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Atlanta Hawks prepare for intriguing stretch run

The final leg of the season approaches.

Toronto Raptors v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

An NBA season is a journey and the journey for the Atlanta Hawks in 2018-19 has been one of great intrigue.

A lot of change occurred over the summer to get to this point.

Five-year head coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff left Atlanta for Milwaukee (and I think most Hawks fans are satisfied with how that’s working out for the former Hawks Coach of the Year so far) with Lloyd Pierce arriving from Philadelphia and recruiting an almost entirely new staff. The Hawks’ roster saw significant change with the progression of Hawks GM Travis Schlenk’s rebuilding plan as he continued to add youth to the team with three first-round picks, including star point guard Trae Young of Oklahoma.

As the season has progressed, Hawks fans, analysts, executives etc. have gotten to witness the progression that Lloyd Pierce and his young Hawks side have made throughout the season as the established members of the team not only adjust to a new system but the rookies adjust to the NBA in general, and vice versa when it comes to the coaching staff adjusting to the players.

At the All-Star break, the Hawks sit 12th in the Eastern Conference with a 19-39 record. Despite the record, the general feeling surrounding the Hawks has been as positive now as it has been in recent memory — and certainly more positive more than this time last year, when it really was just a slow-grind to April.

There is genuine excitement — maybe not on a massive scale but still buzz nevertheless — about this group and its young core going forward, featuring Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter.

And the development and growth has been clear to see up and down the roster.

From watching John Collins turn into a double-double machine, Trae Young rein in his shot selection and adjust to how NBA defenses are aggressively defending him and find ways to get his teammates involved, Kevin Huerter develop into one of the premier wing shooters and even third-year players Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry show some improvements.

While many have been surprised by the Atlanta Hawks this season and what they’ve been able to do — exceeding expectations in many ways — the Hawks are about where Lloyd Pierce expected them to be up to this point and dived into detail about how his Hawks side as they reached the All-Star Break.

“Pretty much where most of us would have anticipated,” said Pierce after the Hawks’ last game before the All-Star Break against the New York Knicks. “Early on in the year, the biggest challenge I knew I was going to have was the teaching — trying to educate three rookies, and a bunch of guys I’ve never worked with. A lot of schemes, terminology, (and to) install an offensive playbook, and try and execute it. I talk about October and November being a lot of thinking, and not playing, and not reacting. (Our) early struggles are a result of that.

“Everyone’s new, including the players and myself. From Christmas to All-Star, I thought that’s where we saw a lot of growth — we saw Kevin Huerter really blow up at Philadelphia, and really have a great game at Indiana. We see Trae (Young) — his shooting numbers come to earth for us, and you see him dominate. You see him really just be a floor leader. John (Collins) was amazing from Christmas to All-Star. For a team, that’s probably where we wanted to be. Teaching, learning, experiencing the NBA for the first time, for the first two-and-a-half months. The next two months, month-and-a-half - whatever it is - (we’re) putting it together and having fun, and having the spirit. Now, we’re in the final third, from All-Star to the end of the year- where we have to learn as pros how to approach games like this and the rest of the year from a professional standpoint (and) a growth standpoint, and to gain as much experience as we can. It’s important for Omari Spellman to go into the offseason with a lot of film to watch on himself to watch. Hopefully, it’s a lot of positive film.”

Gathering film ahead of the summer — where much more development and work will take place — seems to be a priority for the Hawks to close here, but for one player in particular that Pierce mentioned by name: Omari Spellman. Interesting to hear Pierce single out Spellman like that...

“We want to gather information,” continued Pierce. “We want to be able to finish (games). We want to be in tight games. We have nine road games, we want to go on the road some more. We want to finish here at home and have a better showing at home. We know when we perform, the city of Atlanta enjoys the Hawks, and they enjoy this young team. But, we have to do that, and we have to prove that more often. That’s the focal point for us as a basketball team from All-Star to the end of the year.”

The Hawks seem to get up more for road games than they do at home (10-22 on the road compared to 9-17 at home) and I think it’d be fair to say they show a bit more, what Pierce would refer to, ‘spirit’ on the road. They’ve proven tough opponents on a number of occasions compared to home, where they’ve been rolled over at times — it has gone both ways to be fair as you’d expect with 39 losses. But perhaps it’s no surprise that Pierce wants his side to be on the road a bit more in environments where his group need to rally and show togetherness (a quality Pierce has often talked about wanting from his side) if they’re to pull a result away from home.

