So… the Atlanta Hawks almost reached the NBA Finals three months ago. There really is no other way to start this than to say that, no writer thrives on one of the most surprising things that has happened in one of the most surprising seasons of the year. NBA history. They were there ! Tied 2-2 against a Milwaukee team missing Giannis Antetokounmpo! If Brook Lopez hadn’t turned into Hakeem Olajuwon in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, we might be talking about the reigning NBA champion Atlanta Hawks. The odds of that happening in Vegas ahead of the season were 100 to 1.
What happened in Atlanta is not meant to happen. The stars aren’t supposed to make a title push in their first run of the playoffs. The basketball world expected the Hawks to earn a top-four seed and lose in the first round because that’s what basketball history has conditioned them to believe. You stay in the lottery for a few years, take your first playoff chunks, and then the real story begins. Young said “no thanks, I think I’ll end the process actually”, and for all the credit the Atlanta spending spree had for helping him do that, remember Rajon Rondo was gone for the playoffs and that Bogdan Bogdanovic was battling injury for most of the playoffs. De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish were also injured. Young almost stole a championship with half a roster.
Please check the registration box to confirm that you wish to subscribe.
Thank you for your registration!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
An error occurred while processing your subscription.
So the question then becomes… what now? There is this temptation to view the Atlanta race as a fluke. There is something to this. The growth of the team is not linear. The Hawks may be better than they were a year ago, but they’re still losing a round or two sooner due to circumstance, luck, or a billion other factors. That’s probably the consensus … but do you really want to bet against Young after what you’ve seen in the playoffs? This is just one of many storylines for the Hawks’ 2021-22 season.
Atlanta Hawks roster
- Goalkeepers: Trae Young, Delon Wright, Lou Williams, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter
- Forwards: De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Solomon Hill, Jalen Johnson, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari
- Centers: Clint Capela, Gorgui Dieng, Jahlil Okafor, Onyeka Okongwu
1. Trae against the world
Trae Young probably doesn’t mind being reunited with James Harden, but it’s not for the best reasons. Basketball fans have made both the face of their dissatisfaction with modern refereeing, and they’re not entirely wrong in doing so. Young’s mid-point saves are as frustrating for fans as they are for defenders. They violate the spirit of the rules if not, at least last season, the letter. It’s changing. In an effort to curb blatant foul play, the NBA is cracking down on contacts initiated by offensive players.
Young people can live without free throws. Going from nine per game to six or seven won’t do much to slow him down, especially since he purposely reduced his volume last season to accommodate a larger roster. No, the real impact is going to come from games that don’t include fouls. How aggressively can defenders chase Young into the painting if they don’t have to worry about his whistling shenanigans? Would they be more comfortable chasing him on screens? Will he have to move further away from the ball to create the space that could now be lost to him?
It’s star level basketball. The teams adjust, the star adjust, it’s a never-ending dance and Young is far too crafty to rely on just this one trick alone. The fans will be the winners here. Necessity is the mother of invention, and with his favorite trick probably now off the table, Young is going to have to find new ways to torture his opponents.
2. A story of two teams
There are a number of reasons why Atlanta’s near-finals run was so surprising, but most importantly, the surprise wasn’t exclusively the pessimism of the preseason. The Hawks started 14-20. Teams usually don’t go below 0.500 for half a season and then fight for the title. But the ousting of Lloyd Pierce allowed Nate McMillan to make the Hawks the suitors they were destined to be. Atlanta went 27-11 down the home stretch and won two playoffs with no home advantage.
Will it last? Well, the short answer is no. That’s a rate of 58 wins over a full season, and teams with a star tend not to win 58 games. But the McMillan Hawks were probably a little closer to reality than Pierce’s. It’s not like McMillan is working with a full roster here. He had to overcome the absences of Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, and he even led the Hawks to a 5-2 record without Young. It’s a young team. An improvement during the season is to be expected. Swapping Rajon Rondo, a notoriously underwhelming regular-season player, for Lou Williams, a regular-season contributor whose value typically declines in the playoffs (but not last year!) Also made a good difference.
But the weight of expectations does not respond to the context. The Hawks reached the Eastern Conference final last year. They played as a 58-game winning team for half the season. Will that make a more modest 48-50 win season a disappointment? It is not arbitrary. Young made his displeasure known as the Hawks were only halfway through their second lottery season. Building on last season’s success doesn’t have to be as easy as winning more games or going further into the playoffs, but keeping players happy when they’re not including those things is a lot more. hard. This is especially true given the Atlanta salary structure.
3. The invoice is due
Kevin Huerter is eligible for the expansion at this time. Reddish and Hunter will join him the next offseason, and then Onyeka Okongwu after that. Danilo Gallinari is only partially guaranteed for the 2022-23 season. Delon Wright and Lou Williams are about to expire.
There is an obvious financial component to this. It’s no secret that Atlanta considered treating Reddish this offseason to land a pick that could reset their rookie extension clock. The cost of keeping this list together for the long haul is going to be astronomical unless a 2025 ceiling spike bails out Atlanta. Even then, the Hawks are likely considering several tax years before that.
It’s worth asking what their end game is here when it comes to preventing financially-induced list attrition. Is red still available? Will they play the restricted free agent game with Huerter in an offseason light on the cap space? Or could the Hawks consider a consolidation trade? Paying Bradley Beal $ 45 million a year is cheaper than giving Hunter, Reddish and Huerter $ 60 million.
Short-term concerns are more valid. There is the disease of more potential here with so many players fighting for contracts. Young is among the best distributors in the NBA, but he has plenty of mouths to feed here, including the two players best positioned to take the Hawks from the sidelines of the Finals to the top of the mountain.
4. Can these wings fly?
Two-way wings are the rarest archetype in basketball, and Atlanta was wise to dedicate several lottery picks to get them, but Hunter and Reddish struggled mightily in their first seasons. Recruits tend to do this. The samples were small in year 2 thanks to injuries, but they were much more promising. Hunter entered the NBA as a projected 3-and-D player, but last year he dabbled in creating individual shots. Reddish was up and down, but he answered the bell when the stakes were at their highest by leading the Hawks in scoring in their Game 6, a late-season loss to the Bucks.
Those upward flashes are good in year 2. They are not enough in year 3. Atlanta has become dangerously one-dimensional at times last season, even when they were winning. Clint Capela was the whole defense. Trae Young sometimes monopolized the offense. There is possible support for each of them on the list, but only Reddish and Hunter stand out as players who can lighten their two workloads. Versatile wings are worth their weight in gold.
But with so few records from last season, it’s just not easy to tell how much development these two still have ahead of them. If Hunter’s shooting returns to his college levels and he continues to grow as a blueprint maker, he will become an All-Star. Reddish is always on top of the little things and his efforts need to be more consistent. But the talent is there. Most teams would kill for a single young talent up front like Hunter and Reddish. The Hawks have two, and they’re their best shot at giving Young an internally grown co-star.