Watching the Hawks on Friday night, you could feel it at times. It was a sense of inevitability, one that crescendoed after the Wizards took a massive lead at halftime. To their credit, the Hawks fought back and muted it with torrid third and fourth-quarter runs. With only a few minutes left in the game, it genuinely looked like Atlanta was going to complete the comeback.
When it became clear that the Hawks weren’t coming back to win this one though, Mike Budenholzer emptied the benches and took his starters out of the game. This was no game four against Cleveland last year — this time everyone in the arena knew when the team was finished. And now, after a disappointing end to a well-fought series, the Hawks are left with a string of questions about the team’s future.
Friday night’s ending was disappointing, but there are plenty of positives from this season. Atlanta finished with 43 wins, a fifth-place seed in the East, and saw Taurean Prince develop into a quality playoff starter. Paul Millsap is still one of the best players in his conference, and the team retained its elite defensive status from last year.
Of course, there are also question marks. The Hawks’ point differential suggests that they weren’t quite as good as their 43 wins, and the team’s aging roster and plethora of free agents makes the future uncertain. Among those free agents, Millsap’s status looms the largest. Lose him, and the Hawks get dramatically worse. Sign him to a long-term deal though, and the team loses all semblance of future flexibility.
Among the pantheon of East teams, the Hawks’ status is even murkier. Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, and Washington are all probably going to be at least this good next year, and Milwaukee and Miami may be even better. Atlanta can probably stay at its current level by resigning most of the expiring contracts, but that may only be a stopgap. As Millsap, Dwight Howard, and Thabo Sefolosha age, it’s worth asking how many good years they have left.
In terms of draft stock though, Atlanta is in good shape. With its own first-round pick, and the Brooklyn Nets’ second-round pick (essentially another first rounder at number 31), the Hawks can aim to restock in June. There may not be another player as undervalued as Prince when Atlanta is on the board this year, but there’s always a chance to more talent at the draft.
Finally, there are plenty of exciting young players on the roster as well. Prince’s stock continues to rise, and Dennis Schroder had a fantastic playoff series. His accomplishments in these past six games were muted by playing against a player of Wall’s caliber, but Schroder played very well this April. At only 23, there’s still plenty of time and room for him to improve.
The end of a season is always a little melancholy. This Hawks team struggled from time to time, but they ended the season in good position and severely threatened a team that many thought would win this series easily. In both game five and game six, Atlanta was one or two missed shots from victory. That’s no small accomplishment. There are plenty of question marks going into the summer, but also plenty of reasons for hope and optimism. It’s been a fun season, everyone.