The Atlanta Hawks had to face the burden of expectations in
Fresh off a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference Finals,
Atlanta entered the season as a picturesque franchise with a
mixture of realized star power and unrealized potential.
Unfortunately, not every young team progresses linearly.
On Jan. 14, the Hawks were seven games under .500. As late as
Jan. 27, they were 11th in the Eastern Conference standings. And
despite a spectacular rally to 43-39 and a successful Play-In
Tournament run, Atlanta still looked hopeless for most of its
first-round series against the Miami Heat.
And yet, the Hawks still finished with the second-best Offensive
Rating in basketball, per Cleaning the Glass. Trae Young took the
next step as a bona fide superstar. Onyeka Okongwu arrived after an
injury-plagued rookie year. Even though Atlanta did underachieve,
they still have several talented young players with room to grow.
So how can the franchise get back on the right track?
Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler has hinted at a
possible offseason overhaul.
“I think if you asked our front office they would say that we
thought based on last season’s visit to the Eastern Conference
finals, that we could bring back predominantly the same team and
get better and expect it to be better,” Ressler said. “I don’t
think that worked out the way we thought.
“So yes, I think we should have tried to get better rather than
bring back what we had. That won’t happen again, by the way. It was
a mistake, in my opinion.”
Atlanta first has to answer The John Collins Question.
The Hawks signed Collins to a massive five-year, $125 million
contract extension last summer, essentially locking him in as
Young’s partner in crime. His first year under the new deal went
The 24-year-old appeared in just 54 games this past season, and
just four after the All-Star break, due to injuries. He posted the
worst True Shooting percentage of his career (still a pretty nice
61.0%) and saw his lowest usage rate in four seasons. In January,
Collins went on record voicing his displeasure about his role, and
as of that moment, he had statistical evidence to back
Collins possesses undeniable on-court synergy with Young, but is
that enough for him to want him to stay, and for the front office
to keep faith?
Ressler also made two other notable comments that could pertain
to Collins. One is that he’s not afraid of spending into the luxury
tax to make the Hawks a championship contender. Perhaps this means
Atlanta values Collins regardless of his salary and wants to
fortify other areas. But Ressler also added: “I think every
team in the NBA should add a superstar whenever they can, and I
promise you we’re no exception.”
Collins would surely help Atlanta chase a superstar if he were
included in a trade. We’ll see if he’s on the table for
The Hawks don’t have many major in-house free agency questions
to address. Their most notable upcoming free agent is probably
Delon Wright, who assumed duties as a backup point guard as the
season went on and provided solid play on low usage. Other free
agents who did not lock down a rotation spot include: Lou Williams,
Kevin Knox, Gorgui Dieng, Skylar Mays and Sharife Cooper.
Cooper should expectedly be re-signed. The rookie point guard
was one of the surprise fallers of the 2021 NBA Draft and showed
promise in the G League, averaging 16.3 points and 6.7 assists per
game with the College Park Skyhawks.
The relative roster security does mean, however, that Atlanta is
strapped for cap space. Spotrac estimates that the franchise won’t
even come close to achieving any sort of practical cap space for
the summer with Young, Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Clint Capela and
Bogdan Bogdanovic each making more than $18 million next season.
The best they’ll have to work with is the taxpayer mid-level
exception, valued at about $6.3 million. Any significant addition
will have to be via trade.
Atlanta will also have just its own draft picks at Nos. 16 and
44. These are quality chances for the Hawks to beef up their bench
or add a defense-first piece, and as they know from last year with
Cooper, there’s always a chance to grab a steal in the second
Our Senior NBA Draft Analyst Matt Babcock projects the Hawks to
select Ohio State wing Malaki Branham with the 16th pick in his
latest NBA Mock Draft. Branham is a dynamic scorer
already as a freshman and could pack a punch off the bench with his
ability to pull up and get to the rim. At No. 44, Atlanta is
projected to select Wake Forest’s Jake LaRavia, who has been a
recent draft riser (at least in the podcasts I listen to!).
Whatever moves the Hawks decide to make, they need to positively
impact the defense. Atlanta ranked 26th in Defensive Rating this
season and was abjectly awful for most of the year. De’Andre Hunter
only appeared in 53 games due to injuries, but his presence can’t
be the sole supporting beam for the perimeter defense.
With an owner itching to make trades and a roster still full of
optimism and question marks, the Hawks should be a must-watch team
as the offseason approaches.