The Atlanta Hawks are a paradox this season:
Their run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season was no fluke.
Under Nate McMillan the second half of last season, the Hawks played at a 52-win pace (over a traditional regular season) — maintaining that pace and making another deep playoff run to the Eastern Conference Finals in what will be a deeper and better East is a big ask.
“It’s tough, the Eastern Conference is improved…” Hawks co-owner Grant Hill told NBC Sports. “That experience last year I thought was magical for us. It all came together, we learned to play for one another. Such an incredible spirit and energy in that locker room — it was fun to watch. It was fun to be there in the playoffs. It was fun to see the State Farm Arena rocking and rolling — it was a party in there.
“That experience, it bonds you. Young guys were able to learn, and I think that’s going to serve us well this year. But the Eastern Conference is tough.”
What questions do the Hawks have to answer to match last season and maybe even take a step forward? Here are three things that must happen for the Hawks to have the success they want.
Are DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish ready for a breakout season?
Both Hunter and Reddish followed a similar pattern their first two years in the league: Unimpressive rookie seasons followed by injury-riddled second seasons that limited their development — but they showed flashes. The brightest flash was Reddish when he returned in the playoffs and dropped 21 points in Game 6 against the Bucks.
There are not many question marks on this well-constructed Hawks roster: Trae Young is a budding superstar at the point, Bojan Bogdanovic is solid as a shooter and secondary shot creator, John Collins just got paid for his athleticism and world of potential at the four, and Clint Capela is a darkhorse Defensive Player of the Year candidate at center.
Wing is the question mark. Hunter and Reddish bring the kind of two-way potential and depth at that position that is rare in the league — and for years has been a key part of playoff success. Hunter will start, he averaged 15 points a game last season, and if he improves his 32.6% shooting from 3 last season he will be the kind of 3&D wing so many teams around the league are searching for. Reddish has that same potential, although Hunter appears to have the higher ceiling now.
If the Hawks get more out of their wing players this year, they become that much more dangerous.
Is Trae Young ready to step into superstar status every night?
Trae Young doesn’t fear the moment. He savors the spotlight. We saw that in the playoffs last season when he averaged 28.8 points and 9.5 assists a game. We saw that when he embraced the villian role in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks — even returning to the venue for a WWE reprise this offseason. It all made giving Young a max contract extension this offseason that much easier for the Hawks.
Young also shot 31.3% on the 3-pointers in the playoffs, and 34.3% in the regular season — good numbers, but not great. Not up to his potential and reputation. Young’s shot selection needs to be a little smarter.
Another question: How does Young adjust to the changes in officiating? He is one of the great foul hunters in the league on the drive, but will he adjust to not getting some calls on fouls where he initiated the contact, calls he got last season?
Finally, is Young ready to become a less terrible defender.
The good news is the Hawks finally got a quality backup point guard in Delon Wright, taking a little weight off Young’s shoulders. He doesn’t have to carry everything. But he needs to be playing at an All-NBA level for the Hawks to take a step forward, and while he seems ready for that step he needs to prove it all season
Can Nate McMillan continue his magic with this roster?
The Hawks were and 14-20 under Lloyd Pierce when they fired him as coach midway through last season (although had point differential of a .500 team, Pierce’s Hawks were unlucky). Then in comes McMillan and the Hawks go 27-11 the rest of the way, making the playoffs — and a deep run once they got there.
McMillan’s coaching improved the defense a little (they were 1.5 points per 100 possessions better under him last regular season), but more importantly he brought ball and player movement to the offense, which jumped 3.4 points per 100. The result was the Hawks had the third best net rating in the NBA after March 1.
Is that really sustainable? In a deeper East? The offense should continue to thrive, but can the Hawks’ defense be good enough to lift them up the standings? Do the Hawks have the depth to handle a few injuries this season (and can they avoid the big ones)?
Atlanta is one of the teams on the rise in the East, but progress is rarely liniar — things don’t just ramp up, there are setbacks. Improvement is gradual, with ups and downs. It’s not easy to repeat a strong season in the NBA.
And the Hawks may be about to learn that.