The Atlanta Hawks Made a Miracle Playoff Run, but Can They Do It Again?

By Joe Gendelman   July 12, 2021 

The Atlanta Hawks Made a Miracle Playoff Run, but Can They Do It Again?

The Atlanta Hawks just wrapped up their most successful and surprising season in recent memory, advancing all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals as the No. 5 seed in the East. They upset the New York Knicks in their return to the playoffs after a lengthy absence in round one then followed that up by taking out the No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers in round two.

The biggest factor in Atlanta’s run is an obvious one. Trae Young emerged as one of the league’s premier big-shot makers during the playoffs. Young, just 22, averaged 29 points and 10 assists per game in his first playoff appearance. He had memorable road performances at Madison Square Garden, in Philadelphia, and in Milwaukee. He seemed to revel in disappointing opposing crowds, showed no fear against more heavily favored opponents, and his team seemed to take on his personality throughout the playoffs. Even the quiet Clint Capela got vocal, calling out the Knicks for dirty play before guaranteeing the Hawks would go into the Garden and end the series (which they promptly did).

But the Hawks were also undone by a particularly obvious problem in the conference finals – they can be a bit too reliant on Young, both when he’s on the court and when he’s not. For all of his brilliance, he’s not an efficient shooter. He shot just 42 percent in the playoffs and 31 percent from three-point range. At times, the offense stagnates around him when his shot isn’t falling or the ball isn’t moving as it should – the team is currently built similar to Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia teams, with nice complementary players but reliant on their star to shoot relentlessly to win.

With Young off the court due to injury in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks lost two of the final three games against the Bucks. Had he stayed healthy, Atlanta may have been competing for a championship right now. They still clearly exceeded expectations this season, though. They’re already in the process of taking care of the most important piece of business, removing the ‘interim’ tag from coach Nate McMillan’s title and signing him to a multi-year deal.

Jul 3, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) drives against Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (right) during the first half in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals for the 2021 NBA Playoffs at State Farm Arena. Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Here are three other things for the Hawks to prioritize heading into the offseason.

Get healthy

That obviously goes for Young, but there’s another young Hawk whose absence was detrimental during the playoffs. Forward De’Andre Hunter emerged this season as the team’s most capable perimeter defender and an improving offensive weapon and threat from the perimeter. Hunter couldn’t stay healthy, though. He had a prolonged absence during the regular season and then was injured again early in the playoffs. When he’s on the court, Atlanta is a much more complete team. 

If the Hawks enter next season with Hunter and Young healthy, they have a great chance at moving to the top of the East standings and entering next season’s playoffs with homecourt advantage.

Do they add a second star?

Young’s charisma and production clearly show he’s a franchise talent. Around him, the team has several nice players – Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, John Collins, and Capela all had big performances at different points in their playoff push. None of those players necessarily qualifies as a secondary star, though.

Atlanta also has young prospects like Cam Reddish and Onyeka Okongwu, both former first round picks who haven’t found steady roles yet but have potential and could be trade assets. 

The biggest decision the Hawks have to make is on Collins, a restricted free agent who is in line for a big raise. Whatever they do with him impacts their salary situation, but they do have expensive deals for Tony Snell and Lou Williams coming off of their books. 

Atlanta could potentially go after another good but less heralded free agent like they did with Gallinari and Bogdanovic last year, or they could try and swing for a bigger acquisition by pooling together several of their assets and prying a star capable of taking some of the scoring responsibility off of Young away from another team.

Can they fix the defense?

Last offseason, the Hawks prioritized defense by signing Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo. Neither move worked out. Rondo was traded midseason and Dunn spent most of the season injured.

Defense is still a big need, as it will always be Young’s weak spot. Hunter is a great defender and Reddish has defensive potential, but the Hawks do need to find another stopper or two on the perimeter to help them against the East’s top teams, who all have good scoring threats in the backcourt and on the wings. 

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