The Atlanta Hawks were able to pull off one of the fastest and most successful rebuilds in recent times. From missing the playoffs entirely for the last four years to becoming conference finalists this year is a remarkable achievement. This kind of turnaround usually follows the signing of a high-profile free agent in the offseason. The Hawks had no such luck, who instead signed a handful of secondary pieces such as Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari while trading for the athletic big man Clint Capela the previous year. General manager Travis Schlenk deserves a lot of credit for Atlanta’s turnaround given his savvy additions to the team via free agency and the draft. Despite growing pains, the Hawks rebuilding process has been a resounding success and there is much to learn from how they got here.
Four months ago, the Atlanta Hawks were basement dwellers in the Eastern Conference with a 14-20 record to their name. Their head coach, Lloyd Pierce, had just been fired after an underwhelming tenure and tensions with players reaching a boiling point, according to a report by The Athletic. The report went on to state that Young and John Collins, among others, did not take well to Pierce’s approach as head coach since the beginning of his tenure in Atlanta. In fairness to Pierce, injuries were also to blame for Atlanta’s dismal performance until that point, with key offseason additions Bogdanovic, Gallinari and Kris Dunn all missing significant time. Forwards DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish also missed time, adding to Atlanta’s woes. Assistant coach Nate McMillan took over the head coaching duties on an interim basis after Pierce was let go, kicking off the magical run Hawks embarked on, posting a 27-11 record the rest of the way. The Hawks went on to earn the fifth seed, with many predicting a first-round defeat at the hands of the resurgent New York Knicks. Star guard Trae Young took his game to another level against the Knicks, averaging 29.2 points and 9.8 assists despite being bombarded with verbal abuse and even spit on. Atlanta shut out the noise, defeating the Knicks in five games and punched their ticket to the next round against the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. But the Hawks once again found themselves underdogs in the matchup, with Philly expected to make short work of them. The Sixers were instead humbled by the resilient Hawks, failing to hold on to massive leads in Games 4 and 5, eventually costing them the series. However, despite their best efforts and an untimely injury to Young, the Milwaukee Bucks were able to put away the Hawks to advance to the Finals for the first time since 1974, putting an end to one of the most memorable Cinderella stories in recent memory. Granted, the Bucks were also without their star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo for the last two games of the series, casting doubt on the ability of the Hawks to defeat Milwaukee even with a healthy Young. Expectations will be high next season for the resurgent Hawks and rightfully so after overcoming incredibly long odds.
What does the future hold?
The Hawks own the 20th overall pick in this year’s draft, a rare occurrence for a team that just made the conference finals. In what is projected to be a deep draft, the possibility of a conference finalist drafting an impact player should be exciting for Hawks fans and concerning for the rest of the league. Atlanta should look to draft another shot creator to take some pressure off Young and as a potential replacement for Lou Williams, should he depart this offseason. An unrestricted free agent in his mid-thirties, the Hawks could let Williams walk and choose to develop their young players instead, which could include the incoming draft pick. This is assuming the Hawks opt to keep the pick instead of trading it for proven talent if it will help them get over the hump. Over the past four years, the Hawks have done an excellent job of finding the right talent in the draft to build their core, starting with the addition of John Collins in 2017. The Hawks picked up Collins nineteenth overall when he clearly should have been a top-five pick in hindsight. Fast forward to 2018, the Hawks’ decision to trade Luka Doncic for Trae Young and a first-round pick (which turned into Cam Reddish the following year) on draft night left many scratching their heads. Doncic was seen by many as a generational talent while questions abounded about Young’s slight frame, efficiency and ability to play defense at the next level. While Luka took the league by storm in his first year, Young struggled to make the same impact and the Hawks were subject to a lot of criticism. As a rookie, Young averaged 19.1 points and 8.1 assists per game, which is nothing to sneeze at, but the comparisons to Doncic continued. Although, it now seems that the front office may have made the right decision given Doncic’s inability thus far to lead his team past the first round while Young nearly led Atlanta to the Finals. Kevin Huerter, who has transformed into a solid two-way player, was also picked up by the Hawks in 2018, followed by DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish the year after. Hunter has blossomed into one of the most underrated wings in the league today, with the rare ability to create his own shot, score efficiently from all three levels and play tough defense. Reddish shares many similarities with Hunter, although he is not as far along in his development. But he may soon live up to his massive potential and flashed some of it in the conference finals, averaging 12.8 points and 3.5 rebounds on 52.8% shooting in only 23 minutes per game. Both players were plagued by injuries this season, raising questions as to how far Atlanta could have gone with both players healthy.
Our job is to come to a fair agreement with John. That’s our objective. There should be no question.Atlanta hawks owner tony ressler on contract negotiations with john collins
Questions also surround the future of Collins in Atlanta, after the forward rejected a reported $90 million contract extension last December in the hopes of landing a more lucrative deal this offseason, according to Brian Windhorst. A restricted free agent, the Hawks have the right to match any offer Collins receives, but whether they will do so remains to be seen. One of the most talented big men in the game today, the Wake Forest product was considered untouchable as recently as last year after averaging 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds. Unfortunately, a 30-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance cast a shadow on his best season to date. This year, despite a decrease in production and minutes, the Hawks were only two games from the NBA Finals, raising interesting questions about whether the Hawks can get by without him. But his ability to space the floor, finish inside and impact the game without needing the ball in his hands a whole lot should entice many teams. According to Chris Kirschner of The Athletic, the team is willing to bring Collins back but seem wary of breaking the bank for him. “Our job is to come to a fair agreement with John. That’s our objective. There should be no question,” said Hawks owner Tony Ressler. The term “fair agreement” is key here, suggesting a reluctance to go beyond a certain point to retain Collins. Moreover, the team now has a deep forward rotation with Gallinari, Hunter, Reddish and Onyeka Okongwu, giving the Hawks a lot to think about this offseason.
It certainly seems like the Hawks have become yet another organization with the ability to find diamonds in the rough, similar to the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors. They may only be scratching the surface of their potential and a full season of McMillan at the helm after he was named the team’s permanent head coach according to Shams Charania of the Athletic could be the first piece of the puzzle. If they can stay healthy, Atlanta could be a contender for many years to come.