March 1, 2024

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The Atlanta Hawks have hit bottom, but can their season be saved?

The Atlanta Hawks have hit bottom, but can their season be saved?

Atlanta – Washington 127, Atlanta 99.

OK. The Falcons have hit rock bottom…haven't they? right?!

Well, things can always get worse, but if this isn't exactly the bottom, the Falcons can certainly see it from there.

After a moribund home defeat to the Indiana Pacers on Friday that was theoretically supposed to serve as a catalyst, the Hawks were out-coached, out-executed and out-matched at every level on Saturday against the lowly Wizards.

That this would happen on their home court, against a Washington team that visited State Farm Arena with a 6-31 record and whose scoring margin of minus 10.4 points per game was among the worst in NBA history, was an embarrassment to a team in theory. In “win now” mode. So much for that: The Hawks are 15-23 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. If the season ended today, they would not participate in the Play-In Championship.

Atlanta didn't have any injuries to blame either: seven of their top eight players were available Saturday, above average for this time of the season in the NBA. The Hawks could only point the finger at roster limitations and the inability of the coach and front office to remedy them thus far.

Before we go any further, I'll point out that the Hawks have been on similar straight lines before. In fact, it's practically an annual event on the local calendar, a peach-flavored basketball festival.

Notably, they were 14-20 when they traded for Lloyd Pierce for Bennett McMillan in March 2021, a season that ended with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. They were 17-25 in 2021-22 before they turned on the Jets to win 45 games and beat Charlotte in the Play-In. They were 29-30 last season when they traded McMillan for Quin Snyder, and recovered enough to beat the eventual East champion Miami Heat on the road in the Play-In and take two games off the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.

“Even though our record is bad right now, we can be a lot better,” Trae Young said after the match. “This is a process, I'm not worried.”

This date may give the Hawks a false sense of security because this weekend certainly seems like a good time to worry.

For those who didn't watch, it's hard to put into words how completely lifeless the Hawks looked this weekend. Needing to pick up some wins in five home games against a less formidable opponent, the Hawks were instead beaten 126-108 by Tyrese Haliburton's Pacers on Friday and were beaten by the aforementioned Wizards on Saturday.

In particular, the display of opponent layups has become laughable. Indiana scored 28 points in the paint In the first quarter Friday. A day later, Washington looked like a seasoned 50-win team that cared relentlessly, easily outscoring the Hawks by as many as 99 points in the first three quarters.

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As the third quarter began, it appeared the Hawks had let go of the rope. Check out “Resistance” on Deni Avdija's coast-to-coast journey:

One play later, Young fouled Jordan Poole on a Euro move and thought someone would be there to block the next attempt. No one was close, as four other Hawks fell lightly back into defense. Paul converted the shot to an and-1, while Young motioned for someone, anyone, to please respond quickly.

Postscript to Young's call: Washington's next three shots were two dunks and a layup. Good effort everyone. The Wizards finished with 31 rushing points and 60 in the paint.

The Hawks entered the game ranked 27th in defensive efficiency — just tenths of a point shy of last season — an impressive feat in a league that includes the Detroit Pistons. While every scout will cite Young's defense as a liability, the Hawks have been better than this in the past.

They finished 22nd a season ago and 21st in the General Conference Finals. If we may give the faintest praise, Young has also tried to defend more regularly this season, including getting picked up by Washington's Kyle Kuzma on a failed charge attempt in the first half on Saturday.

Instead, Atlanta's growing problems on the defensive end were a result of rot elsewhere. In the past, the Hawks could rely on Clint Capela's heroic protection to push the defense toward mediocrity despite pathetic attempts to contain the ball, but his days as a paint-dominant appear to be over.

The Wizards repeatedly challenged Capela in the circle without fear (as in the Avdija clip above), just as Indiana did on Friday. For the season, opponents are shooting 61.1 percent at the rim with Capela nearby, which is down from 58.8 percent last season and 52.9 percent in 2020-21. While Capela's block rate is high this season, it could also be a result of opportunity: The Hawks lead the league with 29.3 percent of their opponent's shots coming into the basket.

Of course, they have to rely on Capela a lot because their lineup of Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Dejounte Murray is porous.

The Hawks have tried time and time again to find the type of wing defender who can provide some resistance against the league's superstars.

