The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
Today’s question: Are we sure the Hawks won’t make the playoffs this season?
If you tuned into any Hawks games during the second half of last season, what you saw on the court was probably hard to reconcile with the team’s win total. There was speed and space; the ball pinballed around the court as if possessions were in fast-forward mode; and alley-oops and deep 3s punctuated the show. The offense was raw, but it was far more enjoyable to ignore the mistakes and focus on the entertainment it produced instead.
Atlanta won only 29 games last season, but to watch the team after the All-Star break was to see growth materializing in definitive strides. It was a transition period for the Hawks, one when they pivoted from tanking to starting their upward trajectory. But now expectations are lurking: Can the League Pass darlings turn themselves into a playoff team? The no. 8 seed in the East last year needed 41 wins to squeeze into the postseason. That would mean a 12-win jump for a Hawks team that will still have plenty of growing pains to deal with. But the East feels even more top heavy this season, leaving the bottom half wide open. Atlanta has talent and chemistry, as well as the fortune of still being able to surprise other teams. Their odds aren’t great, but they might be better than you think.
The main source of any Hawks optimism has to be Trae Young. The overall culture and system that Travis Schlenk—who was promoted from GM to president of basketball operations last week and also had his contract extended—and head coach Lloyd Pierce have instituted is the team’s foundation, sure, but any good building needs a cornerstone. It’s remarkable that we’re only a year removed from Young’s disappointing summer league performance (shows how much that mattered) and slow regular-season start, and we’re already christening him as the key figure on an ascending team. But that’s how much progress Young made in the latter half of the season, when he averaged nearly 25 points and 10 assists per game. He dazzled with passes and performances and finally seemed to shut down the narrative that the Hawks had made a mistake passing on Luka Doncic to take him.
When I visited Atlanta in March to talk to Young about his passing, his magnetism became clear. Teammates raved about him—who doesn’t love to play with someone who isn’t just accurate but is also a share-first, score-later player?—and there was an immediate recognition, both from Young and from Hawks coaches, that his personality and style of play was going to be a selling point the team would use to lure future free agents. Members of the organization will tell you this was part of the plan, that they drafted Young over Doncic because the overall fit was more to their liking. And it’s clear the team is outlining its future with Young as its compass. After one season, the Hawks’ bet is looking good. And if Young makes a leap in his second season, so will the Hawks.
Young is the headliner, but Atlanta has also surrounded him with a perfect cocktail of young players, intriguing retreads (Jabari Parker), and solid veterans (Vince Carter, Evan Turner) who can act as experienced guides should this team pop and make it into the postseason. Alongside Young is John Collins, who is one of the more exciting rim runners in the game. He averaged nearly 20-10 a game last season while also making 34.8 percent of his 3s. The duo’s synergy is already advanced, as is their connection with Kevin Huerter, who is the Klay Thompson to Young’s Stephen Curry—if we want to perpetuate the “Warriors East” analogy that has been following the Hawks since Schlenk arrived two years ago (Huerter’s true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage are nearly identical to the numbers Thompson put up in his rookie season).
The Hawks also used this year’s draft to add De’Andre Hunter (a versatile, defensive-minded wing) and a high-upside talent in Cam Reddish to the aforementioned trio. Hunter has the potential to act as a Swiss-army knife and complement the rest of the roster, and really, given that they gave up two first-round picks, a second-round pick, and a heavily protected first-rounder in 2020 to move up to get him, the Hawks need him to do just that. Reddish is more raw, but has a higher ceiling with his athleticism. Much like Alex Len last season, Reddish will benefit tremendously from playing alongside Young. Both rookies could contribute this season, but especially Hunter, who will cover for the team’s lack of size in the backcourt and has a good chance to be an elite defender on the wings.
Atlanta is going to win more than 29 games this season (and in the weak East, a minor jump up from that total might be enough to make the playoffs). But the team will need all of its pieces to work as projected to be in the mix. There’s no guarantee that happens, of course. After being one of the three worst defensive teams in the league last year, the Hawks will need to improve on that side of the ball to stay afloat. And though there don’t seem to be any glaring regression candidates on the roster, it’s impossible to know when Collins will hit a wall until he does, or how Young will react to defenses that have scouted to stop him.
Still, the Hawks are in the honeymoon phase—they’ll be a thrill to watch once again, and fans won’t hold it against them if they don’t make the playoffs. But even though the ultimate goal this year is to take steps forward, you can bet these players will be expecting a whole lot more of themselves than that.