April 6, 2020, 12:27 pm
The attitude among fans and media heading into the Atlanta Hawks’ 2019-2020 season stood in stark contrast to how the team was perceived heading into the prior season. The questions that once surrounded Trae Young and his ability to adapt to the NBA game transformed into whether he would make the All-Star leap in his second season. Those who were skeptical of GM Travis Schlenk’s decision-making a year ago now clamored to see how his latest bold maneuvering in drafting De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish would pan out.
The Hawks were widely seen as a team quickly on the rise. The most optimistic prognosticators predicted that they could crack the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture if all went according to plan. Now frozen at 20-47 in a suspended NBA season, it is safe to say that those rosy projections were far off from becoming a reality.
The young Hawks did not catch teams off guard the way they did in the second half of last season. Those who predicted success in year two of the rebuild did not account for how vital veteran presences such as Dewayne Dedmon and Kent Bazemore were to last season’s competitive play. With three rookies slotting into heavy rotation minutes on a team with an already heavy youthful presence, the Hawks were frequently gassed up by more experienced squads who took advantage of regular defensive slip ups and predictable fourth quarter offensive sets.
Though the 2019-2020 season for the Hawks could easily be defined by reality checks, there is still room to be optimistic once this team is able to resume play. Here are the major storylines from Atlanta’s season: how it started, where it (likely) finished, and where they go from here.
The Collins Suspension
The great what-if of this season falls squarely on John Collins and what could have been had he not been infamously suspended for 25 games after testing positive for PEDs. There is never an opportune time to lose a franchise cornerstone for over a fourth of the season, but to have this occur as the Hawks were introducing their core rookies to NBA play was particularly crippling to their development and ultimately to the team’s success. The Hawks went 4-21 through Collins’ suspension, unable to replicate his invaluable interior presence on either side of the ball. There was no replacement on the roster to come close to replicating Collins’ faceup game, nor was there a steady presence to rely on for offense in the times Trae Young had to sit.
Really, if the Hawks weren’t getting a bucket off of a Young iso play, a drive to the rim off of a Young pick-and-roll, or a spot-up three off of a Young kick out, then the Hawks just weren’t going to score. Had Collins been around, Atlanta would have had more options than just those three variants of Young plays. He had proven capable of generating his own offense off the low-block, developed a reliable 3-point shot and was already one of the best rim-runners in the NBA. Nobody else on Atlanta’s roster was capable of generating their own offense like that without having somebody else set the table for them.
Collins could have aided the early development of Atlanta’s young wings too. Cam Reddish, for example, would have had more opportunities to learn to play with the ball in his hands, with a valuable safety net in Collins there to catch a pass or an offensive rebound off a drive. Instead, Reddish was forced to generate most of his offense playing off-ball in Young-oriented sets. Whenever he ran a two-man game with Atlanta’s less talented bigs, it would often end with a turnover off an errant pass or peter out into nothingness after running into a wall of defenders off a lackluster screen. Would a lot of this have happened with Reddish even if Collins was around? Probably. Would he have improved in those situations quicker had a player of Collins’ caliber been around instead of Jabari Parker or Alex Len? Probably so as well.
Having said all of that, it’d be disingenuous to blame all of these early failures on Collins’ absence. The Hawks had the toughest schedule in the NBA through the 2019 portion of the season’s calendar, facing off against the Bucks twice, the Lakers twice, the Clippers, Raptors, Rockets and Nuggets all within those 25 games without Collins.
There is also an argument to be made that his absence allowed those glaring holes mentioned above to come to light sooner than they would have had he been there from the start. Without JC, the Hawks were forced to grapple with their lack of playmakers and shot-creators early in the season, leading to solid trades for Jeff Teague and Dewayne Dedmon to help fortify their supporting cast. With a healthier dose of veteran presence, Reddish, Hunter and Kevin Huerter eventually received more opportunity to focus on developing as shot creators.
