After a surprise run to the Eastern Conference finals, the Atlanta Hawks, to some, were a prime candidate for a slight regression this season. I wasn't one of them. I picked the Hawks to finish third in the East and saw them as an honest conference-title contender. I still feel that way.
They've been hit hard by injuries/illness. I want to see what they look like when De'Andre Hunter, who plugs lots of Trae Young holes as their best perimeter defender, gets back. I believe in Clint Capela as a backline anchor when the perimeter isn't being besieged in perpetuity. Onyeka Okongwu missed the first two months of the season and has played in just four games, and he was a big part of last season's defensive success in the postseason.
Problem is, how long can the Hawks wait for all this to come around? Entering play on Tuesday, they have the fourth-worst record in the Eastern Conference, 16-20, and sit outside the play-in line. Defense is the issue. On Monday, Trae Young scored 56 points and it still wasn't enough to beat a Blazers team that put up 136 without Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Atlanta ranks 27th in defensive efficiency, and general manager Travis Schlenk is fed up.
Appearing on Atlanta's 92.9 The Game on Tuesday morning, Schlenk pulled no punches in putting pretty much every player on blast, blaming himself for the laurel-resting construction of an almost entirely incumbent roster and admitting "maybe it wasn't such a great idea to bring everybody back." To that end, Schlenk all but confirmed he will be looking to be very active at the trade deadline.
Here are some of the notable quotes:
"We're seeing the same thing every game," Schlenk said. "Again last night [in Portland], we had the lead going into the fourth quarter then we can't keep it. I sound like a broken record here, but it's the same thing every game. Again, ultimately this all falls on me. So we've got to take a long look at this and see if this group is the group we saw last year in the second half of the season of if it's the group we're seeing this year. And that's what we have to determine and we have to make adjustments off those. Obviously, you can tell I'm a little frustrated.
"I think there's a belief that we're a good team, there's a belief that we can score. But right now there's no sense of urgency to make a stop, no sense of accountability...it's just not there. You guys watch the games, if somebody get scored on, they go down on the other end. It doesn't bother them. It's a hard pill to swallow when your team is not playing as well as you think it should. Maybe I need to lower my expectations for this team, ultimately this all falls on my shoulders. I put this group together and they're not responding. We need to take deep look into this for sure.
"Maybe it wasn't such a great idea to bring everybody back, that's on me. We have a few weeks here at the trade deadline and that's what I need to figure out...it's my responsibility to put a product on the floor that can and win. Right now I'm questioning whether or not I have done that."
So, yeah, Schlenk is not happy. Nor should he be. The good news, hopefully, is the Hawks lineups won't be this decimated forever, and they have Trae Young, who to me is one of the 10 most dangerous postseason players. With a bit of shotmaking and defensive help, he can swing a series or two by himself.
If that's not enough for Schlenk to feel comfortable rolling with this roster past the deadline, he has plenty of ammo to put together a significant trade package. The Hawks are flush with young, two-way wings. Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter would all garner major attention on the market. So would Okongwu, though I'd be more hesitant to deal him. A 2-for-1 consolidation deal would make sense, nonetheless. If Schlenk could pry Jerami Grant, who is believed to be very much available, from Detroit, you'd be looking at a title contender.
I expect some kind of move from the Hawks unless there is a major turnaround in the coming weeks. This is too good a team a its core, and Schlenk, whose own job may have been on the line before a swift turnaround last season under Nate McMillan, is clearly running out of patience.