It’s been almost a week and it’s taken just as long to collect my thoughts about what we all witnessed. The Atlanta Hawks just finished what is arguably their best season ever since moving to Atlanta in 1968. Pete Maravich. Moses Malone. Dominique Wilkins. Some of the league’s greats once donned a Hawks jersey.
But none experienced the highs of a competitive Eastern Conference Final series.
First, I begin with a mea culpa. Just this past March, some loser was thoroughly unimpressed with the decision to move on from Lloyd Pierce and install interim head coach Nate McMillan in the middle of the season.
That short-sighted fool pooh-poohed the surely meaningless swap of coaches and was quoted as saying “does Nate McMillan save a foundation with so many structural cracks? Probably not,” and “trading in Pierce for McMillan just feels like rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic.”
It goes without saying that this was a successful season. Like really successful. One beyond even the most fervent fan’s wildest dreams as late as March of this year. I mean, just check out the below graph with the Hawks’ games against .500 matched up with dates. It should be pretty easy to spot what happened at the circled point in time with the record sitting at 14-20.
That’s a late season climb higher than one to the top of Stone Mountain.
There was a lot of, “they can’t possibly pull this off. This is Atlanta sports.” But time after time, giants were slain and the good guys marched on.
We’ve witnessed the rise of Trae Young to being a crunch time assassin and league-wide villain. Loudly shushing the Madison Square Garden crowd after a game-winning floater. Shrugging off a halftime shoulder check from Reggie Bullock to help squash the Knicks in 5. There were legitimate worries over Knicks fans taking over State Farm Arena in the first round.
And yet, all we saw leaving the arena in orange and blue was a dejected Spike Lee. Twice.
The Philadelphia Sixers had processed themselves into a top seed and sported three players on the two All-Defensive teams. Just imagine having a prayer against a team like that with Joel Embiid shrugging off a meniscus tear to post 30.4 points and 12.7 rebounds per contest.
And yet, downed in seven games they were.
When asked about what he learned about himself this season in the postseason run, Young quickly responded “that I was right all along, ” with enough confidence and swagger to feed thousands. Young has arrived as a bonafide star player and the franchise can have full faith in locking him in long term to a max-level contract, if somehow that wasn’t clear even by midseason.
Now comes the most difficult part: building a champion.
In unfortunately too limited minutes, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish have flashed two-way potential — to various degrees of consistency and effectiveness. Reddish returned to flash incredible defensive instincts and occasional shooting touch against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. And Hunter is reported be on track for training camp this fall.
Clint Capela revitalized a dormant Hawks defense and finished in the top-6 of Defensive Player of the Year voting. Bogdan Bogdanovic seemingly fell into Atlanta’s lap in free agency, and he overcame an early knee problem to become an absolutely lethal shooter for four months straight.
However, while now is a quick time of reflection before a short offseason, the Hawks have some clear hurdles going forward.
At the risk of another mea culpa moment a year from now, the Hawks need to be wary of mistaking this long run for the sure arrival of a contender for years to come. They certainly manhandled the Knicks in the first round, but it took multiple late game collapses from Philadelphia to hand Atlanta the series.
It’s important to remember they were outscored by almost three points per game despite the Eastern Conference Semifinals series victory. And losing two games against the Giannis-less Bucks — even without a 100% healthy Trae Young — should be a reminder that this team is very young and largely in uncharted territory.
Starting on the date McMillan took over, the Hawks finished the regular season 8-1 in games decided by five points or less. Before that date, they were 0-6. Over the course of an 82 game season, that record should regress toward .500 especially given that the core of the team looks to remain the same for next season.
Even as the team soared post-All Star break, they feasted on a weaker half of the schedule then and still only posted a solid but not great 9th best net rating in the league at 4.2. Their gaudy 27-11 finish to the season was largely buoyed by their 8.5 net rating in the fourth quarter after the break, third best in the league. Their final four status in the postseason flattered their true talent level in many ways.
Complacency can quickly set in and there’s always a jagged path toward success. The Hawks must evaluate all available options and not rest on their laurels.
So what is the part forward for the Hawks? For starters, they possess the 20th and 48th picks in the upcoming NBA draft. Some needs may include a backup point guard and a swing forward in case of the losses of Tony Snell and/or Solomon Hill and — the elephant in the room — should the John Collins restricted free agency negotiations go south.
Collins was eligible for an extension the previous offseason, and couldn’t come to an agreement on the details of that extension. The Hawks reportedly offered in the neighborhood of $90 million over four years, but Collins has repeatedly stated his intention of securing a max-level contract. Anything close to that size of contract effectively caps out the Hawks from any other significant, non-trade moves for the rest of the offseason.
Asked about if his contract situation weighed on his mind more than he let on during the season, Collins responded with “Yes, in a way for sure. I feel like it’s my job as a professional to come in and to do my job at a high level. And not let what’s going on off the court to affect my production and my attitude towards the organization and my teammates. I feel like that would be selfish.”
Ever the team player, Collins added subtle wrinkles to his game to offset the raw scoring drop-off in a contract year despite possibly jeopardizing his earning potential. He went from 21.6 points on 14.8 field goal attempts and 10.1 rebounds per game to just over 17.6 points on 12.2 field goal attempts and 7.4 rebounds largely due to the presence of Clint Capela.
But his defense notably improved from previous years, his rebounding effort never waned, and his floor spacing at the position forward position is very valuable even without the ball in his hands. These little aspect helped fill in the cracks for a team needing a slight edge in a touch-and-go postseason run.
Lastly, McMillan no longer has the interim qualifier before his title. As he heads into his first full offseason, can he replicate the highs the team achieved in 2020-21? The development of the young players — including budding defensive force Onyeka Okongwu — still remain important for this squad so the balance between that and immediate success will be difficult to weigh.
The hail mary, of course, is to aim to acquire a disgruntled star player to pair next to Young. The Hawks have the ability to dangle a number of cost-controlled former lottery pick players, future picks, and even Collins himself in a sign-and-trade transaction in a bid to upend their franchise. I won’t speculate here on possible return targets, but more than likely the Hawks won’t have high draft picks in the near future, so the present will represent their last chance with a true bevy of assets to wield. This would be their time to strike.
With expectations set high, and the strangeness of last season in the past, what does Atlanta have for an encore performance? We shall get a glimpse of it after the draft and free agency in short order. But it’s clear the Hawks have helped recaptured the watchful eyes of fans in the capital of the South, as well as the put the wider league on notice. Whatever meek or bold actions they take next will be crucial.