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Hawks deliver on playoff proclamation after long journey

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

On March 2, 2020, the Atlanta Hawks suffered one of their worst losses of the year, losing by 39 points to the Memphis Grizzlies. Two days later, then-Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce held a team meeting, in which he said the Hawks would be a playoff team the next season.

From the day that statement was made, some fans and others watching around the league bought into the playoff stock. Those people are now winning big, because the Hawks have officially clinched their first playoff berth since the 2016-2017 season, and won their division for the second time since 1994.

But things weren’t always this good for the Hawks.

This is John Collins’ first winning season in his career, as he is currently the longest tenured Hawks player on the roster. Ironically, Collins was the one to hit the big shot that gave the Hawks their playoff clinching win.

“Just thinking about all the trials and tribulations I had gone through up to this point, makes every bit of this just that much sweeter,” Collins said after the playoff clinching game.

When Collins was a rookie, the Hawks were one of the youngest teams in the league, and Dennis Schroder was arguably the best player on the team. This was the first year of the rebuild season, and it consisted of players such as Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry, Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Tyler Dorsey, and Isaiah Taylor, just to name a few.

During that season, Collins was mostly known as a finisher around the rim, and potentially putting a player on a poster dunk every once in a while. Since then, he’s transformed into a player that can give you 20 and 10 and also be a solid defender.

In the next two seasons after Collins’ rookie year, the Hawks roster was slowly (but surely) taking shape.

In 2018, it looked like they found their future franchise player in Trae Young, and drafted Kevin Huerter as a complimentary piece later in the first round. If there was one thing Travis Schlenk knew how to do early in his tenure as Hawks GM, it was stay flexible cap wise and load up on future draft picks.

This Atlanta roster wasn’t as nearly as disappointing as the season before, and they had a better array of players on the team such as Jeremy Lin (bought out during season), Alex Len, and Vince Carter, and Lloyd Pierce was hired as the new head coach.

This team wasn’t a contender, but they stayed competitive throughout the season beating some of the better teams in the league that year. Most importantly, the potential stardom of Young began to show in the second half of the season. It was the quadruple overtime game against the Chicago Bulls that put the league on notice. Even though the Hawks lost, Young scored a then career-high 49 points and dished out 16 assists.

From there it looked like the Hawks were heading into the right the direction of their rebuild. They had their franchise player, a running mate that could average 20 and 10, and a backcourt pairing for Young. But they needed more.

“For me, just knowing how hard it is to get to this position, having to really rebuild our team to get to this position, it makes it that more gratifying that we’re here, but not satisfied for sure though,” said Young after the Washington win.

In the 2019 NBA Draft, Schlenk continued to make moves to push the franchise further. With the Hawks likely already having two lottery picks, the Hawks traded Taurean Prince to the Brooklyn Nets for Allen Crabbe and the No. 17 pick, along with another protected first-round pick that would become part of the puzzle later. That meant three picks in the first round in 2019, and there were rumors that Schlenk wouldn’t keep them all not long after a deal was in place.

Hours before the draft, the No. 8 and No. 17 pick were traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for the No. 4 pick. De’Andre Hunter was selected with that pick, and the Hawks selected Cam Reddish with the No. 10 pick.

This move gave the Hawks two much needed wings that had the potential to be complimentary “3-and-D” players in their career. Reddish had the potential to be the better player in the eyes of some, but Hunter was already the most polished player out of the two.

This season, a couple of the Hawks young wings have shown tremendous growth. Huerter has been able to stay healthy through most of the season and has elevated his game to be a versatile piece for the team that can shoot, handle the ball, and be a facilitator. Not only do teams have to worry about his perimeter shooting now, but he’s also become more aggressive in driving to the paint.

Before his knee injury earlier this season, Hunter was by far the most consistent player on the team. He had also become more aggressive on offense, and he continued his job to guard the best player on the opposing team.

