BY DAVID THORPE
Atlanta should be a great American sports town, but the teams in Atlanta—professional and college alike—have mostly failed to make magic. The revered Emory University doesn’t even have a football team. The Braves got to the World Series five times between ‘82 and ‘99, but somehow only managed to win one title. The Hawks fit right in, having yet to appear in the NBA Finals.
Now that gambling is a big NBA business, there’s pressure to prognosticate and predict, which isn’t exactly our business at TrueHoop. But sometimes, in all the hours of film I review and plays I break down, ideas pop in my head. They’re not perfect, but the track record is pretty good. Two games into Giannis’ career, I just had the idea he’d be a max player. Watching Ben Simmons before the NBA draft, I thought he could become an all-NBA defender.
This year, watching the Hawks’ playoff run, Trae Young and a band of improving young teammates made it look easy to shatter NBA defenses. The idea that popped into my head, which I can’t shake since: These Hawks are going to win a title. I can’t say exactly when, maybe in a few years, or maybe sooner—but the hard work is done.
With a bit of time and determination, NBA superstars in their prime can more or less decide where they want to play—either through free agency or trade.
In the Eastern Conference, the beneficiaries of this have been the Heat, and more recently the Nets. But of course the Hawks will join the list.
Plenty of NBA players summer in Atlanta, home of Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Stacey Abrams. Long known as the “Cradle of the Civil Rights Movement,” Atlanta was dubbed the “Black Mecca” by Ebony Magazine in the 1970s and has even been compared to Wakanda, the coolest fictional city of all-time. As recently as 2018, Forbes magazine ranked Atlanta the best place, economically, for Black Americans.
Thus far, that has not translated into the Hawks becoming an NBA destination. But that can change.
Who wouldn’t want to play with Trae Young?
Trae Young averaged 29 points a game over two playoff series, and then 28 in the conference finals when he injured his ankle halfway through. His game included dozens of stunning buckets and a real embrace of the rigor of the playoffs. Knocking off the favored Knicks and Sixers behind some extraordinary performances then scoring 48 to take Game 1 in Milwaukee sealed his status as one of the game’s bright young stars.
Trae Young is 22, two years younger than Devin Booker.
Astronomists call an exploding star a “Supernova.” In the sky, exploding stars are dying. In the NBA, they are just beginning. Young rocked the postseason and can get so much better. His scoring has driven series wins, and he averaged just less than 10 assists a game in the postseason after finishing second in the league in assists for the regular season.
Pick a guard in the league, (any guard not named Damian Lillard, actually—he’s also small and not great at defense) and they can thrive next to Young. He’s best next to an elite defender, but has already shown he can be a pest on defense. And he can do incredible things for his teammates.
Trae’s presence at the top of this Kirk Goldsberry chart has a lot to do with Clint Capela’s place near the bottom.
Trae is commonly picked up incredibly far from the hoop. In terms of what players stretch the floor the most, Young and Dame top the list. But Trae’s so quick and crafty that just guarding him isn’t always enough. He can blow by defenders then suddenly step back for 3. He can get to the rim—where he made 57 percent of his shots last season, slightly better than Luka Doncic. His short mid-range game is money too—he hit 47 percent of them in the 2020-21 season. He’s really an impossible cover.
He isn’t a great shooter (yet), but is dangerous enough that he can ruin your night if you leave him space.
Capela is not a post-up player, he needs help to create those shots. But he’s a finisher, and hit 68+ percent from 0-3 feet last year. Many of those hoops were lob dunks from Young. Trae’s such a weapon to score, from near and far, that defenses are often forced to leave really tall and athletic players like Capela alone next to the rim.
Trae’s also a gifted and creative passer when simple lobs are not available.
There’s a temptation to think every star scorer should—like Harden in Houston—be surrounded by shooters and someone in the dunk spot. This incredible pass is a reminder that the Hawks are ready to destroy defenses a slightly different way.
They have five players in their rotation that stand 6-8 or taller and rank high on the athletic scale: John Collins, Capela, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and Onyeka Okongwu. They just drafted 6-9 Jalen Johnson from Duke, who lit up Summer League, averaging 19 points and almost ten rebounds per game. These are players designed to shine next to Trae. (In Dallas, Luka can pass similarly, but his four tall teammates include Boban Marjanovic and Dwight Powell. Trae’s teammates have a lot more hops.)
Five of those six tall Hawks are young enough that they’re expected to get much better. It’s smart to project the entire offense will get better over the course of the next few years. Starting wing Bogdan Bogdanovic is in his prime at 29 and Kevin Huerter (23 today) are designated shooters who are very good athletes. In fact the only slower players likely to see much playing time this year are Lou Williams (34) and Danilo Gallinari (33), and each made 40 percent of their 3s last season.
