For the next 10 days, we’ll be answering one key question surrounding the 2021-22 NBA season. Here’s question eight:
How hard will it be for the Hawks to top last season’s success?
Quite hard, which says a lot about Atlanta’s stunning improvement last season — heck, last half-season and postseason. Rarely have we seen a coaching change so dramatically turn around a team’s fortunes. In fact, if the Hawks’ percentage through February under Lloyd Pierce (14-20, .412) and from that point under Nate McMillan (27-11, .711) had taken place from a full season to the next, McMillan would have been a runaway Coach of the Year winner. It was the equivalent of winning 58 games after winning 33, with hardly any other changes.
It wasn’t just the winning percentage, either. Atlanta went from 25th offensively and 28th defensively in 2019-20 to 9th and 18th last season — and 8th and 13th from McMillan’s promotion into Pierce’s seat. Then there was the 18-game run through the Eastern Conference finals, with the Hawks beating New York, upsetting Philadelphia and putting a scare into Milwaukee.
So the overachieving Hawks of March through June have set their bar mighty high. Winning 47 or 48 games technically would rate as progress but wouldn’t feel nearly as heady as that rush to the finish last spring. A fourth or fifth seed and a ticket home after the conference semifinals — no shame given rivals such as the Bucks, Nets, Sixers and Heat — might disappoint the team and its fans, but taking two steps forward and one back still means you’re heading in the right direction.
The Hawks’ improvement will mean development from the inside. Trae Young’s breakthrough as an All-Star putting up more than empty calories has to continue. John Collins, as focused on his next contract as anyone in the league last season, needs to prove he can get better now that he has it. Cam Reddish must play on a consistent basis the way he did at both ends in four appearances against Milwaukee in the East finals. And so on.
Additionally, McMillan needs to demonstrate he’ll have his team’s ears from training camp through the postseason, and be more than just “not Lloyd Pierce” in how they continue to respond to him. All of it is possible. None of it will be easy.
• Which team is poised for a breakout season?
• Which second-year players will flourish?
• How can Zion improve his game next season?
• How will Kidd help Doncic in Dallas?
• Will experience push Lakers to top of West?
• Are the Nets clearly the team to beat?
• Can the Suns return to The Finals?
• How can Lowry help the Heat?
• What will be the Bucks’ biggest challenge?
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