It’s always incredible how much importance actually lies in a good start to an NBA season. While some teams slept through the offseason and are still lazily taking the time to wrestle themselves from a deep slumber as they go through the motions in the early phases of the NBA regular season, others find their season on the verge capitulation as expectations and goals realign and change (such as, reportedly, the Indiana Pacers). Some teams come out of the gates with high expectations and panic when things don’t go their way: trades, firings are often results of such starts.
For the Atlanta Hawks, they’ve gone from an exciting start after a great victory over the Dallas Mavericks, dipping to a 4-9 record behind a six game losing streak, regaining their footing with an immediate win streak at home, to where they are now: pursuing to push above that .500 threshold and establish themselves as a player in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks currently sit 9th in the Eastern Conference with a 13-12 record, surrounded a number of teams who have enjoyed perhaps better than expected starts — the likes of the Washington Wizards (14-11), the Cleveland Cavaliers (13-12), the Charlotte Hornets (14-12). Conversely, you have other teams who have had perhaps underwhelming starts to the season as they look to build on playoff appearances, such as the Philadelphia 76ers (13-11), the Boston Celtics (13-12) and the New York Knicks (12-12). The Atlanta Hawks would also fit into this category.
So, with that in mind — and the Hawks’ season officially crossing over the quarter-mark already — and some time to kill before the Hawks’ next contest on Friday (a fascinating home game against the conference-leading Brooklyn Nets), now seems like a good time to take stock on the Atlanta Hawks so far in the 2021-22 season: the good and the bad.
We’re not going to be talking about the play on the court (yet) when it comes to the Hawks’ record, more so scheduling and nuances within that.
In terms of home/road games, it’s a fairly even split for the Hawks: 12 home games to 13 road games. The Hawks have faltered a tad at home of late with three consecutive defeats leading to a 8-4 record at home. The Hawks have been a good home team under Nate McMillan but you could argue have missed opportunities to further bolster that reputation at home with two poor losses coming against the Utah Jazz (without Donovan Mitchell) and the depleted Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.
Those tough losses aside, the Hawks have been a good home team and have taken care of homecourt (something Nate McMillan has spoken about on multiple occasions) as they won their five-game homestand: arguably the most important stretch of their season so far as they had returned from a winless four-game road trip on the west coast and had lost six games in a row and had returned to State Farm Arena with a 4-9 record.
On the road, obviously that six game losing streak — and a brutally difficult stretch on the west coast, combating the likes of Utah, Golden State, Phoenix and Denver — came for the Hawks at a time where multiple members of the roster were still feeling the effects of a shortened training camp and preseason, the likes of Clint Capela, Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari (to name a few) dealing with injuries prior to the start of the season which continued to linger in the Hawks’ early start to the season. The Hawks have recovered since to a 5-8 record on the road, including the last four road games the Hawks have played — a bit of role reversal both home and away.
The Hawks have played tough teams and in rapid succession too. They’ve played six back-to-backs already this season (the Hawks’ broadcast on Bally Sports noted that this was an NBA-high) and six slates of three games in four nights.
Obviously all teams go through scheduling patches such as this but the Hawks have their fair share to deal with early in the season and I think it has been something people have seen catch up with them in spots on the court, in addition to the Hawks now housing a number of injuries.
Their 13-12 record I don’t think reflects entirely fairly on the Hawks at the moment but over the course of an 82 game season these things — generally speaking — eventually balance out. Hot-starting teams can fall away, injuries mount for other teams, veteran teams find their form as the season continues to progress. Not to say the Hawks are a veteran team in the same way as, say, the Los Angeles Lakers for example (one playoff appearance does not put the Hawks in ‘playoff veteran’ territory) but there’s certainly more to come.
The Hawks enjoyed a great amount of continuity heading into this season, their main addition being Delon Wright — who continues to show improvement as he settles into McMillan’s system — to bolster their bench. With their core still being a young one, they also continue to show improvements. With that in mind, let’s go through who has been playing well for the Hawks, who has struggled somewhat so far and those who has been missing (won’t be covering every player but just some of the notables).
Trae Young currently leads the Hawks in scoring with 26.3 points per game (fifth in the league) on 45.6% shooting from the field on 20 attempts, 39% from three on seven attempts, six free throws a game on 88.6% shooting to go along with 9.4 assists per game (third in the league) in 34 minutes per game. In fact, Young leads the NBA in total points scored.