A Year to Remember for Trae Young
The undoubted highlight of the season for Atlanta has to be the solidification of Trae Young’s stardom, both on the court and off. Trae finished the season averaging 29.6 points, 9.3 assists and 3.4 triples made per-game, ranking fourth, second and eighth in the league in those three categories, respectively. Though he still had his warts in terms of low FG% on high volume and a giant turnover load (4.8 per-game), the real life success translated to fantasy as well. Young finished the season as the 17th overall best player in 9-cat, and the 7th overall best player in 8-cat leagues. Those rankings were just about where his ADP was for both leagues types, making him, on the whole, a net-positive asset on draft day.
The statistical success was matched by equally gaudy highlights as well. Young made routine appearances on daily highlight reels with 30-foot 3-pointers, crossovers and nutmegs that weren’t always fondly received by opposing players. The stats and highlights easily made Trae the most nationally visible Atlanta Hawk since the great Dominique Wilkins, and in just two years he looks like he could one day become one of the greatest players to ever play for the franchise.
All of the notoriety he received this year was punctuated by his wide presence at All-Star weekend. Young participated in each day of the three day weekend, playing in the Rising Stars game, the 3-point Shootout and starting in the All-Star game itself.
All of this came together for Young in his best game this season and of his entire career to date. In the first game following the All-Star game, Young led the Hawks to a thrilling 129-124 home victory over the Miami Heat. Young scored a career-high 50 points on 12-25 shooting to go with eight triples, eight assists and a couple of steals. He busted out highlights, came through in the clutch, and looked every bit like a man who was prepared to lead his team to a late-season push just as he did last year. While we may have lost the opportunity to see him do that, the fire he exuded in that game serves as fond memory of what could have been.
Rooks Spreading their Wings
Much of the Hawks’ offseason hype came from the anticipation of seeing how prized rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish meshed with the young Hawks. For the most part it was a relative success. Hunter, who was heralded as one of the most “NBA-ready” players in the draft, led all rookies in total minutes played, and ranked in the top five for total rebounds and triples. He started all but one of the 63 games he played and surprised many with how developed he was offensively after once being considered a non-factor on that end. All in all, Hunter brought forth a surprising amount of stability and consistency in what was a quiet, yet effective rookie campaign.
Reddish was in contrast to Hunter for much of his rookie season. The 10th overall pick received more hype than his 4th overall counterpart, seen by many as more of a project but possessing a much higher ceiling than Hunter should he reach his full potential. Right off the bat, Reddish displayed athleticism and keen defensive instincts that made you believe in the future scouts thought he could achieve. However, for as much as he showed off what he could become, much of Reddish’s rookie season was mired with inconsistency offensively.
He shot a dismal 35% from the floor through his first 45 games, he looked sloppy while trying to create for others, and looked lost while trying to free himself up for open looks when he played off the ball. Though he was clearly one of the better defenders on the team, even better than Hunter, his offense made it tough to rely on in most close-game situations.
That being said, something looked different about him in his last handful of games. Through the beginning of February onward, Reddish looked like he was starting to figure things out. Over that 13-game sample between February 1st and March 11th, Reddish’s shot looked magnificent. He shot 48% from the floor while averaging 15 points, 1.9 triples and 1.2 steals per-game in 27.8 minutes. That was good enough to put him inside the top-100 in category leagues.
The combination of his now potent shot and his already above average defensive acumen made him look as close to the hyped-up version of himself than any other juncture of his first season. If there is any one thing that is eating at me most as a Hawks fan in this seemingly lost season, it is how much higher could Reddish have gone? Was this a blip on the radar or was this just the beginning? 13 games was too few to extrapolate a good answer from, but just enough to keep you intrigued. Whenever the NBA resumes, he will be the guy I will be watching the closest for this team.
While much can be and has been made of the Hawks’ dysfunction on the court, not much has been made of the disconnect that appears to be brewing out of all three branches of the organization: the players, coaching, and management/ownership. The most prominent and concerning would appear to be the riff between Trae Young and dead coach Lloyd Pierce. Many articles have been written about the frosty nature of Young and Pierce’s dynamic, with some honing in on Young seeming checked out during timeout huddles and taking exception to instances where Pierce calls out the team for not competing. Young responded to an instance like that with a curt “That’s his opinion” after Pierce knocked the team after another blowout loss.
