No organization is less patient than the Atlanta Hawks. Their hyper-aggressive offseason was telegraphed in the middle of a disappointing 2019-20 regular season, when they surrendered a 2020 first-round pick for Clint Capela. But it was still jarring in the past two weeks to watch a team that finished 28th in net rating — while fielding the league’s youngest roster — spend as much money as they have.
It’s twice as fascinating after you look at who they targeted. Their two largest commitments — 32-year-old Danilo Gallinari and 28-year-old Bogdan Bogdanović — will cost more than $100 million over the next four years and accelerate a rebuild that highlights the thorny predicament of shaping a franchise around 22-year-old Trae Young.
How do you build around a crackling 6-foot-1 flamethrower who finished his sophomore season second in offensive Real Plus-Minus (trailing only two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo) and 520th out of 520 players in defensive Real Plus-Minus, while ownership has made it clear that a hurried playoff appearance is more important than long-term prosperity?
The original plan was as delicate as it was obvious. On defense, Atlanta wanted to shield Young in a fortress of length, versatility and sharpness, with wings who can both switch and slither through screens and above-the-rim paint protectors who clean up messes made on the perimeter by scouring the back line. Meanwhile, on offense, these same players had to make threes and foreground Young’s pick-and-roll game, perhaps the most prolific in the league.1
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk spent 13 years with the Golden State Warriors, watching Steph Curry dominate on and off the ball while appreciating all the ways Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and others chipped in when it was time to get stops. A mutually beneficial ecosystem was constructed, and the Warriors became a dynasty. But this sort of thing takes time, especially on defense, which is as much about trust, instincts and institutional know-how as it is about preferred body type.
Which brings us to the next act of Young’s career. Instead of waiting to see if De’Andre Hunter (22 years old), Cam Reddish (21) and Kevin Huerter (22) can develop into the sensible and stabilizing two-way fixtures Schlenk believed they would be when he drafted them, Atlanta used nearly all of its cap space to diversify and texturize a 25th-ranked offense that was barely above league average with Young on the floor last season.
All of a sudden, their roster has tilted more toward enhancing Young’s prodigious strengths than covering his clear blemishes. Gallinari and Bogdanović aren’t sieves, but they also aren’t the pieces a team would build a defense-first culture around. Given how much Atlanta spent on them, that says something, especially considering a positional overlap at power forward between Gallinari and the double-double-producing pogostick John Collins, who’s also a bit patchy on defense and is due for a contract extension. (Schlenk has already said Collins will start games over Gallinari — who tied Kawhi Leonard for the NBA lead in offensive rating last season — but he did not declare who will finish them.)
This is not to say the Hawks are ignoring defense entirely. Atlanta drafted Onyeka Okongwu (a mobile, shot-blocking big man), traded for Capela and signed reigning steal-rate leader Kris Dunn, along with Rajon Rondo, who rehabilitated his deteriorating reputation (including his status as a defender) inside the bubble. New faces Tony Snell and Solomon Hill are solid corks when deployed with caution.
But scoring on the Hawks will not be akin to cracking a safe. Instead of worrying about its defense, opposing coaching staffs are more likely to lose sleep over game-planning for Atlanta’s potent offense, a varied onslaught engineered by a maturing All-Star who averaged nearly 30 points and just over nine assists per game last season.
The Hawks’ turnaround starts with outside shooting, a definite concern heading into the year. Atlanta was the NBA’s least accurate 3-point shooting team last season, so Bogdanović and Gallinari are an immediate stimulus package. In 2019-20, only eight players made over 40 percent of their threes while averaging at least five attempts per game. These two made the list. Each is one of the better stand-still 3-point shooters in the world, but Gallinari’s size has allowed him to work as a devastating pick-and-pop threat, too. According to Second Spectrum, the Oklahoma City Thunder averaged 1.24 points per possession, good for the 93rd percentile,2 whenever Gallinari popped after setting a ball screen. It’s here where Gallo is a natural complement to Young, who already has a fruitful partnership with Collins (who quietly shot 42.5 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season) but will appreciate the upgrade over Jabari Parker and the now-retired Vince Carter.
