From the Hawks’ win against the Suns on Tuesday, something small stood out to coach Lloyd Pierce, indicative of something bigger.
Of Kevin Huerter’s career-high eight assists, four of them were connections with John Collins (a Huerter-to-Collins alley-oop gave them a one-point lead going into the fourth quarter). Considering Huerter missed 11 games with a right shoulder injury in November and Collins’ 25-game suspension from Nov. 5-Dec. 23, that was the first time this season the pair’s chemistry really struck Pierce.
“Just having the opportunity to see that is what I want to evaluate,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. “It was one of those light-bulb moments.”
As of Saturday afternoon, Huerter and Collins have played just 306 minutes together over 16 games (which might sound like a lot, until you consider the Hawks are 10-32 overall and each individual game consists of 48 minutes of regulation play). Add in Trae Young, the likely All-Star and final member of the Hawks’ Big 3 who has missed three games with a right ankle sprain over the course of the season and sat out their blowout loss in Brooklyn on Jan. 12 with left hamstring pain, and that trio has played 168 minutes together in 12 games. In short, they’ve rarely been at full force.
Moving into the second half of the season, it’s numbers like those that make it hard for players to assess the Hawks’ first half, even if their record jumps off the page in a bad way. The buzzword for the second half of the season seems to be “consistency,” referring to both production on the court and the health and availability of their key players.
In the second half, the Hawks are off to a decent start, with a 121-120 win in San Antonio on Friday (their first away win against the Spurs since 1997) giving them their first pair of back-to-back wins since the first two games of the season (they had the trio of Young, Collins and Huerter together in those wins, as well).
“I feel like it just doesn’t give you a complete look at our team,” Collins said of the Hawks’ record in the first half. “I’m not trying to use that as an excuse, but it just factors into the storyline of our team’s season, the ups and downs of our roster, having guys, injuries, what have you, it shakes things up and doesn’t create that consistency.”
Obviously, the Hawks were bad in the first half, maintaining the worst record in the Eastern Conference since hitting a low point in a 143-120 loss to the Knicks (now the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference at 11-31) on Dec. 17. Through their first 41 games, they led the league in turnovers per game (16.6), they had the fifth-worst defensive rating (112.5) and until Thursday’s trade that brought back Jeff Teague (and also brought Treveon Graham) from Minnesota in exchange for Allen Crabbe, they didn’t really have a backup point guard behind Young to lead the struggling second unit (though two-way player Brandon Goodwin has averaged 9.4 points and two assists over the past eight games). The addition of Teague could change things for the better, if he can bolster the bench.
Asked to grade the Hawks’ first 41 games, Pierce gave it an “incomplete.”
“For me, it’s hard,” Pierce said. “It’s hard to evaluate the team after what we’ve been through. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a reality. ... I still just go back and evaluate each player individually and what we can do to help them, where they’ve grown from the beginning of the year, what type of setbacks they’ve had and how we can continue to assist. I like what those young guys are doing. It’s hard as a coach to just isolate those five guys (the young core of Young, Collins and Huerter, plus rookies Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter).”
“They’re a big part of our future, they’re a big part of what we’re doing and why they’re starting. So we’re just hoping to get them together as much as we can and you get excited when you see games like (the win vs. Phoenix, when) they’re playing well together.”
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Hawks’ win vs. Phoenix on Tuesday marked the first time in NBA history that a trio of teammates who are 22 and younger each had a 20-point double-double in the same game (Young had 36 points and 10 assists, Huerter had 23 points and 15 rebounds and Collins had 22 points and 10 rebounds).
Those stats followed up by Friday’s win makes you think about what the Hawks’ record would look like without all the moving parts, though that’s not a road Young wants go to down.
“It’s tough, and you never want to think like that, you never want to think what could have been or anything like that, but it’s tough not to when you see what me, John and Kevin can do when we’re on the court together,” Young said.
At the halfway point last season, the Hawks were 12-29, so they’ve regressed instead of taking that step forward they were aiming for.
But this season’s team still thinks its record doesn’t tell the whole story and looks to show that in the second half.
“I think we’ve been saying all year, we’re better than our record. We haven’t played as well as we could,” Huerter said. “We’ve had a lot of key guys out. So there’s a million different excuses we could make of (the reason for how) the season has gone so far (is different) than what we thought it would be going into the year, and that was probably better than last year.”