The second team going fishing this postseason is the Hawks, who were sent packing by the Jimmy Butler-and-Kyle Lowry-less Heat on Tuesday. Atlanta struggled mightily in its first-round series, as the Heat grounded its once high-flying offense. Trae Young had one of the worst stretches of his career, and the Hawks didn’t do a great job of defending either. (Atlanta’s minus-11.8 net rating in the playoffs is second worst only to the Bulls.) So where do the Hawks go from here? Here are three offseason questions for the franchise.
What does Trae Young do About his Defense?
Young had a rough series on both ends of the floor against Miami. Offensively, he was stifled, finishing with more turnovers than field goals made over the course of five games. Defensively, the Heat constantly involved him in actions on and off the ball. And because Atlanta tries its hardest to keep Young from getting switched (remember when PJ Tucker caught him in the post?), the Hawks often give up open looks elsewhere while trying to help Young. During the regular season, Atlanta finished with the fifth-worst defense in the league, though it was a little better on that end of the floor after the All-Star break. All of the team’s struggles can’t be placed on Young. At the same time, in a playoff series in which opposing coaches can zero in on him—and have the players to do so—it becomes a tricky situation for the Hawks.
Young’s size is probably going to prevent him from being a true stopper or high-impact defensive player. Even getting him to something like average would be a win, though. And we’ve seen perimeter stars go through this before. Opposing teams may still hunt Devin Booker, but he’s come a long way from early in his career to where he is now. Young may never become good enough to turn Atlanta into a switchable behemoth. He can still work on how he fights through screens, his off-ball awareness, and chasing players who move often in the halfcourt. An improvement on that end of the floor from Young would go a long way in how the Hawks stack up against some of the better teams in the East.
Who is Onyeka Okongwu’s best frontcourt partner?
Okongwu played an important role during the Hawks’ first-round series, as Clint Capela missed multiple games due to a knee injury. While Okongwu ultimately wasn’t impactful enough to change the course of the series, throughout the season and in the playoffs he flashed enough potential to be an important part of this team moving forward. It’s unclear how he slots into the frontcourt, however. By Cleaning the Glass, the 6’9″ Okongwu played 100% of his minutes at center this season. (He played a negligible three minutes with Capela.) In the 122 minutes that Okongwu played with Young and John Collins, the Hawks posted a Okongwu vowed in his exit interview Wednesday he would return next season with a jump shot, which could actually have interesting ramifications for Atlanta.
Essentially, while the Okongwu-Collins pairing is exciting in theory, it didn’t deliver great results this season. Can the Hawks expect them to grow into a more formidable frontcourt duo? If Okongwu does actually turn into a bit of a shooter, pairing him with Capela—signed through 2025—intrigues me because it gives this team a really solid defensive frontcourt to protect Young. Asking Okongwu to become a good enough shooter in one offseason to maintain the team’s spacing will be a tall task, though.
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What’s almost certainly likely to happen is Danilo Gallinari will not be brought back next season, because the Hawks can save nearly $16 million by releasing him before his contract fully guarantees. Figuring out how to best utilize Collins, Okongwu and Capela will be a delicate dance for the Hawks moving forward. While the Collins-Capela pairing has generally been good on both ends of the floor, Okongwu’s upside demands a bigger role.
Is De’Andre Hunter the second star?
Hunter was probably Atlanta’s best player in the first round, leading the team in points per game as well as picking up the toughest defensive assignments every night. I’ve always been high on Hunter. He’s exactly what you look for in a modern wing—size, shooting and the ability to guard multiple positions. Injuries have probably held Hunter back more than anything. He missed most of the 2020-21 season and most of the playoffs that year as well. In ’21-22, he missed another 29 games in the middle of the season.
If the Hawks want to move up a tier in the East, finding a second star—or even a secondary ball-handler—is going to become important. Booker has Chris Paul. The Jazz brought Mike Conley in for Donovan Mitchell. Even Luka Dončić is now flanked by Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie. Especially with Young’s shooting prowess, there’s an opportunity for Atlanta’s offense to look much different if Nate McMillan had somebody else to initiate reliably. Imagine if Young moved around off the ball in a similar manner to Steph Curry? That’s an element missing from his game, and it could both make his life easier in a series like the one against the Heat and generate even more open looks for the Hawks’ cadre of shooters. Of course, Curry is one of one, and there are reasons not every star is committed to playing that way. And the Warriors also have one of the great facilitators in the league in Draymond Green. But in order for the Hawks to leverage Young’s shooting ability if he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, they need someone who can pick apart defenses in his own right.
If Hunter can become that guy trusted with the ball in his hands at the top of the key, that would greatly benefit Atlanta moving forward. What the Hawks’ first-round loss showed is this team needs more variety, because a great defense can significantly reduce Young’s impact. Hunter making a leap—and thus making the offense a little more egalitarian—would make Atlanta much more difficult to stop than simply slowing down Young. Though Hunter has largely been a spot-up player with the Hawks, he showed in this series he can do a little more with the ball in his hands. Having a less Young-centric offense the team can go to when the situation calls for it is something Atlanta definitely needs to be prepared for next season.
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