2020-21 Kia Season Preview

New-look Hawks at the crossroads entering 2020-21 season

A transformative offseason has surrounded the Hawks' young core with tested veterans. Could a playoff return follow?

Hawks All-Star Trae Young has developed into the foundational piece for a team that appears ready to seize the moment.

Trae Young had the same reaction you did as the Atlanta Hawks cemented one splashy signing after another in free agency.

He knew things were changing dramatically in real time, without the benefit of actually interacting on the court with each new member of the team in the normal lead-up to the start of a new season.

He tweeted that it had that first day of school feel to it.

“I was excited. I was excited, first, about getting everybody,” he said. “I knew some things were going to happen, and we had a lot of roster spots to fill, and so I knew there was going to be some things that happened. So I was happy with what happened, and excited about what we got, and excited about playing. I talked to a couple of guys about coming in and playing, and what we could do, and what we could do together.”

A transformative offseason included a free-agent haul of Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo. Added to the trade-deadline acquisition of Clint Capela last season, the moves cast the Hawks in a completely different light moving into the 2020-21 season.

Instead of all the attention being focused on their latest lottery pick, USC center Onyeka Okongwu, it’s on a group of veteran role players added to a young core led by their All-Star point guard and ascending power forward John Collins.

This is clearly a team on the rise, at least on paper, a team looking to end a three-year playoff drought. But how big a jump are we talking about? Into the playoff field in an improved Eastern Conference? Perhaps even the top six? Higher?

The revamped Hawks are primed to challenge for playoff contention.

Schlenk and Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce have decided to let others play the prediction game. It’s a wise move, given the boatload of variables teams will deal with this season under the COVID-19 protocols and all that comes along with these trying times.

But there’s no denying the increased urgency. The next phase of this franchise makeover is upon them, and so too are all of the expectations — internal and beyond — that come with it.

“A lot of that remains to be seen,” Pierce said. “I think on paper, you’re excited about the follow through of the plan. We went into this hoping to get some good free agents and hoping to have a nice young draft pick to add to our young core. Really excited about the guys that are here, the wealth of experience, the versatility, and just adding some experience with some young guys. So I imagine we’ll be competitive, but that’s going to be up to us and what we define as competitive.”

Schlenk was as measured as he was meticulous with the additions, dating back to the acquisition of Capela last season. He didn’t reach for superstar talent that wasn’t really attainable, one of those offseason gestures franchises make to convince themselves (and perhaps more pointedly, their fans) that they are serious about improving.

He identified plug-and-play pieces, guys that fit the mold of the building blocks the franchise needs to make that incremental climb from the lottery to the playoffs.

The Hawks added Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency to bolster offensive options.

Grabbing Gallinari (3-year, $61 million deal) fortifies the forward rotation, led by a rising young star in Collins now supported by a versatile and dependable veteran presence off the bench.

The offer sheet (4-year, $72 million) for Bogdanovic — that the Sacramento Kings declined to match — provides Young with a running mate in the backcourt, one who eases the need for Young to run a solo show to keep the Hawks competitive on a given night.

Dunn arrives (2-years, $10 million) with plenty still to prove and the requisite chip on his shoulder, as he moves into a defensive stopper role off the bench after being miscast as a starter in Chicago.

Rondo coming aboard (2-year, $15 million) serves the dual purpose of a being a mentor for Young and filling the leadership void left after Future Hall of Famer Vince Carter retired. During the Los Angeles Lakers’ title run in the Orlando bubble, Rondo showed he remains plenty capable of providing meaningful minutes on a playoff team.

Helping another team dig out of a playoff drought — the Lakers’ had lasted seven years — was just the sort of challenge Rondo sought at this stage of his career.

“This is a young, talented team obviously,” Rondo said. “Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter. These young guys have an extreme amount of upside. And to me, honestly, I didn’t think the East was very tough this year, as far as talent, I think it’s p for grabs as which team will prevail at the top. And I just think with this young team, a lot of young guys willing to learn and with the upside they have, I wanted to come and join it and help something on the rise and on an upswing here in the city of Atlanta.”

Will Rajon Rondo help Trae Young shine?

