The Rising Hawks
By: Devin Zanskas
The Atlanta Hawks made maybe as much of a splash as any team this offseason, notably acquiring Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Those signings, in addition to trading for Clint Capela the season before, and selecting Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, had many analysts believing that the Hawks were primed to make the playoffs this year. However, two months into the season on March 1st, they let go of their former head coach, Lloyd Pierce, in controversial fashion. At the time of Pierce’s dismissal, the Hawks were 14-20, good for a 41.2 winning percentage. This would place them at the 13th seed in the eastern conference as of April 25th. Upon the departure of Pierce, the Hawks did the improbable, and ripped off eight straight wins with their current interim head coach, Nate McMillan, at the helm. Naturally, teams seldom improve following a mid-season coaching change, but McMillan was no ordinary lead assistant coach before taking his new interim position. Before this season, McMillan spent the last four years as the head coach of the Indiana Pacers, making the playoffs in each of the past four years. However, there are other reasons why the Hawks weren’t experiencing more success at the beginning of the season.
Just as the Hawks made plenty of signings over the offseason, they also have lost many players due to injuries and the Health and Safety Protocols this season. Although this is a shortened and condensed NBA season, seven starter or rotation level players have played 40 or less games for the Hawks this year, including Bogdanovic, Dunn, Gallinari, Hunter, Okongwu, Reddish, and Snell. Losing all of these players for so many games is clearly not a recipe for success. That isn’t the most surprising outcome for Hawks however, given that a more congested schedule had a number of league personnel concerned about injuries. The understanding of this, given the experience front offices have from the 2011 NBA Lockout, also supports them leaning towards holding their players out of games more frequently than other years. As convenient as it may sound, Bogdanovic returned from a from 25-game absence the same day as McMillan’s first game as the interim head coach. While comparing Bogdanovic’s averages before and after his extended recovery, one will notice a significant uptick from less than ten points per game on 38.5% shooting from the field to over 16 points per game on 47.1% shooting. Obviously, this is a huge jump for a player to make, and fortunately the Hawks also have a surplus of other young talent.
Three of the seven names previously mentioned having missed a substantial number of games in Hunter, Okongwu, and Reddish were all selected in the past two drafts. Two other important pieces for the Hawks’ future are Collins and Huerter, who were both also drafted within the past four years. This team is definitely far from a finished product, especially because their franchise cornerstone in Trae Young is only in his third year. Young is an incredibly special player who if not already, has the potential to be an offense unto himself. He gives a lot back on the defensive end of the court, but the Hawks have brought in size and shooting on the perimeter to offer two-way contributors next to Young, and one of the best rim protectors and rebounders in Capela to hold down the paint. That being said, rising from the very bottom to the top of the standings still takes time, and unfortunately Lloyd Pierce wasn’t given a fair shake at leading this team.