Young has obviously had a few games where he has struggled from the field but 45% on 20 attempts is (at least I think) pretty good. Young’s field goal attempts are up compared to last season (he averaged 17.7 field goal attempts last season) and I think part of the reason for this is to offset some of those opportunities he’s no longer getting at the free throw line.
I say ‘some’ because, for as much as been made about the NBA’s rule changes, Young is still getting to the foul line on six occasions per game — only 2.7 fewer than last season. The rule changes have impacted Young, certainly, but Young’s main gripe with the officiating, he has stated, is that he has gotten bodied inside at times and fouls haven’t been called that should have been called.
Seven threes attempted per game is, so far, is a small increase from last season (6.3 attempts) from Young but the 39% he is currently converting them at is considerably higher — Young’s career-high clip for a season is 36% and last season he shot 34% from three last season. I expect possibly a very marginal amount of regression from Young in terms of percentage — perhaps to 37%/38% — but would be happy to be wrong of course.
All-in-all, Young has gotten off to a much better start this season compared to last season, where arguably De’Andre Hunter was the best Hawk before his injury early in the season. Before you come rushing to the comments to yell at me for saying that, people forget that Young’s start to last season was slow for his standards but it has been anything but this time around and he will undoubtedly return to the All-Star game (as he should have last season).
Another Hawk who has taken his game up a notch has been John Collins.
Some players, when they get paid, have tended to taken their foot off of the gas, perhaps not as driven to play with everything on the line now that they secured their payday. John Collins is absolutely not one of these players.
Collins is arguably playing the best basketball of his career as a whole.
Yes, he has averaged 20-10 in the NBA before in the shortened 2019-20 season — and is averaging 17 points per game and 7.8 rebounds so far this season — but the level to which he’s playing on both ends of the floor is probably the best it has been as an overall player. Collins’ value may not always be apparent on the boxscore but his qualities as a leader — barking out defensive orders — have shone through. Add to that, Collins is averaging a career-high 2.2 assists so far this season and a team-high +4.5 in plus/minus. He is — as he has in every season of his career — showing improvement in his game.
Elsewhere, Huerter — whose injuries during the summer/preseason are well documented — has recovered from his slow start to the season shooting the ball and is in fine form. Despite that slow start, Huerter is now averaging 10.7 points per game on 47.7% shooting from the field and 39% from three. Huerter has already eclipsed a career-mark in made three-pointers recently and has come close to his career-high on a few occasions too.
He has proved to be steady presence in the Hawks’ lineup as injuries and absences have made their way through the wing positions. Huerter has constantly been available (not just this season) and McMillan has called upon him to start alongside Bogdan Bogdanovic in the absence of Hunter and has the second highest plus/minus on the team with +3.6 on the season. A similar parallel Collins and Huerter share is in their net rating. Huerter leads the team in net rating (other than Solomon Hill, who has featured in just 13 games) with 6.9 with Collins second with 6.4.
Huerter is one of those players who I don’t think is always appreciated and one of those players that would certainly be missed from the side if he was sidelined (touch wood) but, sadly, I think a number of fans would only discover that if such a instance occurred.
Capela and Gallinari (but more so Capela) are players who are now beginning to find consistency in their performances after slow starts to the season recovering from injuries. Capela’s struggles in particular were proving extremely costly to the team. There was a period of time early in the season where Capela had the worst net rating on the team and his defensive rating also the worst on the team. Those days are now gone as Capela continues to look more like the Capela from last season.
Gallinari is getting closer to that level too, and is now shooting above 41% and 39% from three but still averaging just 9.4 points per game and just over seven field goal attempts.
The Hawks, sadly, have had injuries to deal with of late. Cam Reddish has been nursing a wrist injury and Bogdanovic continues to rehab from his ankle sprain. The Hawks announced on Wednesday that Solomon Hill would miss the remainder of the season due to a serious hamstring injury and his loss hurts even more right now as the Hawks continue to deal with a shortage of wings — Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot has stepped in and has played well in this spell.
Onyeka Okongwu has missed the entirety of the season so far but has recently been assigned to G League duty as he ramps up his activity ahead of his return from a shoulder injury and his eventual return will be of benefit to the Hawks (even if he starts slowly).
The real disappointment from an injury perspective has been Hunter, who was ruled out for approximately eight weeks back in November for a wrist injury, which he has since undergone surgery for.
