Atlanta Hawks: From Pretenders To Contenders?

The Atlanta Hawks will make the playoffs for the first time since 2017

Going into the 2020-2021 NBA Season my expectations for the Atlanta Hawks were quite demanding. I had the Hawks returning to the Playoffs for the first time since 2017. Although the Hawks are still currently in a rebuilding stage in many people’s eyes, my expectations were playoffs or bust. Lofty? Perhaps, but with their offseason moves and the young star duo of Trae Young and John Collins continuing their development I refused to lower the bar.

Turmoil and immaturity played a big role in the Hawks’ earlier season struggles. Stars Trae Young and John Collins were butting heads and publicly at that. Collins’s frustrations stemmed from the offensive end of the floor, with Young being the main culprit. Collins was not afraid to point the finger and this resulted in trade rumors swirling for the young star forward as he seemed ready to move on. Atlanta as a franchise did not want to see this happen and ultimately shut down these rumors saying they had no intention to move Collins before the deadline.

Nash Echos Collins distaste

Collins was not the only prevalent NBA name to criticize the young PG’s play, as NBA Hall of Fame PG Steve Nash (now HC of Brooklyn Nets) joined in the conversation. Nash was quoted saying, “That’s not basketball” after a matchup between the Hawks and Nets early on in the season. This was in direct reference to the way Young was drawing ticky-tack fouls against Brooklyn defenders.

The criticism from Nash hit closer to home for Young, however. It is a well-known fact that Young idolized Nash as a fan growing up. Young even went as far as to say Nash is his number five ranked NBA player in history, which drew loads of attention and backfire.

Criticism of this nature is a harder pill to swallow, but Young continues to push through and refuses to let it hinder his on-court play. However, at the end of February, it was still evident that something needed to change and quickly in Atlanta. After the team’s first 34 games they were sitting at 14-20, and on the outside looking in of the Eastern Conference Playoff Picture.

Questions loomed and fans were impatiently waiting for answers. The Hawks organization did not disappoint, making a coaching move that has completely altered their path this season.

Enter Nate McMillan

Longtime NBA coach Nate McMillan stepped into the head coaching position for the Hawks on March 1st, replacing Lloyd Pierce. Pierce coached the Hawks for two and a half seasons before getting the boot after not making much to any progress with the young core. McMillan (former Indiana Pacers HC) wasted no time reversing Atlanta’s fortune.

In his first eight games at the helm, McMillan led the Hawks to an 8-0 record, and has continued his early success boasting an overall 13-5 record in his first 18 games with the team. With his quick success, McMillan now has the Hawks sitting at the number five seed in the East. While his former team remains on the outside looking in.

McMillan is no stranger to coaching success. Before his time in Atlanta, McMillan has been a head coach for 16 seasons. Altogether, McMillan has coached 1267 NBA games and holds a record of 674-593 overall. The 674 wins to his name have him 20th All-time in coaching wins, as he recently surpassed longtime NBA Coach Mike D’Antoni.

Playoff Success for McMillan on the Horizon?

McMillan also enjoyed much success with his latest former team the Indiana Pacers. In his four seasons with the Pacers, McMillan held a regular-season record of 183-136. He also led the Pacers to four straight playoff appearances in those years. Many Pacer and NBA fans alike heavily critiqued the Pacers’ decision to part ways with McMillan after this past season.

Four straight years of playoff berths are fireable grounds? Seems unfair, but Indiana executives ultimately feared McMillan’s playoff track record. Atlanta wasted no time taking the gamble after a disappointing start to this season.

Although McMillan has always had regular-season success, that success has never transitioned into the postseason. For his career, McMillan has appeared in 53 games, but yet has a putrid record of 17-36 to show for it. So while Hawks fans are enjoying the success currently, fans will be forced to ponder on whether they think McMillan can right his playoff woes in Atlanta.

Rest assured Hawks fans, McMillan is your guy and will indeed do just that. In a wide-open and weak East, McMillan has completely flipped the Hawks season upside down and has the young team believing in themselves like never before. That is never a good sign for opposing teams against young upcoming teams. Atlanta’s newly found confidence and swagger will only continue to grow as this season quickly comes to an end. Lookout East, The Hawks are back and ready for Playoff NBA Basketball.

Looking Forward

With the Hawks currently sitting at the number 5 seed, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the regular season plays out. The Hawks have 20 games remaining with the 6th easiest strength of schedule remaining. While the Heat, Celtics, Hornets, and Knicks all have much tougher schedules. I look for the Celtics and Heat to finish the season strong and fix early season woes as they are the more experienced teams. Not to mention with Collins being out at least another week and the Hawks still awaiting De’Andre Hunter’s return as well others will be forced to fill their voids.

The Hawks have impressed me without Hunter because the young forward is a player that really catches my eye. In the 20 games he has played this season, the 2nd year forward has improved in every major statistical category. Not to mention standing at 6’8″ 225 pounds the sky is the limit physically and athletically for this young kid out of Virginia, barring injury setbacks.

At the trade deadline, the Hawks made a move to bolster their bench offensively. Atlanta shipped Veteran PG Rajon Rondo to LAC for three-time defending sixth man of the year winner, Lou Willams. Losing Rondo will hurt Atlanta come playoff time in certain aspects, but Williams also gives you a facet of the game offensively that Rondo does not possess.

Future in ATL is Bright.

The moral of the story, the Atlanta Hawks make the playoffs; however, I am not as confident to say that I truly believe they will win a playoff series. In my opinion, they are still a couple of pieces away from becoming a major powerhouse. They must improve defensively; come playoff time, their defensive flaws could haunt them.

Currently, the Hawks rank 15th in points per game allowed at 111.6 and rank 24th in defensive rating at 113.5. Under McMillan, those numbers have improved, however, look for veteran guards in playoffs to exploit Young and Williams defensively. Once Trae Young commits on the defensive end of the ball, the Atlanta Hawks will take a major step forward. If that happens sooner rather than later, look for the Hawks to become a perennial playoff team once again.