Link maker

Atlanta Hawks’ ‘weakest link’ could be in line for big payday

The Atlanta Hawks are already having enough trouble agreeing with third-year forward De’Andre Hunter on a possible extension. At last check, the two parties are together on a four-year deal but remain apart by about $20 million. Hunter also comes with a unique set of circumstances.

Atlanta has had a facelift this offseason, making the 24-year-old Hunter the third-longest-serving player on the roster. The mandate did not prevent his teammate John Collins from participating in trade negotiations as he did with Hunter.

But it speaks to the complexity of the situation the Hawks find themselves in.

As it stands, Hunter has been named the Hawks’ ‘weakest link’ among their starting lineup which now also includes Dejounte Murray.

De’Andre Hunter puts Atlanta Hawks in interesting position as ‘weakest link’

Murray’s arrival bodes well for Hunter as much as for any other Hawks player. Along with no longer being expected to become the Hawks’ second star or defending smaller guards, he also won’t have to play a game that’s beyond his skill set. Hunter had made strides as a playmaker in his injury-shortened 2021 season.

But he regressed in many ways last season, including creating attack and defense.

Defense was supposed to be Hunter’s strength. But that wasn’t the case last year, says Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes.

“Hunter … produced a minus-2.0 EPM in 2021-22, and he also has health issues after playing just 76 games combined over the past two years. A double-digit scorer in all three seasons of his career… Hunter’s importance to Atlanta’s playoff plans might make him seem like an odd choice as a weak link, but the difficulty of his job and the rarity of the injuries with which he was able to execute it make him an obvious vulnerability.

The 6-foot-8 fighter has now posted a defensive rating in the 36th percentile or worse in two of the past three seasons, according to Cleaning the Glass. His 4.5-point improvement in his offensive rating offset a 7.8-point regression in his defensive rating.

Negative advanced production and a spotty injury history — Hunter has had two meniscus surgeries in less than two years — are easy ways to grab the attention of skeptics.

But keeping the hardest mission doesn’t often lend itself to great stats.

“If all goes well, Hunter will go back on his way to becoming one of the best three-and-D role players in the league. But it’s no coincidence that fellow members of his draft class, Keldon Johnson of the San Antonio Spurs being a particularly good roster, have already earned their rookie extensions, and the fact that Hunter hasn’t earned the same commitment speaks to the question marks surrounding him.

Those question marks haven’t stopped the Hawks from calling Hunter “off limits” in trade talks. Maybe it was a motivational tactic.

“If calling him a weak link seems too harsh,” wrote Hughes, “we can all agree that he’s the Hawks starter with the most to prove in the coming season.”

The Hawks just traded one of their local players after paying Kevin Huerter largely to avoid the luxury tax. It becomes less of an option as they try to move towards a competitor.

Their hope is that Hunter will be part of it rather than a stepping stone. How much is that hope worth to the Hawks?