Hawks will be good again next season, but East looks tougher

070321 Atlanta: Atlanta Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan and Trae Young (from left), Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter try to mount another come back against the Milwaukee Bucks that falls short during the fourth quarter in game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
070321 Atlanta: Atlanta Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan and Trae Young (from left), Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter try to mount another come back against the Milwaukee Bucks that falls short during the fourth quarter in game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Hawks will run it back with essentially the same roster that made it to the Eastern Conference finals in July. The Bucks beat them before winning the NBA championship. The Hawks have a shot to close the gap next season. They can get better by virtue of development by their many young players, better health and a second season together as a group.

The Hawks are aiming high. The trickier part might be not getting caught from behind. When the NBA’s frenzy of free-agent deals and trades finally slowed at the end of the week, several East teams who were lesser than the Hawks last season look a lot better for the next one.

The Heat finished sixth in the East, one spot behind the Hawks, before losing to Milwaukee in the first round. Miami responded by signing the best free agent to switch teams, Kyle Lowry, and ex-Bucks forward P.J. Tucker. The Heat won the East in 2019-20, and now they have a better chance to do it again.

The Hawks made quick work of the Knicks in the first round of the 2021 playoffs. A big problem for New York was a lack of playmakers and scorers around All-Star big man Julius Randle. Its solution was to upgrade from Elfrid Payton to Kemba Walker and from Reggie Bullock to Evan Fournier. The Knicks also re-signed their top bench players, including Derrick Rose.

The Wizards, the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, traded star Russell Westbrook to the Lakers. They made their team better by adding several good players around All-Star Bradley Beal. The Bulls finished 11th in the East last season. They could finish much higher next season with Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan playing with All-Star Zach LaVine.

Those teams will have to figure out how their new players fit. It takes time and good injury luck. The Hawks didn’t have much of either for most of last season. Once the Hawks got whole, their talent, toughness and Trae Young got them closer to the NBA Finals than the franchise has been since moving to Atlanta.

Now the Heat join the Bucks and Nets as their main obstacles to the Finals. The Knicks, Bulls and Wizards aren’t contenders. They are potentially tough outs in the early rounds of the playoffs for teams with higher expectations, including the Hawks.

And don’t forget about the 76ers. They lost to the Hawks in the East semifinals, but it was a hard-fought, seven-game series. The Hawks were helped by the anomaly of Ben Simmons passing up open shots. The Sixers are trying to trade Simmons. They had no takers as of Friday, but depending upon the eventual return, the Sixers could make another run with MVP candidate Joel Embiid.

It’s possible the Hawks could be a better team next season and still slip down the East order. As of Thursday, the Hawks were 18-to-1 to win the East at most sportsbooks. Four teams had shorter odds: the Nets (even), Bucks (4-1), 76ers (8-1) and Heat (12-1). The Celtics (20-1) are behind the Hawks, which is where they should be after losing more talent than they got back.

The Nets are worthy favorites. They pushed the Bucks to Game 7 in the East semifinals despite two of their three superstars each missing three games with injuries. Brooklyn is impossible to stop for a seven-game series when Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving are on the floor. The question is whether all three can hold up through a Finals run.

The Bucks will miss Tucker, who made them tougher after arriving in a March trade. His move to Miami was a surprise. Milwaukee retained every other key player. The Bucks can win the East again with the Big Three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holliday.

To make it to the 2022 NBA Finals, the Hawks likely will have to go through either the Bucks or Nets (and maybe both). General manager Travis Schlenk built a good roster around Young for last season without limiting his ability to make future moves. That group stays together for another season before increasing salaries mean some key veterans will be let go.

All five Hawks starters from the East finals are back after they re-signed their best free agent, forward John Collins. The Hawks also brought back reserves Lou Williams and Solomon Hill. The Hawks still can sign another veteran player without paying the luxury tax. For now, they’ve added two players who improve their depth.

Gorgui Dieng is a credible backup center. Dieng will be part of the playing rotation as Onyeka Okongwu recovers from shoulder surgery and could have a postseason role. The Hawks will be deeper at the wing positions with Delon Wright. He also can serve as a second point guard.

The Hawks are in the sweet spot of having lots of good, young players who’ve now experienced the gauntlet of the NBA playoffs. The Hawks were good enough to make the East finals with a relatively inexperienced team. They are young enough that it’s reasonable to expect improvement from holdovers.

The next step for Collins is to improve his ballhandling so he can score and pass off the dribble. Second-year wing De’Andre Hunter was emerging as a good, two-way player before injuries sidelined him. Okongwu showed a spark in the playoffs. For years, Cam Reddish’s potential has been higher than his production, but there’s still hope he can figure out how to become a good NBA player.

Then there’s Young. He was marvelous during his first playoffs, but still has another level he can reach. Young is one of the best players in the world, and he’ll be only 23 years old during his fourth NBA season. Young is under contract with the Hawks for the next six seasons. It will be fun watching him try to make the difficult jump from All-Star to All-NBA.

Young and Co. will have to deal with more good teams in the East for 2021-22. For years, the West has been the much deeper conference. The difference isn’t so large anymore.

It used to be that the East’s one championship contender was whichever team employed LeBron James. The scales tipped more in favor of the West once James left Miami for Los Angeles. James won a championship with the Lakers in 2020. They couldn’t make it out of the first round this year as injuries piled up.

The Lakers will try for another ring with an even older team next season. Challengers include the Suns, Warriors, Clippers, Jazz and Nuggets. The top of the East isn’t quite that stacked, but it’s close.

The Nets assembled a super team. The Bucks won their first NBA championship in 50 years. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh won two rings with the Heat; once they left, Butler took them to the Finals. Now the Heat have reloaded for another run. The Hawks and Sixers will join them in chasing the Bucks and Nets.

The Hawks should be better in 2021-22. The East also should be tougher.