Achtung Panzer! #3: The Tanking Atlanta Hawks

Losers of nine straight and 12 of 13, the Atlanta Hawks now stand 4-15, dead last in the Eastern Conference and just half a game ahead of the woeful Golden State Warriors for the worst record in the NBA.

A team that was supposed to have their breakout year instead finds itself mired in the throes of awful, as John Collins serves a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, Kevin Huerter sits in street clothes with injury, and Trae Young puts up monster stat lines (like his 49-point outburst against the Indiana Pacers on Black Friday) in losses.

On the bright side…

A Fortuitous Tank

When a team already has the makings of a young core but gets to be bad for an extra year because of injury or circumstance, the end result often becomes a team that gets one more piece than they’d otherwise be entitled to in the standard distribution of assets for a rebuilding team.

The Philadelphia 76ers are perhaps the most famous beneficiary of this, as injuries to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons dragged out “The Process” for an extra couple of years—had they not whiffed in epic fashion on Markelle Fultz and instead stuck the Celtics with him in favor of drafting Jayson Tatum, they could have won the title in 2018—built a consistent contender.

The Hawks are facing this now with Huerter and Collins out.

While the return of Collins will doubtless blunt the blitzkrieg that has so far been Atlanta’s race to the bottom, the simple fact remains that losing 20 games or more in a 25-game suspension puts the playoffs out of reach and shifts the team into a give-the-young-guys-some-run no-pressure mode, the same philosophy that made Young’s rapid rise out of an awful start to his rookie year possible.

Basket Attackers

One thing I love about this Hawks team is the aggressive, attacking style that coach Lloyd Pierce executes with the personnel he has.

Fully a third of Atlanta’s shots come within three feet of the rim (per Basketball Reference), second in the league.

They shoot 36.1 percent of their shots from long range, below league average, but with Huerter out and a roster constructed to get to the rim, that’s not terribly surprising.

And all that crashing the rim for shots gets them to the free throw line; they’re above league average in FT rate.

They’re not as long-bomb-happy as the Rockets or Bucks, but they don’t have the personnel to be that. But they follow sound offensive principles and are led by a guy who isn’t falling into the midrange/long-two trap. They know how to space the floor, attack the basket, and get to the line.

But Then Again…

The Hawks are 25th in Defensive Rating. Young, for all his prowess as a scorer, is an atrocious defender. A minus-2.8 Defensive BPM sees to that; among players with at least 20 minutes played all season, only the corpse of Vince Carter is worse.

Nobody on this team can guard anyone when it matters, as the Pacers, who had an otherwise awful night on offense (a 97.5 Offensive Rating for the game), put it together in overtime and got whatever they wanted.

A G League Supporting Cast

It cannot be overstated just how dreadful the Hawks are beyond Young and Collins.

It’s not normally the MO around here to cite PER as a measure of player ability, but the Hawks are fourth-worst in Offensive Rating in the league for a reason, and it’s best encapsulated in guys like Carter (5.1 PER), Allen Crabbe (7.9), and Evan Turner (9.6) getting actual rotation minutes.

De’Andre Hunter is second on the team in minutes behind Young…and has a 7.6 PER.

As a rough proxy for just how bad the Hawks are behind their two emerging stars, that’ll do as good as any other statistical measure.

The Way Forward

The Hawks have a good stockpile of draft picks in future years and look to get the Nets’ lottery-protected pick in 2020—they got that one as a throw-in for taking Crabbe’s salary off Brooklyn’s hands—in addition to a nice lottery pick of their own for the tank job this year.

There’s always that guy—like the Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam “that guy”—who falls all the way through the lottery. The Hawks are in desperate need of a complementary 3-and-D wing, and they’ll likely be looking to draft a couple of guys like that to put alongside Young and Collins as they break out of the NBA’s lower echelon in the future.

In simple point of fact, the present is only as bad as it is because of a confluence of factors that took a not-quite-there-yet team and busted them back down to a complete-garbage team.

The Hawks will be good, and it will happen fairly soon. And if Collins gets a phantom injury (go ahead, Hawks management, you know this game just as well as everyone reading this does), so much the better.

NEXT: Detroit Pistons.