Four seasons ago, the Atlanta Hawks finished up the franchise’s first 60-win season. Now, they find themselves on an upward trajectory of a, seemingly, quick rebuild. They didn’t rebuild through a James Harden-type of trade, nor did they put their faith in putting a G-League team on the floor night in and night out throughout four seasons. However, the Atlanta Hawks playoff push is in full effect.
The Path to the NBA Playoffs for the Atlanta Hawks
Over the course of the past four seasons, they lost two of their All-Stars – Paul Millsap and Al Horford – to free agency (Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics respectively). They traded their other two All-Stars, Jeff Teague for Taurean Prince, and Kyle Korver for Mike Dunleavy (played 30 games), Mo Williams (never played a game), and a top-10 protected 2019 or 2020 first-round pick that will likely turn into two second-round picks in 2021.
Four All-Stars turned into Prince, a couple of second-round picks, and two 20-win seasons. They botched tanking, yet ended up with three top-10 picks in two years and another two late first-round picks. They now have six guys 21-years old or younger, led by the core trio from last season’s squad of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and John Collins.
Their roster is littered with young, skilled guys mixed with veterans needing to prove something. A recipe for a surprise playoff team. Before they can think about playoffs a few things need to go right.
Maintain Their Identity
Successful teams figure out what their core does well and addresses their weaknesses with the players around them. The Golden State Warriors have the best shooting backcourt of all time, they filled in defenders and high basketball IQ players. The Houston Rockets has a ball-dominant lead-guard, they filled in catch and shoot players that can defend. Multiple contenders (past and present) like the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Milwaukee Bucks, and the Philadelphia 76ers all have identities they stick to and are successful because of it.
Atlanta’s offensive identity is a combination of Golden State’s, where player movement and shooters are the staples with the addition of the Los Angeles Clippers pick-and-roll offense (lead the league in frequency at 22.8 percent, per NBA.com). Defensively, it is imperative the Hawks create their identity through tough, scrappy defenders like DeAndre’ Bembry, Evan Turner, De’Andre Hunter, and Damian Jones.
Multiple Impact Veterans
Despite having arguably, the best young core the league has seen, the Oklahoma City Thunder needed the help of multiple veterans to make the leap to the playoffs. They had guys like Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, and Nazr Mohammed (to a lesser extent) to help guide Russell Westbrook, Harden, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka to the 2012 NBA Finals.
The Hawks have Turner, Allen Crabbe, Jabari Parker, and Chandler Parsons. Certainly not the caliber of veteran players the Thunder had, however they need to make a similar impact. When Trae Young gets double-teamed at the end of games, Turner will need to run the offense while keeping everyone calm. Crabbe needs to be ready to knock down big shots in big moments. Parsons has to be an impactful mentor. Lastly, Parker must be positive when he steps on the court.
If the Hawks maintain their identity and have impactful veterans, it may not be enough to get them to the eight seed. Like all championship runs, luck plays a part. Avoiding the injury bug is the biggest part of being lucky. Outside of Collins, no other player on the Hawks has had multiple injuries leading to missing significant time. Staying healthy will be key to playing games in late April.
Looking at the Eastern Conference it is apparent who the top seven teams are.
Barring injuries, these will be the top seven teams in the East. That leaves the Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, Washington Wizards, and Cleveland Cavaliers to battle for the last spot. It’s safe to assume, the Hornets, Wizards, and Cavaliers will be playing for ping-pong balls. The Knicks and Bulls will be competitive, but just a tier above the bottom three. Atlanta must beat out the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic for the last spot.
Detroit has an excellent coach in Dwayne Casey, a star in Blake Griffin, and a very good secondary player in Andre Drummond. The big question mark for the Pistons lies within their backcourt and young players (NBA.com’s Keith Langlois). Players like Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, and Khyri Thomas will have extended roles to help push for the playoffs. It’s certainly not a list to inspire confidence in a playoff push at this junction of their careers. The additions of veterans Derrick Rose and Tim Frazier will add more stability to the backcourt, but determining if that is a playoff backcourt remains to be seen.
On the other hand, they do hold quite a few tradeable contracts that could change the outlook of the team by February’s Trade Deadline. Names to look out to potentially be moved are Reggie Jackson (last year of his contract) and Andre Drummond (player option next season). If Jackson is being moved that means the team is likely making a playoff push. If Drummond is being moved, it is more than likely they are looking to the future.
Orlando made some noise last season after stealing the first game against the Toronto Raptors, before losing four straight games. Their identity is based on their defensive intensity. The Magic are bringing back the main parts of their playoff team and are (possibly) adding former number one pick, Markelle Fultz, to their greatest position of need, point guard. Steve Clifford has created an identity on the offensive side of selfless basketball. Per NBA.com, they ranked third in the league last year in potential assists at 49.1, slightly behind the Philadelphia 76ers and Golden State Warriors.
The Magic stayed relatively quiet throughout the off-season. Simply re-signing Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic and adding veteran stretch-four, Al-Farouq Aminu. The biggest move of the off-season could be the needle on the scale for the third-year wing Jonathan Isaac. He reportedly finished the season at 209 pounds and is now up to 234 pounds (NBA.com’s Josh Cohen).
The Pistons and Magic both have the advantage of bringing back a team that has experienced the playoffs and understands how to get there. The Hawks have the advantage with their backcourt and wing depth; two of the most important aspects of a successful team, especially without an established star. It will come down to which team can beat the bottom teams of the East consistently.
Ultimately, the Orlando Magic will be the eighth seed for the second straight season with the Atlanta Hawks missing out by a few games, and the Detroit Pistons bottoming out after the All-Star break.
The Atlanta Hawks will be a perennial playoff team for the years to come. 2020 is simply a year too soon.
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