‘We expect to be contenders,’ Hawks owner Tony Ressler says

061121 Atlanta: Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler is all smiles taking in the scene at State Farm Arena while his team prepares to play the Philadelphia 76ers in game 3 of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinals series on Friday, Jun 11, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

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061121 Atlanta: Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler is all smiles taking in the scene at State Farm Arena while his team prepares to play the Philadelphia 76ers in game 3 of their NBA Eastern Conference semifinals series on Friday, Jun 11, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Coming up two wins shy of the NBA Finals last season, a question surrounds the Hawks — what needs to happen for them to go one step further?

If you ask the team’s principal owner Tony Ressler, the roster as constructed is enough to compete for a championship. So was last season’s, though injuries got in the way.

“I think most of us felt, I’m not saying the whole world, but I think most of us attached to the Atlanta Hawks thought if we were all healthy we had a damn good shot last year,” Ressler said Thursday, ahead of the Hawks’ season opener vs. the Mavericks at State Farm Arena. “I believe most of us think the same thing, if we’re healthy, we have a damn good shot this year. That’s kind of how I think most of us look at it. I don’t set a bar on my definition of success or happiness. We expect to be contenders, man. We expect to be really good. We hope to be really good, and we’re going to see how it plays out.”

Under coach Nate McMillan, the Hawks put the pieces together, overcoming a plethora of injuries to win two games in the Eastern Conference finals. After years of rebuilding on and off the court, with Ressler investing in a new practice facility, arena renovation and relocating their G League affiliate to College Park, this offseason’s investment came in the form of contract extensions for Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela and Kevin Huerter.

The Hawks showed their commitment to this group, which went on a franchise-revitalizing run in the playoffs and seems poised to make noise again. Ressler likes this roster and where the Hawks are as an organization.

“We think we’re pretty deep,” Ressler said. “We think we’re still pretty young. Obviously we’re trying to create some stability. So hopefully what we did over the summer evidences our high regard for our players, for our roster. This was not done by accident, and we’re pretty excited about who we are and where we are. But again, this is a different season than last season, and I think people, when they see the Atlanta Hawks on their schedule, are preparing differently this season. That I would bet you. Every single team. So we’re going to see how good we are. And we think we’re going to be pretty good.”

For the first time in a long time, the Hawks have built some continuity, and they also have an exceptionally deep group. Sometimes, teams require a second “star” to achieve the ultimate goal, though the Hawks may have one already on the roster: De’Andre Hunter has shown major potential, Capela transformed the Hawks’ defense, Collins’ game continues to grow and Bogdan Bogdanovic shot 3-pointers second only to Steph Curry toward the end of last season.

But this should be a telling season for the Hawks.

“Do I think we’re the best team in the NBA today?” Ressler said. “I don’t know. I think we can compete with anyone. If there’s anything I’ve observed, it’s also, particularly in the NBA, when the players know they can win, they play differently. Our players know they can win. A year and a half ago, two years ago, I’m not quite sure I would’ve said that to you. ... I think they think that now. I think that’s a difference. We’re going to see. As I like to say, every team is now playing and game-planning for us with who we have and what we’re going to do with the depth of our roster. It’s not like we’re going to be a surprise to anyone. We’re going to see where we are very soon.”

Winning it all, or even making deep playoff runs, often doesn’t come down only to having talented players on the roster.

It’s also a matter of staying healthy and a little luck. That’s something the Hawks weren’t able to do at the end last season, missing Hunter and with Young not himself after suffering a bone bruise to his right foot in Game 3 vs. the Bucks.

“Being great and being lucky to win a championship, I believe is an accurate statement,” Ressler said. “I don’t think you can be just one in today’s NBA. You can describe it however you want, Trae putting his foot back and stepping on a ref’s foot, I consider that bad luck. I don’t know what you can say. I will say this, being lucky and being great I think is a good thing. Injuries do play a bigger part of this than I fully appreciated. There’s been an 82-game season for a long time, I don’t think, statistically, there are more injuries now per minutes played. There’s no doubt the durability of a player becomes far more important in the evaluation. That’s something I’ve learned that I didn’t appreciate.”

Still, the Hawks’ success in the postseason, and their overall rapid improvement under McMillan, helped put this team on the map.

Hopefully as a free-agent destination, too, even though that hasn’t necessarily been the case in recent history. Ressler said it’s his goal that the Hawks attract great players, that they keep great players and that players look at Atlanta as a really great place to play (the extensions this offseason should send a message, he thinks).

“Think about that,” Ressler said. “How could we not be a true free-agent destination? We think, I would argue, our facilities are as good as any, our city is as good as any, our roster is as good as any, our investment, our dollars, our commitment to spend is as good as any. It makes no sense that historically this team has not been a top-tier free-agent destination. And I think you have to earn that, and make clear that it’s a franchise committed to winning in every sense of the way. I actually believe we’re much closer today.”

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