He has a good idea what that looks like, having competed against the Hawks (and his “brother” and high school teammate and roommate Josh Smith) in the first round during his championship season with Boston in 2008.

“I remember what it was like when we played against Josh back in [2008] and the city of Atlanta in the playoffs and I kind of want to get the city back into that type of feel. Hopefully things will be a little more controlled and calmed down by then, closer to May and June, and we can get the fans back in State Farm [Arena] and get it rocking.”

It remains to be seen if the health and safety guidelines will allow for any duplication of that electric playoff atmosphere Rondo remembers.

But what that Hawks team ignited, a 10-year playoff run that culminated in a 60-win season and Eastern Conference finals appearance in 2015, provides an ambitious and realistic blueprint for the future, a blueprint the Hawks have followed to the letter.

They stayed the course, building through the draft and piling up assets to use down the line in trades and free agency. Capela’s acquisition was the first big move; every step since has been next in the evolution envisioned by the Hawks’ brass.

“I think we hit a home run in free agency in terms of having the money and having the options and going after guys that we thought would be a part of our next step,” Pierce said. “And so I think absolutely we haven’t skipped a step. We’re going to grow and develop our young guys, and we’re going to be really competitive this year, and we’re going to keep leveling up what we define as being competitive, but this is the necessary step. And this was all part of the plan.”

Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has been tasked with boosting player development toward playoff success. 

And that includes any added pressure that comes with the movement, Pierce said.

“We didn’t go into free agency and take this next step to not put pressure on ourselves, to not really try and advance,” he said. “And we all understand that advancing is postseason, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m not going to limit what I think postseason is for us, and I think when you talk about being competitive, the forefront of competition and having the guys that we have, that’s always going to be at the forefront. We expect to win. We expect to be competitive. And I expect to see that on the practice court every day. We’re going to define who we are and what we are as we move forward.”

In a league dominated by playoff teams built on built on dynamic duos, Young and Collins are still in the fresh faces of the franchise. They are still in the developmental stages of a potential All-Star partnership that could serve as the fuel cell for the Hawks’ next decade.

“We’re taking that next year, that second-year jump,” Collins said. “So I feel like the expectations are high on all of us. We’ve shown potential and we’ve shown just flashes of greatness. And now we’ve added other solid NBA players, veterans, who have proven themselves in this league. I just feel like when you look at our team on paper and then you look at our ages and you look at all the positives, your mind just starts to race. And I feel like we’re there too. We’re excited, but we need to, for our young guys, grow up a little bit, and I feel like for the older guys, just give that experience and lend their knowledge to us.”

As for the immediate future, the Hawks have to dig out of the rubble after two disappointing seasons.

They were deliberate, of course, choosing the ugliness that usually accompanies these sorts of things. A young and inexperienced core with journeymen and fringe talents duct-taped all over the roster tends to produce outcomes like the 49-100 mark the Hawks racked up in Young’s first two seasons.

Even the most jaded of fans can see bigger and better things on the horizon.

How Trae Young can level up in Year Three.

An All-Star starter last season, Young is eying an opportunity to wipe away the sting of losing and put the Hawks in the spotlight, while also solidifying his position as one of the league’s best players.

“Yeah, it’s good. It’s good to have people talking about Atlanta basketball right now, and I want it to stay this way,” he said. “This city deserves it. This organization, we have a lot of exciting pieces, a lot of exciting players, and this city just needs this type of excitement for basketball. And so it’s good that we’re getting a lot of attention right now, but we need to find a way to continue to win games, and find a way to win games right when the season starts.”

All of that will start with Young diving into his new situation, both as a catalyst on the floor and leader off of it.

Flashy highlights and impressive individual numbers are fine. When they come without the wins and the opportunity to perform on the league’s most meaningful stage, in the postseason … that’s the motivation that drives Young.

“Just having that narrative that I can’t win, and it’s obviously showing up to this point, obviously we haven’t won very many games, but my track record playing basketball, I’ve won my whole life,” he said. “I took a team in college from not supposed to make the tournament, to the top five in the country, and top four in the country at one point, and led us to the tournament. It’s more about, for me, it’s just changing that narrative that I can’t win.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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