For the so-so Hawks, happier days should lie ahead

Hawks guard Trae Young smiles at Suns guard Chris Paul, with Kevin Huerter looking on, in the final minute of a 124-115 victory over the Suns. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Hawks guard Trae Young smiles at Suns guard Chris Paul, with Kevin Huerter looking on, in the final minute of a 124-115 victory over the Suns. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

There once was a team from Atlanta. Coming off a surprising playoff run, it was expected to be even better. It fell below .500 and stayed there for what seemed forever. It roused itself enough to qualify for postseason and, lo and behold, stuck around until the league commissioner handed that team a trophy.

Yes, we’re talking about the 2021 Braves. We might also be speaking of the 2021-2022 Hawks. After coming within two victories of the NBA Finals, much was expected from the young team that is also Young’s Team. Little has been delivered.

Trae Young has again been great. He ranks 14th among NBA players in VORP (value over replacement player), seventh in player efficiency ranking. Through 58 games, his team has produced a heapin’ helpin’ of not much. The Hawks are 28-30. They haven’t been above .500 since Dec. 12. If the playoffs began today, the Hawks would qualify as the 10th seed in the East, which could mean their postseason will last one game.

Going by what we saw last summer, the Hawks should be better than that. They were the East’s No. 5 seed. They beat the fourth-seeded Knicks and the top-seeded 76ers. They were tied with third-seeded Milwaukee after four games in the conference final. They lost partly because Young tripped over a ref in Game 3, though we stipulate that Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo was injured in Game 4.

Before those 18 playoff games, we had no real read on the status of their rebuild. They’d fired coach Lloyd Pierce after his third season saw the Hawks start 14-20. Assistant Nate McMillan took over. The Hawks got better, which can happen under an interim coach. They went 27-11 in the wake of Pierce’s firing. Then they won 10 of their first 16 playoff games.

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No longer was this an assemblage of impressive pieces. These pieces fit. They had a useful big man in Clint Capela. They had John Collins, a ideal stretch-4. They had wings aplenty – Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish. They had a savvy backup guard in Lou Williams. They had Danilo Gallinari, whose skills defy classification. Above all, they had Young, who used the postseason as his proving ground.

It was possible to view these Hawks as the NBA’s growing power. The players had responded to McMillan, and the Hawks had 10 players – counting then-rookie Onyeka Okongwu – who could really play. McMillan was handed a four-year contract. Capela was given a two-year extension. Collins, a restricted free agent, re-upped for five more years. Surely continuity would bring brighter tomorrows.

This was general manager Travis Schlenk, speaking to 92.9 The Game on Jan. 4: “Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to bring everybody back.”

The Hawks were 16-20. They’d yielded 130 points six times over 13 games. Said Schlenk: “Every team we play goes out and gets 130. The common denominator in that is us.”

Under Pierce, the Hawks didn’t guard anybody. When McMillan took over, the team began to take an interest in defending. They ranked 30th and 27th in defensive efficiency over Pierce’s two full seasons. By the end of the 2020-2021 regular season, they’d risen to 21st. Over their first 13 playoff games, an opponent broke 120 only twice.

These Hawks rank 28th in defensive efficiency. They’ve guarded better of late – only once since Jan. 7 has an opponent hung 130 on them – and managed home victories over the Bucks, Heat, Celtics, Lakers and Suns. All those came after Reddish was dealt to the Knicks on Jan. 13. The Hawks got a possible Round 1 pick in return, but the aim of this trade was addition by subtraction.

Reddish is a talent. Due to injury, he worked only four playoff games last season. In those, he averaged 12.8 points on 46.4% 3-point shooting. If you were seeking the next Hawk to reach stardom, Reddish would have been the choice. He has a star’s ego. He approached Schlenk over the offseason to inquire about his role and the expansion thereof.

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Said Schlenk after trading Reddish: “We want players that are happy to be here.”

Also: “We wanted to see if just a little tweak would have an impact.”

The Hawks are 11-7 since the trade. They’re still not what they were last summer, but that’s OK. All that matters about the NBA regular season is winning enough to make the playoffs. Only then does the real basketball commence.

The Braves had the worst record of the 12 qualifiers for MLB’s 2021 postseason. They won the World Series. Not saying the so far so-so Hawks will do the same, but they’ll be better than so-so by April. I wouldn’t give up on this team yet.

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