So… the Atlanta Hawks nearly made the NBA Finals three months ago. There’s really no other way we can start this than saying that, no writerly flourish on one of the most surprising things to happen in one of the most surprising seasons in NBA history. They were right there! Tied 2-2 against a Milwaukee team missing Giannis Antetokounmpo! If Brook Lopez hadn’t turned into Hakeem Olajuwon in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, we might be talking about the defending NBA champion Atlanta Hawks. The Vegas odds of that happening before the season were 100-to-1.
What happened in Atlanta isn’t supposed to happen. Stars aren’t supposed to make a title push in their first playoff run. The basketball world expected the Hawks to earn a bottom-four seed and lose in the first round because that’s what basketball history has conditioned it to believe. You stay in the lottery for a few years, take your early playoff lumps, and then the real story begins. Young said “no thanks, I think I’m gonna end The Process actually,” and for all of the credit that Atlanta’s offseason spending spree got in helping him do it, remember that Rajon Rondo was gone by the playoffs and that Bogdan Bogdanovic was battling injuries for most of the postseason. De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish were hurt as well. Young nearly stole a championship with half of a roster.
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So the question then becomes… now what? There’s this temptation to write off Atlanta’s run as a fluke. There’s something to that. Team growth isn’t linear. The Hawks might be better than they were a year ago, but still lose a round or two earlier because of circumstances or luck or any number of a billion other factors. That’s probably the consensus… but do you really want to bet against Young after what you saw in the playoffs? That’s just one of many storylines headlining the 2021-22 Hawks season.
Atlanta Hawks roster
Guards: Trae Young, Delon Wright, Lou Williams, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin HuerterForwards: De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Solomon Hill, Jalen Johnson, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari Centers: Clint Capela, Gorgui Dieng, Jahlil Okafor, Onyeka Okongwu
1. Trae vs. the world
Trae Young probably doesn’t mind being lumped in with James Harden, but it’s not for the best reasons. Basketball fans have made the two the face of their displeasure with modern officiating, and they aren’t entirely wrong to do so. Young’s mid-drive stops are as frustrating for fans as they are for defenders. They violate the spirit of the rules if not, at least last season, the letter. That’s changing. In an effort to curb blatant foul-hunting, the NBA is cracking down on contact initiated by offensive players.
Young can live without the free throws. Dipping from nine per game to six or seven isn’t going to do much to slow him down, especially given how much he scaled back his volume willingly last season to accommodate a deeper roster. No, the real impact is going to come on the plays that won’t include fouls. How much more aggressively can defenders chase Young into the paint if they don’t have to worry about his whistle-drawing shenanigans? Might they be more comfortable chasing him over screens? Will he have to move more off of the ball to create the space that might now be lost to him?
That’s star-level basketball. Teams adjust, the star adjusts back, it’s an endless dance and Young is far too crafty to rely solely on that one trick. Fans are going to be the winners here. Necessity is the mother of invention, and with his favorite trick presumably now off of the table, Young is going to have to come up with new ways to torture opponents.
2. A tale of two teams
There are a number of reasons why Atlanta’s near-Finals run was so surprising, but the biggest is that the surprise wasn’t exclusively preseason pessimism. The Hawks started 14-20. Teams generally don’t go below .500 for half of a season and then push for the title. But Lloyd Pierce’s ouster cleared the way for Nate McMillan to turn the Hawks into the contenders they were destined to become. Atlanta went 27-11 down the stretch and won two playoff series without home-court advantage.
Is that going to sustain? Well, the short answer is no. That’s a 58-win pace over a full season, and teams with one star tend not to win 58 games. But the McMillan Hawks were probably slightly closer to reality than Pierce’s. It’s not as though McMillan was working with a full roster here. He had to overcome the absences of Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, and he even led the Hawks to a 5-2 record without Young. This is a young team. In-season improvement is to be expected. Swapping out Rajon Rondo, a notoriously underwhelming regular-season player, for Lou Williams, a regular-season contributor whose value typically wanes in the playoffs (but didn’t last year!) made a fair bit of difference as well.
But the weight of expectations doesn’t answer to context. The Hawks made the Eastern Conference finals last year. They played at the level of a 58-win team for half of the season. Is that going to make a more modest 48-50-win season feel like a disappointment? That’s not arbitrary. Young made his displeasure known when the Hawks were midway through only his second lottery season. Building on last season’s success doesn’t have to be as simple as winning more games or going further in the playoffs, but keeping players happy when they don’t include those things is a good deal harder. That’s especially true given Atlanta’s salary structure.
3. The bill comes due
Kevin Huerter is extension-eligible right now. Reddish and Hunter will join him next offseason, and then Onyeka Okongwu after that. Danilo Gallinari is only partially guaranteed for the 2022-23 season. Delon Wright and Lou Williams are on expiring deals.
There’s an obvious financial component to this. It’s no secret that Atlanta looked into dealing Reddish this offseason to land a pick that could reset their rookie extension clock. The cost of keeping this roster together for the long haul is going to be astronomical unless a 2025 cap spike bails Atlanta out. Even then, the Hawks are probably looking at multiple years in the tax before that.
It’s worth asking what their endgame is here as far as averting financially-induced roster attrition. Is Reddish still available? Will they play the restricted free agent game with Huerter in an offseason light on cap space? Or could the Hawks be looking into a consolidation trade? Paying Bradley Beal $45 million per year is cheaper than giving Hunter, Reddish and Huerter $60 million.
The short-term concerns are more grounded. There’s the disease of more potential here with so many players fighting for contracts. Young is among the NBA’s very best distributors, but he’s got a whole lot of mouths to feed here, including the two players best positioned to take the Hawks from the fringes of the Finals to the top of the mountain.
4. Can these wings fly?
Two-way wings are the rarest archetype in basketball, and Atlanta was wise to devote multiple lottery picks to getting them, but Hunter and Reddish struggled mightily in their debut seasons. Rookies tend to. The samples were small in Year 2 thanks to injuries, but they were much more promising. Hunter entered the NBA as a projected 3-and-D player, but last year he dabbled in individual shot creation. Reddish was up-and-down, but he answered the bell when the stakes were at their highest by leading the Hawks in scoring in their Game 6, season-ending loss to the Bucks.
These upside flashes are fine in Year 2. They aren’t enough in Year 3. Atlanta got dangerously one-dimensional at times last season, even when they were winning. Clint Capela was the entire defense. Trae Young, at times, monopolized the offense. There’s possible support for each of them on the roster, but only Reddish and Hunter stand out as players capable of easing both of their workloads. Versatile wings are worth their weight in gold.
But with so little tape from last season, it’s just not easy to tell how much development these two still have in front of them. If Hunter’s shooting reverts to its collegiate levels and he continues to grow as a shot-creator, he’s going to be an All-Star. Reddish is still mastering the little things, and his effort needs to be more consistent. But the talent is there. Most teams would kill for just one young talent at forward like Hunter and Reddish. The Hawks have two, and they’re their best chance at giving Young an internally developed co-star.