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Big-spending Hawks hoping depth produces return to playoffs

December 15, 2020 GMT
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Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) tries to drive against Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
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Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) tries to drive against Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATLANTA (AP) —

It doesn’t seem fair to ask the Atlanta Hawks to be ready for real competition after only four preseason games.

As one of the NBA’s bottom eight teams, the Hawks haven’t played a real game in nine months. There are nine new players, so the offseason makeover was dramatic.

One of the returning starters, forward John Collins, is counting on depth to carry the team while coach Lloyd Pierce juggles different rotations.

“One thing I would say that gives me hope and promise is that we have a lot of skilled, talented guys,” Collins said Tuesday. “... Hopefully the depth I really love about this team can help us cover up some of the early chemistry issues.”

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Pierce isn’t complaining. It’s a pleasant dilemma to figure out the winning mix with such talented newcomers as Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn.

With the new talent comes expectations to win. The Hawks, who last appeared in the playoffs in 2017, believe it’s time to move out of the draft lottery and become relevant in the Eastern Conference.

One year ago, Pierce said it was time for his young team led by Trae Young and John Collins to make a move. To help reach that goal this season, general manager Travis Schlenk added some veterans who know how to win.

Gallinari, Bogdanovic, Rondo, Dunn and Tony Snell join center Clint Capela, who was injured and unable to play when acquired late last season, as key veteran additions. The additions are expected to address the biggest needs: defense, 3-point shooting and depth.

The Hawks had free-agent money to spend, and Schlenk wasted no time in adding Gallinari (three years, $61.5 million), Rondo (two years, $15 million) and Dunn (two years, $10 million). The GM then made Bogdanovich an offer — four years for $72 million — the Sacramento Kings didn’t match.

It’s going to take more than four preseason games for the newcomers to fit in with Young, Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish.

“It’s not something that just happens overnight,” Young said.

CONTRACT TALK

Collins is entering the final season of his four-year rookie deal and hopes to get a contract extension before the Dec. 21 deadline. The addition of Gallinari gives Atlanta another power forward. That may make it more difficult for the Hawks to offer Collins the max contract he wants.

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Atlanta’s options at power forward and center also were expanded by last season’s trade for Capela and the selection of Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth pick last month’s NBA draft.

“Every time I come into the gym it’s definitely the first thing on my mind,” Collins said when asked about the contract talks at the start of preseason camp.

Collins has strong negotiating power after averaging 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds. Last season also included an obvious negative. His 25-game suspension for a positive PED test was a devastating blow to the Hawks’ season.

SPOTLIGHT ON DEFENSE

Atlanta’s average of 119.7 points allowed ranked last in the league. Many of the offseason moves were made to improve the defense.

Schlenk described Okongwu as “a very, very good defensive basketball player. He protects the rim. He can rebound.”

Dunn, who averaged two steals per game with Chicago last season, gives the backcourt a defensive stopper.

INJURY REPORT

Pierce won’t have his full roster healthy for the start of the season.

Dunn is recovering from cartilage damage in his right knee and likely will miss at least three games. He will be evaluated on Dec. 28. Okongwu (left foot) and Snell (right foot) also are recovering from injuries.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATE

Hunter has impressed Pierce and his teammates with a strong start to his second season. He scored 18 and 15 points as the Hawks split their first two playoff games against Orlando. Hunter is playing as if inspired to protect his starting job on the deeper roster.

“My confidence is really high,” Hunter said Tuesday. “I put a lot of work into this offseason. I’m just really confident in my game and confident in my teammates and I think we have a lot of confidence in each other.”

ROAD TESTS

The Hawks play four of their first five games away from Atlanta. They open with road games at Chicago on Dec. 23 and at Memphis on Dec. 26. They play their home opener against Detroit on Dec. 28 before playing back-to-back games at Brooklyn.

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