The Atlanta Hawks' surprising run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals, where they put an honest scare into the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks, told us, effectively, one thing: Trae Young is a superstar. Yes, the team over-performed, especially defensively, and the matchups with the Knicks and Sixers look pretty gift-wrapped in hindsight. But what Young did, was real. He was the reason the Hawks had a puncher's chance then, and he's the reason they have a puncher's chance now.
Even at 13-11 and starting to skid, the Hawks aren't a team to be trifled with because Young, even in a down-shooting year so far, registers as one of the most inevitable point-creators in the league, and now he has a second creator in Dejounte Murray, who, in theory, should make Atlanta less susceptible to Young-eliminating defensive schemes in the playoffs.
There's some upside-down stuff happening with the Hawks. Entering play on Tuesday, they're a bottom-10 offense and a top-10 defense. There's some shooting luck baked into the latter -- opponents are making just 35.2 percent of their wide-open 3s, which NBA.com defines as the nearest defender being at least six feet away, the fourth-worst mark in the league. Assuming that number rises, Atlanta's defensive profile will likely fall.
That said, this isn't all smoke and mirrors. Onyeka Okongwu raved about the addition of Murray, telling CBS Sports he has brought "swagger" to Atlanta's defense, which is legitimately outfitted with capable components. Murray, De'Andre Hunter, Okongwu, John Collins, these are all at least capable defenders, with Murray and Okongwu profiling as much better than that, and Capela is back to his 2021 post-coaching-change form.
Speaking of that coaching change, Nate McMillan was the greatest beneficiary of that 2021 run. He inherited, first and foremost, a healthy roster that Lloyd Pierce never enjoyed. Things took off from there. He was rewarded with a four-year contract, but Atlanta's play after that postseason run has never validated McMillan as a true difference-maker. At some point, he will have to answer for that aforementioned bottom-10 offense, a ranking that should be nearly impossible with Young at the helm.
Travis Schlenk, perhaps, didn't do McMillan any favors by trading Kevin Huerter, who has shot the lights out from deep this season in Sacramento. With Bogdan Bogdanovic sidelined until recently, Murray not being a 3-point guy, and Young making fewer than 30 percent of his triples, the Hawks are low on shooting. As a percentage of their shot diet, which is an analytical nightmare, the Hawks take and make the fewest 3s in the league. Only the Bulls rely on making more midrange shots per game.
It's hard to even say McMillan has instituted any kind of offensive system. Any shot the Hawks get is a result of individual creation, almost entirely by either Young or Murray. The Hawks make the fewest passes per game in the league by a wide margin, and their off-ball movement is virtually nonexistent. Young still hasn't committed to that aspect of his game, and that's on him, but to be fair McMillan hasn't implemented the kind of impromptu screening and cutting culture required to make the movement of a player like Young consistently worthwhile. It takes everyone working together and in anticipation to free up a shooter, not just one guy running around.
All of this said, the Hawks, really, should be playing with a degree of house money right now. It doesn't feel like they are because that unexpected conference finals appearance rewired short-term expectations. Atlanta ownership wants to contend, and with the type of talent they possess, starting with Young, it's tantalizing to buy into an expedited timeline. But the truth is this team is really set to pop a few years from now.
A Collins trade feels inevitable. Okongwu will eventually supplant Capela. Hunter is signed through 2027. AJ Griffin is already a key piece and he's only going to get better. Murray has been fantastic in his first season next to Young, and the likelihood is the Hawks keep that duo together for the long haul. It all adds up to a product that should be a lot more of a threat in a few years. Will McMillan be around when that version of the Hawks comes to fruition? We'll see. But I wouldn't bet on it.
To me, this feels a lot like the Warriors when they were coming of age under Mark Jackson. The Hawks don't have the kind of young talent that Warriors team had, which was in the midst of building around three future Hall of Famers, but you can see the similarities in timeline and plan. Jackson drilled in a defensive mindset. The front office -- of which Schlenk was a part -- prioritized two-way players in support of Steph Curry, who grew as a defender himself. They were a playoff team for a few years. They always had a puncher's chance for the simple fact that they had Curry, but they were an offensive evolution precipitated by a coaching change from unlocking their full potential.
That's where it feels like we are with the Hawks. They've been to the playoffs. They've gone on a little run, as Golden State did by eliminating Denver and taking San Antonio to six games in 2013. They always have a puncher's chance with Young. But offensively speaking, this team that is scoring five points per 100 possessions fewer than last season, per Cleaning the Glass, needs a change, and it remains to be seen if the defensive rating is sustainable.
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To be fair, the Hawks finished with the No. 2 offense last season playing largely the same way, but they got exposed in the playoffs. Sure, they added Murray to account for what the Heat did in eliminating Young, but the your-turn-my-turn creation philosophy with Young and Murray feels positively pick-upish. There needs to be a system that can create shots for the shot creators.
McMillan has not proven he's the guy to institute that kind of thing, either because he doesn't believe in such an offense, lacks the creativity to put it in play, or can't get the players, specifically Young, who's used to controlling everything with the ball in his hands, to buy into such a change as Steve Kerr did with Curry.
Until then, the Hawks will rely on Young, and to a lesser degree Murray, to create everything and hope Young's 3-point shooting comes around. That's not a championship blueprint, but it's good enough until Hunter hopefully gets better, until Okongwu takes over at center and becomes his fully realized self (which, to me, is something of a more fluid and athletic Kevon Looney), until the front office decides whether McMillan is the guy.
It's not a bad place to be. The Hawks are pretty close to a really good team. If they didn't make that 2021 run, we would be more realistic about their timeline. But they did. And it tricked us into thinking this team was ready. It's not. But it will be, or could be, in a few years.