Reddish has still not been able to find a consistent groove in his first two seasons with injuries and a shortened year, but his defense is something that has been a positive sign for the team.

The “Core Five” was something that fans could get excited about for years to come, but they also lacked size and a real threat in the paint. At the trade deadline, the team acquired Clint Capela from the Houston Rockets in a multi-team deal in which Atlanta sent out a mid first-round pick, the protected 2020 first from Brooklyn that conveyed when the Nets made the playoffs last season.

This has a become a trade that worked out perfectly for the Hawks, as Capela has turned into one of the most important players on the team. He leads the lead in rebounding, has become a safety net for Young when throwing lobs, and he’s making a case for Defensive Player of the Year. The fit with Collins was a big topic heading into the season, but they have been one of the most formidable frontcourts this season.

Before this season, Young, Huerter, Hunter, Reddish, Collins, and Capela were the only players that were highly guaranteed to be back on the team, which meant Schlenk had some work to do to fill out the rest of the roster.

This past offseason, the front office spent nearly half of their cap space to try and ensure that this team would be built to succeed their goal of making the playoffs. They signed above average shooters in Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, one of the best defensive guards in Kris Dunn, and two veterans in Rajon Rondo and Solomon Hill.

“We knew all along we had the talent,” Young said. “And then adding some of the pieces we did this past offseason, with the experience and the growth of guys that were still here, for us the expectation just went higher. I think it pushed us and got us to believe in each other.”

To start the season, this team looked like a playoff roster on paper, but it wasn’t translating into wins. Fourth quarter leads were being blown, and there seemed to be no offensive game plan to help the team at times. The team also battled injuries, as Dunn, Bogdanovic and Gallinari missed significant time in the opening third of the season.

Insert Nate McMillan.

Since firing Pierce and McMillan taking over, the Hawks are 26-11 (16-2 at home), and have been the best fourth quarter team in the league.

“One goal has been accomplished,” said McMillan after the series clinching win against Washington. “When I came down with Coach Pierce this year, that was the goal, to get this team to the playoffs, and to take that next step.”

McMillan’s offense involves a lot of movement, especially off the ball. That could be part of the reason why Bogdanovic has seen a rise in his game since returning from injury in March, though being healthy has also been key as well, as he never seemed quite right early in the season before missing 25 games due to injury.

Young has seen a shift in his game since McMillan has taken over as well. He’s taking less shots, and making the right plays for the team more of the time. We all know Young has a gift for passing, but with better talent around him it makes sense why he isn’t scoring quite as much as he did in the past.

Gallinari started the season off slow but has been another lethal three-point shooter for the Hawks that teams wouldn’t want to leave open. He’s also been consistent from mid-range and making plays in the paint with his turnaround jumper off the bench.

With Rondo not providing much for the Hawks during his short stint, he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Lou Williams. Williams has always been known for being instant offense, and for a team looking for more scoring off the bench, he was a good acquisition in the middle of the season.

And of course, you can’t forget about the contributions from sharp shooting Tony Snell, veteran grinder Solomon Hill, the energy brought by Brandon Goodwin whenever he’s called upon, and Onyeka Okongwu, the rookie who struggled early but has made strides of late. All of these guys have been able to step in when needed this season and pick up the slack, something that has been crucial during what has been an injury riddled season for the Hawks, and the rest of the NBA during this condensed season.

“Obviously if you haven't watched us play all year and you saw us for the the first time tonight, you would think we had all our guys besides Dre for most of the season,” Young said. “For us, knowing that we got guys on the bench that have experience from playing, it’s really good for us. We have a pretty deep bench that we can go to.”

It took four years for the Hawks to get to this point, but they finally have a complete team that can compete at a high level every night. Even though they’ve reached their goal of making the playoffs, there’s still more work to be done.

“This was the goal for this organization at the beginning of the season,” said McMillan. “These guys have stepped up and accomplished that. I’m thrilled to death that I can be a part of this.”