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Atlanta Hawks: Setting the table for the Second Half

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Beginning with a March 11 date in Tampa against the Toronto Raptors, the Atlanta Hawks have 36 games remaining in the 2020-21 NBA season. Though the schedule originally included 37 games before the midseason All-Star break, one postponement swung things into balance for Trae Young and company, and the Hawks entered the break with a 16-20 record.

The First Half of the season was marred by injury, and the Hawks also made a significant change just two games before the break, parting ways with Lloyd Pierce and installing Nate McMillan as the interim head coach. From there, myriad storylines exist, ranging from De’Andre Hunter’s breakout (and subsequent injury return timeline) to John Collins’ future, the upcoming trade deadline, the development of young pieces, the integration of veterans as they round into form, and much more.

While not every subject will be tackled, it is time to “set the table” for the second half of the season, checking a few boxes along the way.

The standings

As noted above, the Hawks are 16-20 overall, and that includes an 8-9 record at home and an 8-11 record on the road. Atlanta’s struggles in late-game situations are well-documented, including the 3rd-worst mark in the NBA in what the league defines as “clutch” situations. That helps to explain the gap between the team’s full-season net rating (+0.3) and its sub-.500 record, and the Hawks have been outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions in “clutch” situations.

Beyond the broad strokes, the Hawks have a +0.1 net rating as defined by Cleaning The Glass, which endeavors to remove “garbage time” and other auxiliary factors from its calculations. As such, Atlanta has operated as the equivalent of a .500 team by the metrics, even when dealing with myriad injuries in the first 36 games.

Atlanta’s performance matters in a vacuum, but context is needed to parse through the Eastern Conference standings. As of the All-Star break, three teams — Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee — have separated from the pack at the top, and only one team (Detroit) seems to be in its own tier at the bottom. After that, there is a morass of squads, ranging from the Boston Celtics at 19-17 to the Orlando Magic at 13-23.

Only six (!) games separate the No. 4 seed from the No. 14 seed in the East, and the Hawks currently land in the No. 11 spot. Atlanta is just a half-game from No. 10 but, more importantly, the Hawks are just three games from the No. 4 spot and two games from the No. 6 position.

By any description, there is a lot of potential volatility with this volume of teams competing in close quarters, but that also provides upside for Atlanta if things begin to click.

How does that project toward the future? Well, statistical models paint an intriguing picture.

The projections

As you can see, the consensus lands near the .500 mark by the end of the campaign, with the notable outlier of ESPN’s BPI projections. These numbers do account for the Hawks starting 16-20 and, with that in mind, Atlanta is widely projected to perform at or above the .500 mark in the final 36 games.

The schedule

Schedule strength, or lack thereof, is an interesting factor to consider. PTH’s Graham Chapple took a deep dive into the Second Half slate and, if detailed observation is what you seek, that is the place to find it.

Overall, the good folks at Tankathon track remaining schedule strength by current winning percentage. Through that easy-to-consume lens, the Hawks face the ninth-easiest schedule in the NBA, with opponents combining to win 49.1 percent of their games at this juncture.

An upcoming eight-game road trip — beginning Mar. 20 in Los Angeles and ending Apr. 2 in San Antonio — creates something of an obstacle early in the Second Half schedule. After that, however, the Hawks face relatively smooth sailing from a scheduling perspective, and the end of the season includes seven of the final eight games at State Farm Arena, including the last four contests.

The roster

It goes without saying that injuries have played a major role in Atlanta’s 2020-21 season to this point. Though it is important to note that the Hawks have largely avoided injury issues to Young, Collins, Clint Capela and Kevin Huerter, key absences help to paint the picture of what has transpired to this point and how things might proceed after the break.

As of early March, the Hawks were one of the top five (or bottom five, if you’d prefer) teams in the NBA when it comes to number of games lost to injury. In short, Atlanta’s roster has been decimated, with Kris Dunn missing the entire season and five additional players — Hunter, Cam Reddish, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo and Danilo Gallinari — missing at least ten games each with various ailments.

The Hawks will return to action without both Hunter and Reddish in mid-March, as Hunter continues to rehab from a knee issue and Reddish remains sidelined after a non-surgical procedure on his right Achilles. Hunter’s breakout is one of the more positive developments of the season for Atlanta and, as such, they miss him desperately. On the bright side, he is expected to return during the second half, and Hunter’s presence could bridge some of the gaps the team has faced in the month-plus since his injury.

There are deep dives to be examined on Atlanta’s rotation and how it has been, and will be, affected by injuries. One simple note helps to tell a clear story, however, and it stems from the overall lack of roster cohesion.

Atlanta’s projected top eight for the 2020-21 season — Young, Collins, Capela, Bogdanovic, Hunter, Reddish, Huerter and Gallinari in some order — has appeared in only one game (Dec. 30 in Brooklyn) together. While that is jarring enough, that lasted all of three minutes and nine seconds, which represents the amount of court time for Gallinari before he suffered an injury in that one and only contest.

Eventually, McMillan and the staff may be blessed with the ability to utilize the full roster, with the hope that Reddish, Hunter and Kris Dunn — who has not played this season — could be back by time the calendar flips to April. Still, the Hawks are in a position in which every game matters when it comes to playoff position in the East, and they must hold the line, even if short-handed.

Due to the instability that is accompanied by blown fourth-quarter leads, a coaching change and a current placement in the standings that falls outside of the NBA’s playoff structure, the Atlanta Hawks are seen by many as a disappointment through 36 games. That may be fair when considering a 16-20 record but, at the same time, the combination of the team’s lack of roster continuity, a relatively difficult schedule and struggles from newly-acquired veterans would indicate that a 16-20 mark isn’t too far away from expectations.

With only eight games before the 2021 NBA trade deadline, the Hawks will need to move quickly if they aim to upgrade the roster before the stretch run. Still, Atlanta may take solace in simply having a version of the roster that is closer to preseason expectations and, if and when that happens, the Hawks should be quite dangerous after weathering the early-season storm.

Stay tuned.