Atlanta can deploy lineups with four or five solid-to-elite long-range threats. Even if the Hawks provide no more resistance than a windbreaker on defense, opponents will have a tough time stopping Young, Huerter, Bogdanović, Gallinari and Collins at the same time. Sub Capela in as a persistent lob threat, and they are dangerous in yet another form. Few teams have the right personnel to stay in front of a group that plays Rondo, Dunn and Young at the same time. Their spacing wouldn’t be ideal, but that amount of dribble penetration and vision might still be a useful option in certain situations.
In addition to widening narrow driving lanes that last year forced Young to launch more floaters than should be in his diet, the addition of more potent outside shooters (who can handle the ball) should deter the traps that put the ball in the hands of less capable teammates. (No player was blitzed at a higher frequency last season than Young, according to Second Spectrum.)
In other words: Defenses can no longer load up to make Young’s life a chore on every play. Last season, the Hawks were a predictable mash of pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. They ran the fourth-fewest off-ball screens in the league and were dead last in efficiency for those possessions, averaging a meager 0.97 points per possession.3
Here’s another space where Gallinari and Bogdanović can help. Gallo’s size and range will often force stiff bigs to switch out on him to take away the initial open look. More times than not, this plays to his benefit.
Meanwhile, Bogdanović was one of the most active players running off screens last year; Sacramento’s offense scored 1.32 points per possession when he was screened for — eighth-best out of the 52 players who ran at least 150 of the actions.
He opens doors elsewhere, too. Over half of Bogdanović’s shots last year were threes, but a good chunk of everything else were cunning floaters that accented a barrage of self-created midrange daggers. His field-goal percentage on 2-point pull-ups was a boiling 48.9, evidence of a player who’s able to nail the in-between shots that separate him from most high-volume bombers.
That adaptability comes in handy when a defender is right on his hip as he curls off a screen. Bogdanović’s handle and footwork are tight and elegant. He can glide forward, slam on the brakes, then reverse direction all in one wrinkle-free movement. Few players have more favorite spots on the floor.
As another reliable ball-handler, Bogdanović should enable Young to work more off the ball and take some of the catch-and-shoot threes he hardly ever launched — especially in the half-court. This benefits everyone. Despite drilling 46.6 percent of his 103 spot-up tries last year (only Seth Curry and JJ Redick were more accurate among all players who took at least 100), Young rarely leveraged the gravity that his quick release and preternatural range grant.
According to Second Spectrum, Atlanta averaged 0.876 points per possession when they ran an off-ball screen for Young, which was second-lowest among all players with over 200 actions. That should change with Bogdanović and Rondo as set-up men, and the presence of the two new guards should quell some of the more formulaic habits Atlanta’s offense fell into as it struggled to climb out of the Eastern Conference’s basement last season.
Even though all these signings make the Hawks feel like a rushed apotheosis, they still own all their future first-round picks and have several intriguing young players (especially Collins) who open the door for a seismic trade down the line.
(Atlanta signing two players who’ve been linked to the Clippers — Dunn and Rondo — makes it easier to imagine one of the better packages for Paul George, should they reach the brink of desperation: Rondo, Bogdanović, Hunter and Collins for George and Lou Williams, who grew up 45 minutes from State Farm Arena. Or if they want to acquire a star closer to Young’s age and contract timeline, Atlanta might have the goods to swing a deal for Ben Simmons.)
The Hawks no longer have meaningful cap space, nor do they have a realistic opportunity to select another high lottery pick soon. They have placed themselves on a very specific track, betting on offensive improvement that should yield a playoff appearance. But then what? As things currently stand, unless Hunter, Reddish, Okongwu and Collins become above-average, all-around defenders who can help electrify Atlanta’s offense, pairing Young with a similarly aged co-pilot once he reaches his prime could be tricky.
But these are problems for another day. Right now, the Hawks’ offense should be enough to carry them into the playoffs. It’s full of shooting, playmaking, lob threats, experience and intelligence. A top-10 ranking should be in the cards, and they may even flirt with a top-3 offensive rating in the Eastern Conference. Soon enough, the question of whether this team can reach the playoffs will be replaced by how compelling they look when they get there.