Many spent the offseason wondering how the postseason may have unfolded had Hunter been healthy and looked forward to him being a part of the picture as the Hawks looked to go again, and for him to be ruled out with another injury for a significant amount of time was a major blow and just a disappointment.
To sum up, some really strong and encouraging seasons are being had by a number different Hawks, some are still getting up to speed with to their season and there are some where it’s still waiting to really get going.
This section will involve seeing how all of this has equated to onto the court: where the Hawks rank in certain areas as a team, what they’ve done well, what’s not been good and so on...
Let’s start with the things the Hawks have done well and that starts with offense.
The Hawks rank second in the league in offensive rating (trailing only the Utah Jazz), tied for sixth in points per game, sixth in both effective field goal percentage (53.6%) and true shooting percentage (56.9%) and lead the league in three-point percentage. Led by Trae Young and helped by roster continuity, the offense has been running smoothly so far this season even despite their absences.
The three-point percentage I am 100% sure will hold because so many different Hawks are shooting the ball well that it seems inevitable that it will regress at some point.
Something Brad Rowland of Locked on Hawks noted is that the majority of the roster is shooting 39% or higher from three. Nine members of the rotation (not including Skylar Mays nor rookie Jalen Johnson) are shooting 38% from three or higher...basically everyone bar Lou Williams (36%), Gorgui Dieng (33%) and Hill (15.4%). I would be shocked if such a trend continued all season long, so I’m expecting a little bit of regression in this regard.
What has also helped the offense has been the fact the Hawks are enjoying plenty of possessions by way of retention of the ball as they rank second in the league in turnovers committed per game with just 12.2 turnovers per game; always a satisfying stat because it wasn’t too long ago that the Hawks were last in the league in turnovers. Young’s four turnovers per game are about on average with his career but Young is just one of five players on the team that is averaging more than one turnover a game. When you’re not turning the ball over, that’s a shot you are gaining over your opponent and those add up.
That said, the Hawks have had some shortcoming on the court.
Defensively it hasn’t been fantastic and the Hawks rank 24th in defensive rating and 21st in points allowed per game. I do think some of the early season struggles (Capela’s too) are reflective in their season stats as well as the absence of key defensive personnel such as Hunter and Reddish of late.
The Hawks spoke to their defensive struggles at times in light of a disappointing defeat to the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.
“I think it’s game-to-game inconsistency,” said Huerter. “What that is I can’t put my finger on it. There’s been a lot of games we’ve had where defensively we’ve been sound and played well together defensively and other games we haven’t. It doesn’t seem to matter talent-wise, it’s just like I said, it’s inconsistent. Across the board, guarding the ball, it starts with that.”
The defense hasn’t been so awful that their excellent offense is undone (though, that was the case on Sunday) but there’s a slight cause for concern should it fail to improve.
Something else that has been notable is the Hawks are tied bottom in the league in opponent turnovers per game and 29th in the league in steals per game and, hence, 29th in points off of turnovers. For as well as the Hawks are taking care of the ball, they’re not gaining a massive amount from doing so because they’re not generating steals. It’s odd, because they’re 14th in deflections per game but for whatever reason it’s just not leading to steals/opponent turnovers.
Again, you can probably put some of that down to some of the personnel that have been missing but even in mid-November, before Hunter’s injury, the Hawks were still close to the bottom in these areas.
I combed through NBA.com/stats until my head was more than sore and the Hawks honestly rank fairly well in most areas of the game. Not perfect in some but I certainly think they have played better than a 13-12 record would indicate. If they can find a way to generate steals and increase that opponent turnover per game number and, by extension, their points off of opponent turnovers I think it could elevate their level of play.
The Hawks are a bit of a ways off of their targets as a playoff team in terms of their record and defense. To fans who have high expectations, or on the outside looking in, I think in general the Hawks done quite a number of things well this season and they have players who have been playing extremely well offensively, especially shooting the long-ball. Given where they were at after that six game losing stretch and their current injuries I think the Hawks have recovered well and kept themselves in the hunt while not playing their best basketball at times (similar to many other teams in that regard).
A stretch of eight road games in nine games looms towards the end of this month and the Hawks will be hoping their season doesn’t take a dive as it initially did when they last spent time out on the road.
In the meantime, the Hawks have some very winnable games in the near future to continue an upward trajectory. Time will tell how they navigate it as their 2021-22 season continues...
(Stats courtesy of NBA.com and are correct prior to the games on December 8th)