De'Andre Hunter was drafted to be that player and received a generous contract extension based on the same premise. But he has never been better than average defensively, and persistent knee problems have hampered his availability. Murray was brought in to do the same. He's an annoying steal dealer, but at 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds, he's too light to prevent quality wings from scoring… especially when paired with the diminutive Young.

As a result, the Falcons draw tough against almost any top winger. Or any other suite as well. Below, 6-6 Benedict Mathurin crushes Murray on the block on Friday and more or less puts him in the brace while drawing an and-1.

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For the record, it wasn't supposed to be this way — not when the Hawks lured Snyder from the shores of Costa Rica to take over midway through last season, giving them what was hoped to be their best coach of the young era. Snyder would surely long to sip a sunset mojito right now rather than watch a video of this disaster.

Snyder has had some small accomplishments: The Hawks are shooting a lot more threes instead of cutting back on long ones like last season, there's a little more interplay between Murray and Young than in Durke's offense in 2022-23 (although still not enough) and he's coming Snyder's decision to insert Jalen Johnson into the rotation last season paid off in the third-year forward's breakout campaign this season.

On the other hand, 15-23 is 15-23. Atlanta has been outscored by more than two points per game and has only managed six home wins all season. All previous Hawks revivals had positive base stats as a precursor to their revival. This season, their profile is the perfect outline for a lottery team.

Although Snyder can't take responsibility for the many flaws on this list, he didn't make it more than the sum of its parts. If the Hawks have any “identity” at the moment, it is that of a weak and relatively dismal team of 9-to-5 middle managers working routine shifts until their flights depart for Cancun on April 15. The Hawks can win when the shots are falling. They scored 130 points, but there was no reliable alternative route to victory.

This is jarring because this is not supposed to be a lottery team. Not when he's still waiting for the first two unprotected draft picks and a pick swap to San Antonio for the reckless Murray trade — commitments that don't expire until 2027 — and not when the specter of the luxury tax still looms over future roster decisions.

Perhaps the least bad move for the Hawks from this point would be to focus on soft tanks that generate a relatively high pick in the 2024 draft (they still have that pick), which could produce any of their young talent (although this draft doesn't). . respectable) or commercial segment.

Otherwise, the pressure is on Landry Fields' front office to reshape this team, and on Snyder to shape it into something better than what we've seen so far.

Young is an offensive maestro with obvious defensive weaknesses that the rest of the roster should hide, but the 2021 run showed how that's possible. Johnson is an up-and-coming force who is still under a rookie contract with the team for another season and is the other obvious point guard. After that, everything should be on the table, and league sources say that is already the case. (My spies say the Hawks also described rookie guard Kobe Bufkin as untouchable, but would they walk away from a deal on him?)

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League sources say the Hawks have continued to talk about potential Murray trades. Some will tell you they're nearing the finish line, while others will say the Hawks are still on the hunt to determine trade value for himself and other key players (like Hunter and Capela).

The overly optimistic extensions for Capela (one more year left at $22.2 million) and Hunter (three years left after this year at a total of $70 million) have also limited the Hawks' buildout. Part of the appeal of trading Murray just months after he agreed to a four-year, $114 million extension is that his contract could be the bait for a Capela or especially Hunter deal.

On the other hand, there is little chance that they will come close to what they gave up to get.

If the Hawks plan to focus on focus next season, it would be helpful to have some of their younger players get some running backs. Bufkin was injured last week but was killing it in the G League before that. It seems his play should be a higher priority than sending 25-year-old Trent Forrest two-way.

Likewise, 2022 first-round pick AJ Griffin was installed on the bench while the Hawks revamped veterans Wes Matthews, Garrison Mathews and Patty Mills; That might have been defensible when the goals were higher earlier this season, but we're long past that point.

Meanwhile, the only good thing about the NBA is that the team quickly gets a chance to redeem itself. The Hawks will get another chance at home against a losing team on Monday in their marquee game of the season, a nationally televised Martin Luther King Jr. Day contest against Victor Wimpanyama and San Antonio.

Young, at least, still believes.

“Quinn is a cerebral coach and a cerebral person,” he said. “It takes time. It needs people there that will listen to him and put in the effort that he's saying. And that's a lot, but it can work, it can really work, and it just takes time.”

Unfortunately, time is running out, with the February 8 trade deadline just weeks away, and it's unclear how much the current version of the Hawks will be given.

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(Trae Young Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images)