A week ago, the sub-.500 Hawks were deciding what to do with Nate McMillan. As of Monday morning, the Hawks had gone 2-0 against teams above them in the Eastern Conference under interim coach Joe Prunty – they’re sub-.500 no longer – and were readying to introduce Quin Snyder as their permanent coach. (Not that anything in sports is permanent, but he’s under contract for the next five seasons.)
Last week’s Hawks: A team in turmoil.
Today’s Hawks: A team transformed?
Don’t say it can’t happen. It happened here in 2021. Lloyd Pierce was thanked for his service. McMillan took charge. Players who’d stopped listening to the old voice snapped to attention at the sound of the new. The Hawks were 14-20 under Pierce. They went 27-11 under Nate the Great, as he was dubbed in those heady days, and reached the Eastern finals. The same team became a different team, at least until the newness of Nate wore off.
Could something similar happen with these Hawks? Sure. What have we been saying about this team? Lots of talent, no mesh. You’d be surprised – well, you won’t be surprised if you were watching in 2021 – at how fast matters can change. Snyder will get the Hawks’ attention in a way McMillan no longer could. When these players tend to business, they can be pretty darn good.
On Friday, the Hawks beat Cleveland 136-119 in a game that saw them lead by 32. On Sunday, the Hawks beat the Nets – albeit the Nets without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving – on Trae Young’s totally-in-control jumper at 0:00. Say what you will about Trae Young, but there’s a reason we have so much to say about this smallish guard. The reason is that he can be really, really good.
ESPN reports that, after Friday’s game, Young met with the Cavaliers’ Donovan Mitchell, who became a big deal with Utah while playing under Snyder. This suggests Young is predisposed to wanting to please the new man. Most players are. That’s the way the NBA works. Players on an underachieving team – not many teams change coaches when they’re overachieving – are willing to try almost anything if it leads to winning. (For a while, anyway.)
The Hawks’ next-to-last game under McMillan was the clear signal of a team in need of administrative intervention. The Hawks lost in Charlotte while yielding at least 35 points in all four quarters. The Hornets got 144 points on 63.1 percent shooting. They’d entered with an NBA-worst 43 losses. They exited with the second-highest point total in franchise history.
The Hawks played All-Star Game defense – not that any of them made the All-Star team – which is to say none. The in-flux front office managed to stop looking for people to blame long enough to identify the person who might help the most.
Snyder isn’t the best coach available. Then again, Mike Krzyzewski is 76. Then again, Snyder played and apprenticed under the great man. He had six consecutive winning seasons at Missouri. He had six consecutive winning seasons with the Jazz, none involving Karl Malone or John Stockton. This would have been a fine hire in July. On Feb. 26, it’s a hire that makes us view what’s left of the NBA season in a rosier light.
The Hawks are 3.5 games behind the Knicks for the East’s last non-play-in spot with 21 to play. It would be nice to avoid elimination games before the playoffs commence in earnest, but it’s not essential. What matters is that the Hawks have enough time to get something working under Snyder that, come April, they won’t resemble the halting Hawks we’ve watched since November. I don’t know that the Celtics and Bucks need to worry. The 76ers and Cavs might.
We saw in 2021 what Young can do when fully engaged. We saw that his supporting cast could be more than a supporting cast. The team that upset the Knicks and Sixers was in no way dysfunctional. Trouble was, that team disappeared after losing Games 5 and 6 to Milwaukee. The players were mostly the same. The coach was the same. Results were not.
Snyder brings with him the chance of both a makeover and a start-over. I doubt we’ll see the Hawks who yielded 144 points in Charlotte again. I’m guessing what comes next will reward watching.
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