The home form has been poor this season (nothing highlighted that more than the absolutely atrocity that was the Knicks game before the break) and it seems like a priority for Pierce to try improve that record but the Hawks will have plenty of home games from here on out to try correct that form before seasons end — 15 of their final 24 games are at State Farm Arena.

In a separate question regarding post All-Star Break goals, Pierce continued to highlight ‘growth and development’ of his group (meanwhile, water is wet) as well as touching a bit more on what he referred to earlier: the Hawks’ approach.

“It’s still growth and development,” said Pierce of post All-Star Break goals. “Had we lost the game (against the Knicks) and competed and played as hard as we played the other night and we were out there fighting and playing together, I would’ve had no problems (with the loss). That wouldn’t have been my issue. I didn’t think we had the right approach tonight.

“So, the rest of the year is about our approach, the effort and togetherness and the spirit. We’ve done a lot of good things leading up to this point to get our team and our players together to buy in. We have to find away to hold onto that for the next 24 games. That’s the most important part — our players continue to get better, continue to show growth, continue to work. As a unit, we have to stay together, we have to keep the spirit and we have to finish on a high note.”

“We’re just going to try to win as many games as possible and just develop,” echoed John Collins. “I think that’s the biggest objective for us as a young team is just developing our young core. We are trying to get everybody minutes and an opportunity to develop while also winning games which at times can be challenging, but it’s part of the battle. We’re all ready for it, and it’s a goal.”

I think it’s fair to say, in short, the Hawks are trying to win as many games as possible to close the season, both home and away. And this brings up a topic that will be especially in-season after the All-Star Break and can be summarized in the following words: ‘tanking’, ‘ping-pong balls’, ‘lottery.’

The Hawks are currently 19-39 on the season, the fifth-worst record in the league. The next closest to them are the Memphis Grizzlies (23-36) and the Washington Wizards (24-34). You could tell me that the Hawks could leapfrog both of these teams down the stretch and I’d believe you — and that has as much to do with the Hawks as it does to how bad the Wizards and Grizzlies can be.

With every win that the Hawks rack up between now and the end of the season, there’s going to be cries of ‘the lottery’ and ‘the Hawks are ruining their season’ and other such nonsense that comes with the territory this time of year.

But I think there is a key difference to last year’s group winning games down the stretch and this year’s group possibly winning games.

All the Hawks had in terms of youth last season was John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. They were jostling for position in a draft where there were multiple stars to be had. They didn’t have a foundational piece last year and that draft was seemingly their best chance to get in on such a piece.

This year, they have much more solid foundations for their long-term with Young and a developing Collins and Huerter, in addition to Spellman, Prince and Bembry, though the latter pair may not be as much a part of the future as previously thought. And with a first-year coach in Pierce, everyone is trying to improve and validate the fruits of their labor by winning games and building winning habits, understanding what it means to close and win games at home and on the road. Against the good teams and against teams that have, say, lost 18 games in a row.

Unlike last year, there’s no need to shut anybody down (though, the Hawks did have legitimate injuries down the stretch last season) — this young Hawks group needs continuous reps. Looking at their schedule, there are easily up to six winnable games, and the Hawks are known to spring a few surprises too (as well as suffer letdowns).

The players and coaches are paid to go out there and try and win basketball games and compete — that’s where their livelihoods are made. Losing isn’t in their blood as professionals but, at some point, they do understand what the objective of the front office is.

“I’ll never agree and say that losing is okay, and that losing feels okay and feels alright cause that’s just not in my DNA,” said Young via Dime Magazine during All-Star Weekend. “But at the same time, we all know the process and the plan of what we need to do and what we’re all together here to do, so we just really focus on that and focus on the end goal. Like I said, how to get better each day and help win championships.”

They get it. The players get it. The coaches get it. That doesn’t mean they’ll go out and play/coach any less hard or try to not win games.

It would be beneficial for the Hawks’ lottery odds to finish in the bottom five but, and this bears repeating, it’s a lottery.

A lottery.

It’s all about chance. So let’s just take it easy when the Hawks win a game — it’s all a lottery at the end of the day. And with the combination of flattened lottery odds and what many experts are tabbing as a one-player draft, every win doesn’t mean nearly as much harm to the long-term vision as it did a year ago.

When it comes to the overall development of the players, habits, etc., the Hawks aren’t going to let the standings/ping-pong balls affect their final 24 games.

It’s about their growth, development, improving their record at home, finding themselves on the road, mindset in their approach to games, finishing games off and continuing to collect film for the summer.

The Atlanta Hawks are ready for the final stretch run to what has to be considered (for them) as a successful 2018-19 season.