The Atlanta Hawks were eliminated from the 2021 postseason on Saturday, falling 118-107 to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. Even in an upside-down season, this qualifies as probably the biggest surprise. The Atlanta Hawks? Two wins from the NBA Finals? If you thought there was a chance of that happening three months ago, you didn't have much company.
So, first, congratulations are in order. The Hawks were incredible. Every time they could've folded, they banded together and rallied instead. Trae Young turned into a superstar in front of our eyes. Travis Schlenk went from the hot seat to a general manager whose plan to surround Young with shooters and versatile two-way players came together long ahead of schedule. Nate McMillan coached his way into what will surely be a lucrative, multi-year contract to remain in Atlanta.
And that's when the real test will begin.
Not just for McMillan, but for this entire organization. Nobody cares now that the Hawks were a sub-.500 team when McMillan took over, or that they were a .500 team as late as March 31. Perhaps where they started should be factored into expectations for where they're headed, but that's not how it works. Like a sales team that blows past its quota for the year, the Hawks have set a new bar. And it won't be an easy one to clear.
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I don't want to come off as Debbie Downer in the wake of this remarkable playoff run. I'm as bullish on the Hawks as anyone. I have long believed Young was destined for stardom, my early season criticisms of his shot selection notwithstanding. I'm with everyone else who is salivating at the two-way potential of the DeAndre Hunter/Cam Reddish wing duo. It's not lost on me that Hunter didn't even play against the Sixers or Bucks. I love Bogdan Bogdanovic and Clint Capela, both of whom are locked up through 2023. The decision not to trade John Collins at the deadline came up aces. And Kevin Huerter, man. That dude is a player.
I can believe all this and still recognize the unlikelihood that this is suddenly a team that should be held to a deep-playoff standard. A lot of things broke right for the Hawks. Parity parachuted into the NBA this season. Injuries have defined this postseason. It gave the Hawks an opportunity and they seized it, but trying to follow up an unexpected playoff run by doing it again is a tall task. Go ask the Miami Heat about it.
Deep down, most people didn't believe the Heat were quite as good as their bubble run suggested. It's not to take away from what they did, but any forward-looking evaluation worth its salt doesn't rely solely, or even all that heavily, on past results. The Hawks got really hot and really confident at the same time, and I, for my part, am hoping like hell these things were more than a perfect storm and all this proves to be more than a fun little story that lacks long-term legs.
If I had to guess, I'd say it's somewhere in the middle. The Hawks could very easily be a better team next season with worse results. They're a good team. We know that for sure. Whether they're a great team remains to be seen. One thing's for sure: It'll be a hell of a lot of fun watching it play out.