Sometimes the drive to prosperity and respect hits a pothole and a realignment is necessary. Such was the case for the Hawks, who reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2021 with a young squad only to flounder last season and barely squeeze back into the playoffs.
At least Trae Young continues to be exactly what the Hawks need — a franchise player with flair and bankability — and the club maintained enough flexibility to make changes. The biggest, by far, was adding Dejounte Murray and pairing him with Young and creating what could be the league’s most balanced backcourt in terms of offensive firepower (Young) and sticky defense (Murray).
The rest of the pieces must fall in line, and the Hawks, like every team, must avoid injuries to those in the meat of the rotation. John Collins and a few others must get back on the growth track. It could be a make-or-break season for coach Nate McMillan if Atlanta finds itself fighting for dear life in the Play-In Tournament again.
Will the Hawks finally embrace defense? With Murray aboard, Atlanta has its defensive backbone. But the rest of the club needs to take its cue from Murray. Too often last season, the Hawks fell apart defensively, especially in the moment of truth, and have yet to exhibit a consistent defensive mindset under McMillan. It’ll help if swingman De’Andre Hunter, held to 53 games last year because of injury, becomes the high-level defender the Hawks projected for him.
The competition in the East will be fierce and it’s very questionable whether the Hawks are a top-six team in that regard. They simply lack the firepower and muscle of those contenders who are angling for East supremacy. But here in Year One of the Young-Murray backcourt combo, the Hawks figure to be in the mix with the second tier. Much will depend on the team’s overall defense, the improvements of Hunter and Collins, and if a solid player emerges to give the bench a lift after losing Kevin Huerter in the offseason. That’s certainly a best-case scenario, and a realistic one as well. Projection: Playoffs.
1 KEY STAT TO KNOW
297 — The Hawks’ second-ranked offense averaged a league-low 297 passes per 24 minutes of possession.
— John Schuhmann
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
Trae Young: A certified star who led the league last season in total points and total assists, Young’s trajectory continues to give Atlanta hope that he can be the centerpiece of a title contender someday.
Dejounte Murray: A splendid all-around guard who can play on or off the ball and will draw the tougher defensive backcourt assignments.
De’Andre Hunter: He’s playing for a contract extension which is all the motivation needed to a bounce-back season after the injuries and uninspired performances.
John Collins: Experienced a down year after getting the big contract extension, Collins nonetheless is a valued piece and an offensive weapon at the rim.
Clint Capela: A reliable yet unspectacular big man who feasts on the pick-and-roll and also gobbles rebounds.
Bogdan Bogdanovic: Superb shooter who can rival Young for getting buckets whenever he gets on a roll.
Onyeka Okongwu: Youthful big man took some giant steps at times last season and brings plenty of energy; skills remain in development, though.
Justin Holiday: Veteran swingman arrives with smarts and consistency and should blend in nicely. It all depends on what’s left in the tank at age 33.
LAST 5 SEASONS
How the Hawks have fared stats-wise over the last 5 seasons …
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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