Michael Cunningham: Next moves after Cam Reddish trade will determine fate of Hawks

By Michael Cunningham

ATLANTA — One of the main challenges for the Hawks is that their best offensive players in the starting lineup (Trae Young) and off the bench (Danilo Gallinari) also are the team’s worst defensive players. The Hawks solved that problem on their way to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals. They haven’t figured it out this season and, with nearly half the games played, are on their way to the draft lottery.

All the top players from last season are still on the roster, but the Hawks are much worse on defense. That wasn’t supposed to happen. That’s why general manager Travis Schlenk already has started making trades ahead of the Feb. 10 deadline. The Hawks sent forwards Cam Reddish and Solomon Hill to the Knicks on Thursday and got forward Kevin Knox in return.

The trade is a net negative for the Hawks. They swapped two decent defenders for a terrible one along with a protected first-round pick. Chances are high that the trade is a prelude to others that will reshape the roster. The moves Schlenk makes before Feb. 10 will determine whether the Hawks were a one-year wonder or will have another chance to advance to the NBA Finals.

Schlenk gave up on Reddish less than three seasons after selecting him with the No. 10 overall pick out of Duke. Injuries have limited Reddish to only 118 games. Schlenk will end up regretting this trade if Reddish ever taps his full potential. Maybe that happens for him in New York, but I doubt it.

Reddish hasn’t been consistent enough to prove he should be a regular on a good team. He’s shown flashes of being a valuable spot-up shooter but doesn’t seem comfortable with that role. Being a ball-dominant wing isn’t really an option when playing alongside Young. Reddish’s defensive potential is very high. His engagement at that end comes and goes (to be fair, that’s true with most of his now-former teammates).

Reddish is eligible for a contract extension after this season. If he doesn’t sign one, he’ll be a free agent in summer 2023. The Knicks will have time to evaluate him before deciding whether to sign him long-term. Schlenk decided he’d seen enough of Reddish. He’ll receive a draft pick that’s likely to be about 20th overall while letting the Knicks take on the risk of paying Reddish.

Reddish was supposed to be one part of solving a difficult puzzle for the Hawks: how to build a championship team around Young, who is among the league’s worst defenders. Reddish and De’Andre Hunter were to be two big perimeter players who cover for Young’s deficiencies. Multiple injuries to both players have prevented the Hawks from gathering much evidence in games on whether the formula worked.

The Young-Hunter-Reddish trio played only 2,121 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, including 641 over the past two seasons. That’s not much time together. The experiment is over now that Reddish is off to New York. Knox won’t help the Hawks’ defense, if he plays much for them at all.

Now Schlenk needs to make moves that will improve the team’s defense. Otherwise, the Hawks are in trouble.

After losing to Miami on Wednesday night, the Hawks stood 12th in the East with 42 games to play. They’ve lost nine of their past 12 games. Seven of those defeats were by double-digit margins, and the Hawks surrendered 130 or more points six times. The Hawks had their top eight regulars on the floor for half the games during that stretch and still got handled.

The situation has become urgent for the Hawks as their defense remains halfhearted. They rank 28th of 30 teams in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession). The Hawks ranked 15th from March 1, when Nate McMillan replaced Lloyd Pierce as coach, through the end of last regular season. In the playoffs, they were seventh-best of 16 teams in defensive efficiency.

The Hawks showed that a great offensive team led by Young can play average defense and make a run. Now the Hawks are even better on offense (sixth in efficiency) but bad on defense, same as before last season’s turnaround. The spirit that the the Hawks played with over final four months of last season has gone missing.

The Heat came to their place Wednesday night and were quicker, sharper and more persistent. That’s been happening to the Hawks a lot lately even as regulars have returned to the lineup. It’s usually the other team that shows more urgency and resolve.

McMillan possibly could create incentives for his veterans by giving more of their minutes to young players. There were plenty of opportunities with all the COVID-19 absences and blowout losses. But McMillan hasn’t shown much interest in playing developmental players meaningful minutes if they aren’t part of the regular rotation.

Whatever buttons McMillan is pushing with his veterans aren’t working. Maybe those players will flip the switch on defense. They did it last season when McMillan took over. And there are some good defenders on the roster.

One of them, Hunter, returned to the lineup Wednesday after missing two months because of wrist surgery. The team’s defensive anchor, center Clint Capela, is out with an ankle injury. He looks like he could use an extended rest to regain his form. Backup Onyeka Okongwu is a promising young player, but his impact isn’t like Capela’s at peak power.

It’s not all bad for the Hawks. Young remains at the top of their list of assets. He’s making a case as the league’s best combo scorer and playmaker. So long as Young is healthy, the Hawks will score enough points to win if they play respectable defense.

It wasn’t long ago that the Hawks were giving competitive efforts against good opponents even though their COVID-19 list was bulging. The league office granted multiple postponements to other teams facing similar circumstances, but the Hawks had only one game pushed back. Commissioner Adam Silver prioritized the league’s business interests over fair competition, so the Hawks just had to deal with it.

Playing so many games with fill-ins makes the Hawks difficult to evaluate because it skews their numbers. But their problems are qualitative in nature. The resolve they showed while shorthanded has dissipated. The Hawks need to play harder, smarter and more together. They need to take pride in getting stops and be bothered by getting lit up regularly.

Watching them play doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen with the current group. That’s the reason why Schlenk is making changes. The Reddish trade doesn’t make them better on defense. We’ll see if Schlenk can make transactions that do that so the Hawks can make another run with Young.


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