Michael Cunningham: Hawks 'want to come back' for NBA restart, but may not get chance

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ATLANTA — The NBA is looking into resuming its season with games in late July at one site, Walt Disney World in Florida. Michele Roberts, executive director of the players’ association, told ESPN on Monday that her virtual calls with players indicated that they “really want to play” even if they must hole up at the Disney complex for weeks. The NBA was the first American sports league to shut down, following a positive COVID-19 test for Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

It’s not clear yet what format the NBA will use to finish the season. But ESPN, the NBA partner co-owned by Disney, reports that it’s unlikely all 30 NBA teams will be part of it. If that happens, the Hawks will end their season 15 games short of the full 82.

Some teams with no realistic shot at the playoffs may not want to bother playing a few more games under quarantine conditions. The Hawks aren’t among them, general manager Travis Schlenk said Tuesday.

“Our guys want to come back,” Schlenk said of the players. “I have no idea what (the NBA) is going to do, but our preference certainly would be able to play some more games.”

The Hawks (20-47) won’t earn one of eight Eastern Conference playoff spots if they play out their schedule. When the league suspended play March 12 the Hawks had 12 more losses than Orlando, which was in position for the East’s final postseason berth. The Hawks are so far down the standings they also wouldn’t be included in a possible “play-in” scenario for teams on the playoff bubble.

That doesn’t mean the Hawks have nothing to play for. There’s professional pride and competition, of course. More important, the Hawks would get to learn more about their team before next season’s anticipated push for the playoffs.

The Hawks have identified a “core five” of players: point guard Trae Young, big man John Collins and wing players Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter. Those are five of the six players Schlenk selected in the first round of three drafts as GM (he traded Omari Spellman last summer). The Hawks need to integrate those core players with the two veteran big men they acquired via trades in February, Dewayne Dedmon and Clint Capela.

Young, Huerter, Reddish, Hunter and Collins have started 20 games together. They’ve shared the floor for a total of 205 minutes. That includes 442 possessions in non-garbage time, according to Cleaning the Glass. The top lineup for an NBA team typically spends at least twice as much time together for a season.

“We’re a young team,” Schlenk said. “The more chances to play, the better.”

The Hawks need more time to figure out what they have and what else they need. They wouldn’t answer all those questions over 15 more games this season. But any number of games would provide more insight into their roster before the summer. Schlenk has some decisions to make.

The Hawks are projected to have the most cap space in the league next offseason. The amount is uncertain because of the impact of COVID-19 on league finances, but the Hawks should be in relatively good shape. Schlenk whiffed on building a competitive roster last summer. Can he do a better job fitting together the pieces to build a playoff team next season?

Schlenk may have to decide whether to commit to a contract extension for Collins this summer without first seeing how he fits alongside Capela. It could be awkward because both do good work around the rim. More evidence also is needed for other Hawks questions.

Is Huerter really a starter-quality wing for a good team? Is Dedmon’s poor 3-point shooting this season an outlier or a regression? Can the Hawks become at least an average defensive team by surrounding Young with strong defenders?

The Hawks were having a strange, disjointed season even before COVID-19 halted it. Young’s development into an All-Star with All-NBA potential was important for the Hawks. But the team took a step back because of youth, ineffective veterans, injuries and other circumstances.

Collins served a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy. Huerter missed 11 games because of injuries and was limited in others. Core-muscle surgery hampered Reddish’s offseason and he didn’t seem to find his footing until January. Dedmon played in 10 games after the trade, and Capela (heel) played none (Schlenk said he’s optimistic Capela could play if the season restarts).

Coach Lloyd Pierce wasn’t starting the “core five” together when the league suspended play. After Dedmon joined the team, the starters were Dedmon, Young, Collins, Hunter and Huerter. Those five Hawks started six games together and were on the floor for 92 minutes and 198 non-garbage-time possessions.

Young and Collins will open next season as starters, if they are healthy. Dedmon or Capela will be in the front court with Collins. Huerter, Reddish and Hunter are wing options. There likely will be more rotation possibilities after Schlenk signs veteran free agents and adds another prospect in the draft.

Hawks players want a chance to finish out the season. I also hope they are at Disney World, if it comes to that, because I’m intrigued to see what kind of team they can be. More games this season would provide more clues about that before the next NBA season, whenever that comes.

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©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)