Three consecutive years of missing the playoffs finally bore fruit for the Atlanta Hawks last season.
They pulled off a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals as the fifth seed before the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks clipped their wings and eliminated them in six games.
Nevertheless, it was a successful campaign for the Hawks, who were six games below .500 and well out of the playoff picture as recently as the end of February.
Their success has much to do with the emergence of Trae Young as a bonafide star. In just his third year in the NBA, the 22-year-old Young led the Hawks with averages of 25.3 points and 9.4 assists. His ability to create opportunities off the dribble for himself and his teammates has been the driving force behind their success.
Beyond his scoring prowess, the attention that he commands from opposing defenses opens up the floor for the rest of the Hawks who have been able to take advantage of the chances presented to them. This has been the key for them as they have veered away from the traditional blueprint of surrounding a high-volume perimeter star with plain spot-up shooters.
Instead, they have flanked Young with dynamic playmakers and athletes who have maximized the open space created by his gravity to put up numbers of their own. What is impressive about this talented and athletic team is that they have built most of their core through the draft.
In two consecutive years, they selected John Collins (‘17) and Kevin Huerter (‘18) 19th overall. This pair of mid-first rounders had their fair share of big games in the playoffs, with Collins scoring in double digits in all but four of their 18 postseason contests while Huerter closed out the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round with a 27-point showing in his first career Game 7.
Collins, whose length and athleticism as a power forward has made him a favorite lob target for Young, was rewarded for his efforts this offseason with a five-year, $125 million extension. Meanwhile, the 6’7 Huerter has proved to be an ideal backcourt partner for Young as he can hit three-pointers at an above-average clip and also serve as a secondary playmaker when given the opportunity.
Atlanta has also used their lottery picks wisely, drafting Cam Reddish 10th overall in 2019 and then Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth pick the following year. They also acquired 2019 fourth overall pick DeAndre Hunter in a draft day trade that has panned out well so far and Jalen Johnson, this year’s 20th overall selection, is already looking like one of the bigger steals of the draft.
Their keen eye for talent, coupled with their savvy transactions to fill the gaps of their roster with the right veterans, has paid off handsomely. Clint Capela has fit right in as their defensive anchor after being hastily discarded by the Houston Rockets and Bogdan Bogdanovic broke out in his first season with the Hawks after toiling with the Sacramento Kings for three seasons.
Not to be outdone, their older acquisitions Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari have provided a steady veteran presence that is invaluable with this young roster while they have still been able to provide a lethal scoring punch off the bench.
Most of the pieces of last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals were already in place at the start of the season, but it only came together when Nate McMillan was installed as their head coach midway through the year.
He shed the interim tag a few weeks ago when he was rewarded with a lengthy contract and his value to this team should not be understated. As a former player and a tenured head coach, McMillan’s resume commands respect from this youthful roster and has helped set the tone both on and off the court.
This offseason, they doubled down on their current roster and held back on making moves for big names. Instead, they have chosen to allow their core to continue growing together and made minor tweaks to their supporting cast instead. Delon Wright is a useful reserve guard with the ability to defend multiple positions and Gorgui Dieng is a serviceable back-up center who should fill in nicely for Okongwu as he recovers from a foot injury that he suffered a few months ago.
Their roster remains one of the younger ones in the league and they still have much potential to grow together even after last season’s deep playoff push. Patience is warranted for the coming season, as a repeat appearance in the Conference Finals may seem too ambitious given the loaded roster of the Brooklyn Nets, the defending champion Bucks, and a reloaded Miami Heat team.
However, these aforementioned teams are much older and will drop off in the next few years, paving the way for young teams like the Hawks to take over the East. If last season was any indication though, it’s not a good idea to bet against this gutsy group of emerging stars.
This group has now had a small taste of success and with the talent that they have, it is looking like there is much more to come in the horizon.