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Opinion: Led in NBA playoffs by budding star Trae Young, the upstart Atlanta Hawks are here to stay

·6 min read
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Trae Young no longer saves the screenshots of comments that questioned whether he would succeed in the NBA, a habit he started when he first turned pro.

Over Young’s three years since his historic college season at Oklahoma, he’s outgrown the idea that he might be a bust or that he was destined to put up big stats on bad teams or, more recently, that he couldn’t win in the playoffs. One by one, the Atlanta Hawks point guard vanquished those narratives to such an extent that it would be hard for them to provide the same wellspring of motivational material that they did when Young was still finding his way in the league.

But in many ways, the doubts about Young as the through line of the Hawks’ rebuilding process has obscured the simple reality of a team that now finds itself in the second round of the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Hawks are here because in just three short years, they’ve built a really strong roster.

"It’s a good thing we’re getting to play on TV and people are getting to see what this team is about because we’ve got a lot of guys on this team that can play," Young said.

Trae Young is averaging 29.2 points and 9.8 assists in his first playoff experience.
Trae Young is averaging 29.2 points and 9.8 assists in his first playoff experience.

It feels like that fact slipped by a lot of people this year, even some hard-core NBA fans. The Hawks were barely on national television this season, they started 14-20 before firing former head coach Lloyd Pierce and their lineup most nights was so scrambled due to injuries that it was difficult from afar to get a feel for how good Atlanta could ultimately be. With all the attention on the Nets, the Bucks, the 76ers and even the Knicks in the East, the Hawks kind of got lost.

But Atlanta’s first-round dismissal of the Knicks in five games should have opened plenty of eyes to the balance and depth of skill the Hawks have accumulated beyond just Young, a testament to the work general manager Travis Schlenk has put in to build a complimentary team around their incandescent star.

For all the criticism Atlanta took over the draft night trade in 2018 that landed Young with the Hawks when they could have simply picked Luka Doncic at No. 3, it’s been a pretty textbook rebuild given how difficult it can be for teams to break out of the lottery morass even with good picks and salary cap space.

Though doubts about Young as a winning player were hardening among some analysts in his first two years, the reality is that Atlanta was still in the mode of accumulating assets, using salary cap space to acquire more draft capital and losing enough to land another high lottery pick.

As a rookie, the best players Young usually shared the floor with were power forward John Collins, who only had one year of experience in the league, and fellow rookie Kevin Huerter. In his second season, the Hawks’ frontcourt was such a mess that they started Damian Jones 27 games, Bruno Fernando 13 games and Alex Len nine at center while Jabari Parker was the primary power forward during Collins’ 25-game suspension for a positive PED test.

Even though all the analytics showed that Atlanta’s offense was good to very good when Young was on the floor, of course that team was going to lose.

But once Young established himself as an All-Star, averaging 29.6 points and 9.3 assists per game during the COVID-19 shortened season, it was time for the franchise to put the pieces around him to make the playoffs. Not only was it a mandate from Hawks primary owner Tony Ressler, this is an NBA where stars have massive power to determine where they play. The window to prove the franchise could build a winner around Young wasn’t going to be open forever.

The first step was a trade deadline deal in February 2020 that landed a legitimate center and defensive force in Clint Capela, who had fallen out of the plan in Houston as the Rockets pursued a team built around James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The cost to Atlanta was small: Evan Turner, a second-round pick and the No. 17 overall pick that Atlanta had acquired from the Nets in a previous deal, and Capela has become the anchor of a defense that improved from 28th to 18th in defensive rating during the regular season.

The next step was using the cap space Atlanta had accumulated on shooting, as the Hawks ranked dead last in the NBA in 2019-20 in 3-point percentage. They spent the bulk of their money on signing free agents Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, who combined to make 249 threes on 42.4% accuracy.

And the final piece was growth from the young players they drafted, which they got from Young, Collins and Huerter. But nobody took a bigger leap than De’Andre Hunter, whose ability to switch onto guards or forwards at 6-foot-8 while knocking down mid-range jumpers at the other end (he made 58 percent of his 2-pointers) made him a No. 4 overall pick coming out of Virginia.

The problem for the Hawks was they almost never got all of that at the same time. Gallinari missed 12 games early in the season with an ankle injury, then missed seven during a critical stretch in April with a foot problem. Bogdanovic suffered a fractured right knee on Jan. 9 and missed the next 25 games.

Just when Hunter was breaking out as a possible Most Improved Player candidate, he suffered a knee injury on Jan. 29, came back for two games in late March, then went back on the shelf for another 24 games.

As Atlanta was making a push for the playoffs in April, both Young and Collins also had injury scares and missed a handful of games.

Given how rarely Atlanta had anything close to its full lineup, it was fairly impressive that the Hawks went 41-31, including a 27-11 record after Pierce was replaced by Nate McMillan.

"I definitely feel like the confidence hit a peak where we understand what we can do, understand guys’ strong spots and understand as a team what each guy needs to do to win," Collins said. "I feel like (winning in the playoffs) reassures us that all the things we’ve been trying to accomplish and do for ourselves, they are working."

The Hawks almost certainly aren’t ready to win a championship right now, and they’re going to be significant underdogs to the 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But Atlanta’s ability to win in the playoffs shouldn’t be a surprise. It was hiding in plain sight this entire season, obscured by the injuries and the constant referendum on Young as the engine of a winning team.

But that’s old news, just like those screenshots Young no longer keeps on his phone. With Young as the engine of a confident, offensively dynamic group that is as healthy as it’s been all season, it shouldn't be a surprise if the Hawks can ascend even higher.

Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Atlanta Hawks, Trae Young making noise in NBA playoffs – with 76ers up next