing the No. 8 seed just as the NBA revamps its playoff format with a play-in tournament for the seventh-, eighth-, ninth- and tenth-place teams in each conference. Though it seems counterintuitive, the play-in actually makes the regular season more meaningful. Now, only the top six teams are assured of reaching the playoffs, and Atlanta faces a steep climb into the top six.
Want to put the Hawks ahead of the perennially overlooked Pacers? Fine. But the Bucks, Celtics, Nets, Heat, 76ers and Raptors all look significantly better than Atlanta.
Still, it’s better to finish seventh than eighth than ninth than tenth. The Hawks appear to have gained significant ground in the East’s middle class.
Competing is rewarding. Winning is satisfying. One more time: Losing is miserable.
Yet, these moderate short-term gains carry long-term risk. And for what? Better matchups in a high-variance play-in tournament and no assurance of making the playoffs?
I’m concerned about the Hawks’ vision. But they didn’t go overboard by trading their first-round pick. In free agency, Atlanta did well enough to get some benefit of the doubt.
The Hawks are better. They can figure out the rest later.
Offseason grade: B-