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The Hawks Are Struggling to Strike a Balance Between Developing and Winning

After its surprise, spittle-fueled playoff run, Atlanta’s core was hit with major expectations. But the encore performance hasn’t been worthy of any curtain calls, showing how difficult it is to play for now while still building for the future.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tell Trae Young he’s too short. He wants you to. The skinny 6-footer has built his career off of slights. Last postseason, he found the negative feedback loops that would accelerate his game to another level.

Knicks fans and Sixers fans booed and taunted. Young taunted back. They spit on him and made fun of his hair. He nailed daggers and bowed. “I know there are a lot of shows in this city,” he said after the Hawks won their first-round series against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. “And I know what they do when the show is over.” Three months later, he went back for more:

The Hawks found comfort and playoff success in this antagonistic space. In its first postseason since it began a rebuild half a decade ago, Atlanta won two rounds and made it all the way to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. In the span of six months, it experienced as much as most young teams do in a few years.

Now, a team built primarily through recent first-round picks, one that fired its head coach midway through last season, is suddenly tasked with living up to real expectations. “We’re not underdogs anymore,” Lou Williams said in training camp.

The vets have been prepping the team for the transition from hunter to hunted, for a regular season that will challenge dormant muscles and reward different behaviors: consistency over last-minute bravado, grunt-work over shining moments. But some things must be experienced to be understood.

Last week, the Hawks returned to Philadelphia for the first time since their series-clinching 103-96 win in Game 7. On Atlanta’s first possession, the boos rumbled in as Young dribbled up the floor. He gave the crowd, still easing into the action, a sudden jolt with an 8-foot floater from the right elbow, reigniting the old dynamic. But the Sixers ended the quarter up by 13 points. The Hawks never found the desire, adrenaline, or luck necessary for a comeback.

The Hawks have to maintain the foundation they set in the playoffs if they want something great to grow from it. At 4-6, they’re struggling to make the extra passes and rotations that came so naturally in the postseason. Third-year wings Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter are still working their way into the flow of the offense, sharing scarce minutes and touches with a forward rotation that features Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, and Danilo Gallinari. “Everybody’s gonna have to sacrifice,” coach Nate McMillan said in training camp. “Everybody. Will they accept that? I don’t know.”

Travis Schlenk is aware of the trip wires that young, growing teams face: high ambitions, with only so many touches, minutes, and dollars to go around. “I’m worried about it right now, man,” said Schlenk, the Hawks GM and president. “That’s why we have some of the veteran guys we have. We rely on those guys a lot to help the young guys out, as well as the coaching staff.” The Hawks have targeted veterans like Capela, Gallinari, and Williams to mentor and balance out their youth.

Capela, who grew up in Geneva, spent his first few years in Houston being puzzled by NBA life in America. “From a human perspective it is different,” he said. “The way people think, how they are, it’s just different.”

Capela asks a lot of questions, which has surprised some of his peers. “Guys don’t really wanna know about their teammates, their situation, what they’ve been through, what they’re thinking,” he said. But those are the kinds of things that Capela is most curious about. “For me, where I’m from, I just like to operate this way, and I feel like when I do, I get to have a better relationship with that person.”

When the Hawks acquired Capela at the 2020 trade deadline, he was quiet. He didn’t play for the rest of the season due to a thumb injury. But by the playoffs the following season, Capela had turned full old-head, telling his teammates not to take the magic and freedom of this first run for granted. It’s what Rockets vets used to say to him.

“I just felt respected,” Capela said. “I felt that if I have something to say I’m just gonna say it and I’m gonna feel heard.” After watching the team’s defensive miscues against the Sixers this season, he had a lot to say.

Before McMillan pressed play on the film, Capela took the floor, delivering an impassioned speech about the Hawks’ defense, which is currently ranked 26th in the NBA. He knew the offense was the main focus for improvement, but he was noticing miscommunication and confusion on the other end. Coming back from an Achilles injury that held him out most of the preseason, the defensive linchpin hadn’t been as sharp or loud or aggressive on the floor as he liked to be, but this was something he could do. “He was just trying to clear up our communication, what we were going to do that specific game defensively,” Reddish said. “If we were switching, getting over or going under screens, the small details that matter a whole bunch on defense.”

