Anything but Satisfied
While Recognizing Last Season's Success, the Hawks Keep Eyes Forward
With one preseason game in 11 days followed by six regular-season games in 10 days, the Hawks know the calm before the storm ends when they take the floor for the season opener Thursday.
Kevin Huerter embraces the switch.
"Yesterday was the first day where I really was like, 'Man, I'm sick and tired of guarding Dre and Bogi (De'Andre Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic) every single day. I'm ready to guard someone else and take it out on other teams.'"
Based on the preseason rotation (and the fact that he is guarding Dre and Bogi in practice), Huerter figures to begin the season as a plug-and-play sixth man capable of subbing in at any of the perimeter positions, and equally ready to jump into the starting lineup when the Hawks need a sub due to injury. The fact that Huerter, whom the Hawks signed to a contract extension Monday, will be coming off the bench serves as a testament to a key strength of the Hawks: their depth.
Without a doubt, point guard Trae Young scintillated as the Hawks won two playoff rounds last season while Trae averaged 28.8 points per game in the postseason. But Trae had a lot of help – and that help returns this season: Clint Capela protecting the rim and anchoring the defense, John Collins rolling to the rim and doing a bit of everything on offense, and Hunter and Bogdanovic punishing defenses as two-way threats who can both shoot from the outside and drive the ball to the rim.
The Hawks will also return Huerter, guard Cam Reddish and forward Danilo Gallinari, all of whom made significant contributions to the postseason run. Big man Onyeka Okongwu had offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, but the Hawks are hopeful that he can make a return for the majority of his second season. The two biggest offseason veteran acquisitions – Delon Wright and Gorgui Dieng – should stabilize the backup point guard and center positions, with Wright giving the Hawks a bigger option who thrives defending other point guards (as well as one who can play with Trae) and Dieng giving them the rare combo of high-level rim protection and crafty offensive spacing.
An ankle injury limited Wright in the preseason, denying him of a prime opportunity to get familiar with his teammates. Head coach Nate McMillan is open to some different possibilities to what the bench offense under Wright might look like.
"That second unit will establish more of a tempo the more that they play together. Maybe they will be a team that runs. They may be a team that is better in the halfcourt," McMillan said. "Delon is getting used to the guys that he is playing with, so it has yet to be seen what type of tempo that second group is going to play with."
What McMillan does expect is that with Huerter, Wright, Reddish and 16-year veteran Lou Williams, the Hawks will be able to hunt matchups when opponents include weaker defensive players in their perimeter rotation – just as Huerter himself did in scoring 27 points in Game 7 of the Hawks' second-round win over Philadelphia.
If all goes well, the Hawks aspire to a twofold boost in depth. In addition to adding Wright, Dieng, and drafting rookies Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper, they also hope to stay healthier. While depth is crucial in case of injury, it also means that there will be players waiting for opportunities.
"We were a team last year that didn't start off well," McMillan said. "We finished strong. It's something that can take some time. With all of the guys that we have coming back – and playing time and minutes – it is going to take some time to get that (continuity), for guys to get comfortable in their roles, and they will find out those roles as we get into the season."
To get that kind of buy-in from his players, McMillan will try to rekindle the chemistry that the Hawks had last season, knowing fully well that such chemistry is a season-to-season proposition.
"It's connecting. It's sacrificing," he said. "It's believing in each other. It's trusting each other. That was something that we developed, certainly in the second half of the season. It is something that we have to continue to work on to get it back. It just doesn't happen because you're bringing back the same group. You've got to work at that. You have got to work at playing as one. You have got to recommit."
And so the work continues with an implicit nod to one important NBA axiom: success is not linear. Just because the Hawks made it to the Conference Finals last year does not mean that they should get to the Finals this season. Alas, it's not that simple. So what do we know? We know that the Hawks should contend, which is why it is doubly important that the Hawks either signed or extended the contracts of Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela and Kevin Huerter to keep them in Atlanta for the long term. When you have a contender, you want to keep that window of contention open as long as possible.
"There is a commitment that (owners) Tony (Ressler) and Jami (Gertz) have made toward this roster, both coaches and players." McMillan said. "Guys are signed up for the next few years, and we can build off of what we've started last season. Everybody should be now comfortable with their commitment to sign on and to come back, and now move forward with trying to continue to build a winning basketball team. It's on us to continue to build, to continue to get better and to strive for that ultimate goal of winning it all."
With the core in place and extended depth tucked in behind and around that core, the Hawks should make for some excellent viewing in the 2021-22 season.