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2022 NBA offseason preview: What's next for the Atlanta Hawks?

2022 NBA offseason preview: What's next for the Atlanta Hawks?

The Atlanta Hawks had to face the burden of expectations in 2021-22. 

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 woefully off-script.

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 him up.

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 Atlanta.

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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 round.

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.

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