Coach Lloyd Pierce appeared to have his team on the right track this season after starting 2-0 in games against the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons. In their third game of the year, the Hawks lost a close two-point game to a Philadelphia 76ers team that is currently undefeated at 4-0.
Despite losing three straight games to Eastern Conference competition, the Hawks are certainly better than their 2-3 record would indicate. A complete story cannot be told from a tiny five-game sample size, but there are still pros and cons that can be discussed. Let’s highlight some of those.
1. Trae Young makes the team go.
But we already knew that. Trae Young looked like an all-star player in his first three games of the season, snipin' and dimin' his way to averages of 34 points, nine assists, and six boards per contest. He has started much more efficiently than last year, shooting 52% from the field, and a red-hot 52% from three-point land as well.
Despite a two-point loss to the Sixers, Trae had a +1 in that contest, and it was apparent that the Hawks just did not have enough firepower off the bench at the guard position when Trae was out of the game. That would continue to be the case for Atlanta as they displayed little to no backcourt competence in two back-to-back losses against the Miami Heat. Rookie Cam Reddish seemed to catch on during the rematch with Miami (relative to his previous four games) but it still was not enough as Atlanta lost both games to a division rival.
It is worth noting that Trae trails only Karl Anthony-Towns and Kawhi Leonard in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) so far this season.
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Atlanta needs Trae back as soon as possible because he is clearly the key to their playoff hopes.
2. The rookies have played better than most people think.
At least defensively. Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter have been great on the defensive end of the floor during their debut season. They have been a key component in helping the Hawks improve from last year's 28th overall defensive rating to 11th overall this year.
As rookies, they have still had a few struggles; one of them is being able to guard their man for the entirety of the 24-second shot clock. Against the Miami Heat, players like Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro had several quality late looks after having been defended well for the first 18-20 seconds.
Nevertheless, you can’t be upset with the way the rookies have come out and contributed thus far. Their contributions do not show up on the stat sheet and NBA “casuals” will tell you that Reddish has been disappointing so far this season. This is not an accurate summation of the 10th overall pick's efforts this season, despite this Shaqtin’ A Fool moment.
3. The Hawks MUST do something about the center position.
Because Alex Len is just not getting it done. Perhaps another team could use the services of the seven-footer; a former fifth overall pick. However, he is simply not a fit for the type of fast paced offense that Lloyd Pierce is trying to implement on a team that is otherwise surrounded by quick athletes and three-point shooters. Through five games, Len has the following stat-line.
+/- of -5
PER of 6.9
I do not wish slander on any NBA player; these guys are clearly among the best in the world. Perhaps Len would be a better fit for another franchise, but he looks completely out of place in Atlanta, at least thus far. He is missing wide-open threes, dropping passes several times per game, and failing to finish at the rim.
I’m not personally one for speculation, but if Atlanta wants to be solid at every position, a trade seems inevitable.
4. Three-point and free-throw shooting is lacking.
Aside from the surefire Ice Trae (who is shooting superbly), the Hawks are struggling to knock down opportunities across the floor. The team is shooting 29 percent from distance, which ranks 28th in the league. Even their free-throw percentage is suffering, which is evident as they are 27th in the league in that category.
Some of their key marksmen are underperforming, posting three-point shooting nights like:
1-16 for Vince Carter
5-19 for Kevin Huerter
1-18 for Cam Reddish
4-16 for De’Andre Hunter
2-13 for the aforementioned Alex Len
These are not ideal, especially in a league in which three-point efficiency is becoming increasingly important. We can expect the rookies to improve as they adjust to the speed of the game, and we can hope Vince Carter will start to knock shots down. Huerter is starting to find his stroke as he recovers from a knee injury.
5. Despite a 2-3 start, the Hawks still look like a playoff team.
The Hawks are +16 with Trae Young on the court this year and -12 without him. The team, sans his presence, has an entirely different (read: worse) dynamic to it. Trae is able to get his teammates open with his playmaking and the gravity he draws by being able to shoot efficiently from more than 30 feet out. Without him on the court, opposing teams are able to force other Hawks to take shots, a strategy obviously working out well so far.
The Sixers are the only unbeaten team left in the league, and the had it not been for shooting 1-10 down the stretch, Atlanta was poised to win that game after having looked like the better team for three quarters.
Earlier in the season, I predicted the Hawks to be an eight-seed, but if they can stay healthy and Trae continues his run of dominance, I can see them finishing as high as a sixth seed.