Hawks are very good again: ‘We want to compete for a championship’



The Hawks begin the new NBA season with high aspirations.

“We want to compete for a championship,” Hawks forward John Collins said on the eve of his team’s opening game against the Rockets on Wednesday at State Farm Arena. “That’s the mentality.”

NBA players and coaches everywhere are saying that now, even if they don’t really believe it. There are no official results to counter the sunny outlooks. But the Hawks have legitimate reasons to feel good about their chances to be an elite team. After taking a step back last season and making some key personnel changes over the summer, the Hawks are going to be very good again.

Maybe they won’t make the Eastern Conference finals as they did two years ago. That likely will require going through one of the East’s top teams. The Hawks are a notch below the Celtics, Bucks and 76ers. Those teams have a track record of playing championship-level defense (and, in Milwaukee’s case, winning a championship). The Hawks don’t.

But if the Hawks aren’t top-tier in the East, they also won’t have to play their way into the playoffs as they did last season. And this time the Hawks won’t be an easy out once they get there. They have the talent to be one of the last two East teams playing. I believe the Hawks learned a lesson after their too-casual approach cost them early last season, when opponents got up to play them after their deep playoff run.

The Hawks finished 43-39 last season. The East is tougher now, so they’ll probably have to do better than that to avoid the play-in by finishing sixth or better. Oddsmakers set the team’s over/under win total at 45 ½. Six East teams have higher win totals: Celtics, Bucks, 76ers, Nets, Heat and Cavaliers.

FiveThirtyEight’s statistical projection is much higher on the Hawks than the betting markets. It predicts the Hawks will post 51 victories, tied with the Heat for the third most in the East behind the Celtics and 76ers. I see the Hawks finishing somewhere between the forecasts of bookmakers and the computer simulation. Make it 48 victories and fifth in the East.

The NBA season is hard to predict because of the endless variables. Injuries are the biggest one (the Hawks will be in trouble if De’Andre Hunter or Bogdan Bogdanovic are hobbled again late in the season). New players don’t always fit. Holdovers sometimes regress. Roles can take time to define. Teams will make trades before the February deadline.

The Hawks came out of training camp feeling good about themselves. That optimism can be quickly extinguished if they aren’t ready for the games that count. We should quickly find out about the Hawks. The schedule is very challenging through the end of November.

“I stopped looking and trying to read into my crystal ball,” coach Nate McMillan said. “I think we’ve had good practices. I think (players) have been pretty focused.”

The one certainty about the Hawks is they will be tough to stop. That’s been the case since All-NBA point guard Trae Young has been surrounded by enough competent NBA players. Hawks president Travis Schlenk made that happen when he reshaped the roster before the 2020-21 season. The result was ninth in scoring efficiency that season and second last season, per Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded).

Then the Hawks added All-Star guard Dejounte Murray over the summer. Murray, Young and Collins all have scored 20-plus points per game over a full season. Bogdanovic, Hunter and Clint Capela can put up 15 points per game. All six of those players score with good-to-great efficiency. Not many teams have a better collection of scorers and playmakers.

The Heat shut down the Hawks by denying Young the ball and crowding him on the perimeter. That strategy shouldn’t be as effective for Hawks opponents this season. That approach risks letting Murray get loose to score and set up teammates for easy baskets. The Hawks will be a more dynamic offensive team once Murray is fully integrated.

“Not at the peak of where we want it,” Collins said of the starring five. “It’s not perfect. But I feel like ... we all fit (with) cohesiveness. That just takes time.”

It will take even longer for the Hawks to become a good team on defense. McMillan should have better options when he wants defensive lineups on the floor, but personnel is only part of the picture. There’s also attitude, execution and cohesiveness. The Hawks won’t reach their potential until they defend with the same vigor that they use to create scoring chances.

They don’t need to play great defense to become championship contenders. The Hawks made it to the 2021 East finals by playing above-average defense from March through the first two rounds of the postseason. The Bucks had little trouble scoring on the Hawks in the conference finals. That trend continued for the Hawks last season, when they ranked 26th in defensive efficiency.

This Hawks team will get plenty of time to figure out its identity, should Schlenk choose. Hunter agreed to a contract extension Monday night. Now four of five Hawks starters are under contract through at least the 2024-25 season. The exception, Murray, has two seasons left on his deal.

Said Hunter: “Just looking to build something special, looking to win a championship. That’s everyone’s goal this year and for years to come. With those four guys locked in, we know what we are going to have. Time to get to work, that’s all.”

The Hawks are good enough to talk about contending for a championship. Soon we’ll see if they can back it up.

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