How Should the Hawks Handle a Return to Play?

Ben Ladner

Less than three months after suspending its season on March 11 due to COVID-19, the NBA looks bound for resumption in the coming weeks. The exact details of a return to play remain unclear, but the league appears set on hosting whatever remaining portion of the season it holds at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando and is reportedly considering several possible formats for playing out the rest of the season.

Among those scenarios is the possibility of continuing only with the teams in contention for a playoff berth, so as to reduce risk of players contracting and spreading the coronavirus. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, most of those options would exclude the Hawks, who sit in 14th place in the Eastern Conference with no chance of making the playoffs.

On Tuesday, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes that he is “not going to be participating” if the season returns in a format that doesn’t allow the Blazers -- currently 3.5 games out of playoff contention -- to compete for a shot at the postseason. “I will show up to work, I'll be at practice and I'll be with my team,” Lillard said. “And then I'm going to be sitting right on that bench during the games.”

Frankly, it’s a smart way for a star to view the situation, and in the unlikely event that they do return to the court this season, Atlanta would be wise to take the same approach with Trae Young.

Teams will almost certainly finish the season having played fewer than 82 games, which mathematically eliminates the 20-47 Hawks from the postseason. Save for accruing stats and simply enjoying playing basketball -- both of which do have value -- there’s little upside in Atlanta putting its franchise cornerstone back on the floor after a three-month absence from competitive basketball only to play an extra handful of games.

“When the NBA and NBPA canvass teams at the bottom of the standings, they also hear ambivalence,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Tuesday. “There are enough players on enough bad teams who've shared the idea that they don't see the value in several weeks of camp and quarantines to play five to eight regular-season games with no playoff potential.”

That’s a valid line of thinking. Finishing the season would bring far more downside risk than potential payoff for teams like the Hawks, Warriors, and Timberwolves. Not only would having more players in the NBA’s bubble increase risk of COVID-19 transmission, the additional games create more injury risk as well.

Injuries are always a lurking threat in competitive sports, but research shows that quickly ramping up one’s workload after a long spell of inactivity leads to a higher chance of injuries like strained muscles, torn ligaments, and more. The German Bundesliga’s injury rate went from 0.27 to 0.88 per game after returning to play recently, and the NBA is conscious of putting its athletes at risk for freak injuries.

“My message [to the team] has been that it feels like we’re gaining positive momentum, so it’s time to start changing our mental mindset from hiatus status to we’re coming back and to also start ramping up our workouts,” Hawks GM Travis Schlenk told Chris Kirschner of The Athletic. “Because we don’t want to be in a situation where we come back and we have a bunch of soft-tissue injuries because guys are out of shape.”

The Hawks had 10 players come in for voluntary workouts at the team practice facility on Monday, according to multiple sources, and have allowed players to come in for individual work for the last couple of weeks. That’s a healthy and proactive way to prevent injury, but it only helps so much. For a team with almost nothing to gain from resuming its season, even a small chance that a key player could tweak a muscle -- or worse -- is a scary one.

Playing its regular starters could also hurt Atlanta’s lottery odds, especially if other lottery-bound teams rest their best players. The Hawks have a relatively easy remaining schedule (on paper) and more talent than most other teams around them in the standings. Even in a relatively weak draft, a high pick still holds power, and the Hawks may be forfeiting flexibility by chasing a few additional wins down the stretch.

The upside of the Hawks playing Young, John Collins, and the rest of their best players would be giving their nucleus a chance to get better acquainted and gathering information on how new pieces like Clint Capela and Skal Labissière fit with the team. Schlenk has said to multiple sources that Atlanta intends to take that route if given the opportunity.

“We would play our guys,” Schlenk told The Athletic. “The more time we can play our guys together, the better it is for us. To be able to see guys we made trades for play with our guys -- those would be valuable minutes for us.”

“Practicing and playing five games would be valuable to us,” he told ESPN.

Atlanta's course of action could depend on how many games Atlanta would play. The Hawks won’t learn much in three extra contests -- which would get them to 70 for the season -- but might be able to glean some amount of useful information in nine -- the most they would play based on reported options.

The organization’s stance on finishing the season, however, could be rendered irrelevant in the coming weeks. While there are still voices within the league pushing for all 30 teams to return, that idea “has lost momentum,” according to Wojnarowski. The NBA Board of Governors has a meeting scheduled for this Friday, and the Hawks could have their decision of how to continue made for them. 

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