Capela also told the team they were leaning too much on speed over scheme and getting burned. “It’s good to have a Plan A,” he said, “but you need a Plan B because with the speed of the game, you can’t always do what you want to do on defense.”

Privately, Capela made a pact to push himself, to remind his mind that his body had recovered and it could exert itself in the ways necessary to clean up the Hawks’ defensive holes, from communication to rim protection. “I had to get back to that intensity,” he said. “I have no choice but to push myself the best I can to get to where I was.”

The Hawks, an above-average defense after the All-Star break last season, should be working out the kinks and learning to communicate as one. Instead, they’ve been disconnected on both ends, with bad offense spilling over into lethargic transition defense. They beat the Wizards the evening of the Sixers film study, but followed that up by dropping leads against the Jazz, Nets, and Suns.

After the Jazz loss, McMillan noted how playing a 10- or sometimes 11-man rotation can break flow.

“I told the guys earlier today, I can’t give minutes,” he said. “You have to earn them. You have to sacrifice, and I don’t care how much talent you have if you don’t make those sacrifices to do less and be the example of how we want to play, how we need to play.”

In Saturday’s loss to Phoenix, Reddish and Hunter closed out the game after playing 26 and 29 minutes, respectively. Huerter, who recently signed a $65 million extension, watched from the bench.

McMillan said that a coach once told him that if you’re developing, you’re losing.

“Last season we came in and we were still developing,” McMillan said. “Developing your game at a time like this, that’s difficult for a player and for a team. You have to do that within the framework of playing the game together and that’s the only way it’s gonna happen.”

Reddish’s early-season metamorphosis highlights the promise and challenge of that task. The third-year pro came off the bench on opening night and dropped 20 points of 7-of-15 shooting. He hasn’t looked away from the rim since, averaging 13 points. The blue-chip prospect’s consistency was a question coming into the NBA, but he’s looked aggressive this season.

Reddish has been relegated to playing off the ball ever since RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson committed to Duke after him. In the years since, he has adapted to playing in space.

“One of the hardest things I had to learn,” he said. “I had to learn to play and shoot from the corner, so it was different, but I think it’s just gonna make me a better all-around player in the end.”

“But I don’t think that’s gonna be my role forever,” he adds.

A 6-foot-8 forward with a 7-foot wingspan and springs for legs, Reddish’s potential has never been a question—not to Young, who called him one of the most talented teammates he’s ever had, and not to Reddish himself.

When he plays with the starters, Reddish spaces and defends. With the second unit, his offensive game has evolved from attacking in line drives to making nuanced reads out of the pick-and-roll. He hits stop-and-pop jumpers, finds Huerter for corner 3s, and slings two lobs to Collins.

At times, Reddish’s role strikes a balance between supplementing the offense and creating offense, allowing him to explore different parts of his game. He also contributes a fair share of turnovers and ill-advised midrange jumpers, moments when it feels like he is trying to step out of his role.

This is the balance the Hawks must weigh all season, with Reddish and also with Hunter. They are allowing the duo to play through mistakes, in the hopes that the reps will pay major dividends in the long run, but how much can they afford to let them explore the nascent parts of their game? How much can they afford not to?

In 2019, Schlenk used picks no. 4 and no. 10 on Hunter and Reddish, rounding out his roster with a treasure trove of his favorite kind of player: intelligent, strong, versatile forwards with varying combinations of scoring, playmaking, and defensive ability. It’s the same blueprint that helped birth a dynasty in Golden State, where Schlenk worked for more than a decade.

On some nights, the Hawks’ collective intelligence helps the ball flow like water. But right now, as Hunter and Reddish acclimate themselves, the Hawks’ collection of wings looks redundant. Not only are they sharing minutes and touches, they are congregating into similar roles, waiting for their chance to handle the ball or exploit a mismatch in the post, instead of cutting and finding open space.

“You can have all the talent in the world,” McMillan said, “but if you’re not connected, it’s not gonna work, and right now we’re not playing connected basketball.”

On the bright side, the training camp mantras are finally starting to set in: “I think guys are learning that we’re no longer the hunters,” Young said after the loss against Utah. “It’s the regular season. I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot more boring than the playoffs. You’ve got to find that motivation to play like the playoffs.”