After a magical run for the Atlanta Hawks last season, the Eastern Conference has now been on notice that they are for real.
Going into last year, they were considered potential sleepers with the new additions they made on their team. Getting guys like Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanović with a healthy Clint Capela looked like a nice fit alongside their young core of John Collins and superstar phenom Trey Young.
A playoff appearance looked like a real possibility. They ended up finishing fifth in a talented Eastern Conference and matched up against the New York Knicks. Most favored the Knicks in the series, but Trey Young showed us some glimpses as to why he is the real deal and finished off the Knicks in just five games.
In the Conference Semifinals, they matched up against the first seeded Philadelphia 76ers. Not surprisingly, most favored Philadelphia as well.
After the upset in Game 1 however, people were having their doubts about the 76ers. That game in my opinion was more telling about Atlanta than it was about Philadelphia.
They were well-coached and matched up exceptionally well against the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Ultimately, the Hawks ended up winning the series in seven games and are responsible for the entire “Ben Simmons saga”.
If Philadelphia would have advanced, I do not believe the Sixers would even consider trading Simmons currently. His confidence and stance with the team is not in a good place.
Atlanta Hawks Expectations Soaring
Going back to Atlanta, they gave the Milwaukee Bucks all they could handle in a thrilling Eastern Conference Finals.
Despite not advancing to the NBA Finals, Hawks fans have to view this past season as a resounding success. Not only did they exceed expectations, but the entire NBA was also able to see the reason why Atlanta was willing to trade Luka Doncic on draft night in exchange for Trey Young.
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) August 20, 2021
Before this past season, there were many around the league that looked back to that day on draft night as a glaring mistake for the Hawks. Many viewed Young as a rising star but nowhere near the superstar level of Luka.
Now, however, the narrative has definitely changed. Not that Young is better than Doncic, but the trade can be viewed as a win-win for both Atlanta and Dallas. Doncic has been an MVP candidate these past two seasons, while Young has led the Hawks to the Conference Finals. (Something Doncic has yet to accomplish).
The real question for the Hawks going into this season is how well they will play now they are not sneaking up on anyone. Last year, they thrived being the underdogs.
Especially for a young team (no pun intended), many of these guys do not know what it is like to be in that position. One thing that should help the Hawks is the guidance of head coach Nate McMillan who they signed to a four-year deal after being in an interim role.
After Llyod Pierce was fired earlier in the season, McMillan was next in line to coach the team. Remarkably, it seems like the guys responded to him a lot better and bought into his vision 100%.
Due to McMillan’s experience, I see him helping tremendously going forward. I see the Hawks being a top-four seed in the Conference this year but ultimately taking a step back and losing in the second round of the playoffs.
This prediction says more about the competition in the conference than it does about Atlanta. Odds are, they will have to face a fully healthy Brooklyn Nets team with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving or the reigning defending NBA Champions Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs.
Because the Hawks are a known commodity now, teams will be less likely to play relaxed and will give them all they have. It will be up to Trey Young and the company to raise their game even more if they want to finish the season better than they did last year.