While that is mostly pure speculation, one instance in particular from this past February has caught on with many media sites as a root of concern. This pertains to comments Lloyd Pierce made about Trae Young being left off the 44 finalists for Team USA. When asked “if it was hard to not see Young named a finalist” from the AJC’s Sarah Spencer, Pierce, who worked as an assistant coach with Team USA over the summer, offered a defense of the selection process, saying “No, because honestly I respect the league, I respect the levels and layers you have to go through. Trae’s having a great year. These guys have had great careers.” Young took exception to the lack of defense from his coach with a not-so-subtle “Hmm that’s interesting…” tweet just hours after those comments were made public.
Now, this comes off as pretty gossip-raggy to me, yet there has been recent momentum behind this riff written rather recently that has me raising eyebrows. Chris Kirschner of the Athletic, citing much of what is detailed above, said that sources close to Young confirmed to him that the star point-guard isn’t particularly fond of his head coach. Beyond that, Kirchner referenced other anonymous players who offered critiques of Pierce, with particularly pointed criticism from one player who said “It’s almost as if we actually are tanking on purpose,” in reference to Pierce’s in-game decision making.
Tension building between players and coaching staff isn’t a shocker considering the team is 49-100 through the last two seasons. The opinion of a player of Young’s stature, however, carries a certain weight to it, particularly if others in the locker room agree with him. An organization as starved for star-presence as the Hawks could be at risk to make rash decisions if it means pleasing said aforementioned star.
The Hawks, in particular their ownership, have been too optimistic in their projections for the duration of their rebuild. Though they signaled they were prepared for a lengthy rebuild when they first hired Pierce, the early success of Young, Collins and Huerter have the higher-ups fixated on a shorter timeline. If they get too ahead of themselves, Pierce could soon find himself to be in the wrong type of situation. The Hawks and their coaching situation should be monitored as they approach next season.
Ode to Vinsanity
To end this on a positive note, for all the disappointment that surrounded this season for the Hawks, they still found solace in helping usher in an all-time great’s graceful end to a legendary career. Vince Carter played his 21st and 22nd NBA seasons as a member of the Hawks. He endeared himself to the fanbase and community at large for his willingness to forgo ring-chasing to help build culture for a franchise that certainly needed it, and commanded respect and admiration for how he still managed to play professional ball as a 43-year-old.
Everyone knew that this was set to be Carter’s final season, and though he maintained that he never wanted a glamorized send-off like his peers had received in the past, fans both at home and in opponent’s arenas never failed to shower him with adulation. Whenever he checked into the game at State Farm Arena, the PA announcer would say his name a little louder, playing to the crowd who always gave him rousing applause. Many of his former teams gave him tributes, and opposing players from every franchise dapped him up pre- and post-game. He was clearly adored by his teammates, who admired his longevity as much as they liked to crack jokes about it.
While all the drama from John Collins’ suspension dampened expectations and tensions between star player and head coach swirled, the joy Hawks fans had when they saw the legend of Vinsanity take the court washed those demons away. It was fun as hell being a part of his final ride as a Hawks fan, and that’s a sentiment I imagine most who were intimately involved with this team over these last two years felt as well.
March 11th was the final day of the NBA season before they were forced to suspend operations due to the coronavirus. The Hawks happened to be among the teams playing that day, playing at home against the Knicks. The game was about mid-way through the 4th quarter when the news was announced that the NBA season was suspended indefinitely. The game wound up going into overtime, a period in what I will forever remember as the most tense, meaningless basketball I’ve ever watched.
The Hawks ultimately lost this game, but in the final seconds, Lloyd Pierce, knowing full well what this overtime period now signified, subbed in Vince Carter for what was possibly the final seconds of his career. Carter pulled up from three and swished it home, sending the fans and the players on the court into a frenzy. Carter never wanted a showboaty send off, but should this season end up being lost to history, perhaps he inadvertently found one in those final seconds.