The Hawks can surround Young with athletes (Hunter, Reddish, Capela/Okongwu) and an elite shooter, or shooters (Bogdanovic, Williams, Gallinari) and an elite athlete. Neither look is small, in fact, the only rotation players we will likely see this season that stand below 6-5 are Young and Williams. Last season the Hawks finished 12th in the league in 3-point shooting but ninth in offensive efficiency thanks to Young’s scoring and passing talent and a top-two finish in free throw points per game, a product of Young’s work (7.7 free throws made per game, second in the league) and that team-wide size and athleticism.
The reason I get so bold about Atlanta’s future is their young talent. Hunter and Reddish were bad shooters in the regular season, yet Reddish made 9 of his 14 3s upon returning to their last series against the Bucks after an injury, giving him some needed confidence as this season rolls in. And Hunter was almost as pivotal to the Hawks’ dismantling the Knicks in round one after being the key guy to shut down Julius Randle after he destroyed them in the regular season when Hunter was out injured. He shot 6-16 from 3 in that series before having to miss the rest of the playoffs. There is no reason to believe Hunter (23) and Reddish (21) won’t become at least decent shooters in time, perhaps even good ones. Their postseason play showed vast potential, making them valuable prospects for whatever the Hawks want to do over time.
That’s the most intriguing part of this Hawks franchise now: What will happen by merely adding time. No contender is better balanced. A top-tier talent in Young, solid experienced role players, a deep bench full of youth, with a number of players loaded with upside.
The Hawks are so rich with talent that a guy like Kevin Huerter can go unnoticed. His athletic fluidity and shooting mechanics remind me of young Ray Allen. He’s a gunslinger too, who shot the Sixers out of the playoffs in Game 7, with 27 points on 18 shots on a variety of pure bucket-getting plays.
The Hawks have an easy path if they choose to follow it.
Don’t change a thing. Keep developing all their young players. Collectively improve on defense, a process that began last year—they were ranked 23rd in Defensive Efficiency before the All-Star break, 12th after it. Tighten up Young’s shot selection so he can get closer to the 40 percent mark from 3, and rest him more so he has more gas in the postseason. If they execute that strategy well, they look to be the best version of themselves in two or three years and should maintain that for years to come.
Given their youth, the age of many of the East’s top players, their overall talent, and the city they play in, adding perfect role players in free agency or off the buyout market—even one more star—is overwhelmingly likely.
Following this path would give them a small chance of winning a title now or next year, then becoming a favorite. It’s a great spot to be in for a franchise and for their fans and players. They are basically assured of playing meaningful games from October through May for a long time. An elementary school-aged student now might graduate high school and only know the Hawks as an elite team. Young people like that become lifelong fans. It’s an owner's dream.
The risky shortcut
Any number of amazing players might want to join this juggernaut before it’s too late. We’re not trying to break news, but it’s easy to imagine all kinds of impact players who might want to play in Atlanta:
Recently Chad Ford wrote about a potential Hawks deal for Bradley Beal. If Beal insisted on it, the Hawks have the talent to satisfy the Wizards and enough left over to win a title with Beal.
What if Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tires of the long game in Oklahoma City?
Or Jerami Grant in Detroit?
Or Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota?
Let’s see how things go for the Raptors before we decide Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet are in their forever home.
Is CJ McCollum on a contender in Portland?
Derrick White or Thaddeus Young might want new teams before too long.
What if Zach LaVine doesn’t sign an extension and the Bulls worry he may leave next summer?
Or if Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell can’t go on together?
Or even, gasp, Zion Williamson quietly makes it known he has no intention of staying in New Orleans?
The point isn’t that the Hawks will get those players. The point is that the Hawks have excellent players who could make credible trade offers for any of those players. The Hawks have the most affordable high-end talent of any NBA team.
None of this is lost on GM Travis Schlenk, who recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
When you look at the depth of our roster and the young talent that we have, we don't have draft assets like we have in the past anymore, but we now have guys under contract that you could match some of the bigger salaries. I think last year kind of put us back on the NBA map as far as a destination. Those who want to get traded, they want to go somewhere they think they can win. And I think now that perception of us is out there because we do have a young core that did show success in the playoffs. So the hope would be when a star player does ask to be traded, we'll be one of the destinations he'll be open to coming to.
Does that mean he is itchy to pull off a deal? There’s no need to. Allowing his young players to grow their games some in the early going, and be able to trade or get back newly signed or re-signed guys like John Collins, while also seeing how other stars around the league are doing.
Perhaps it’s one reason they paid John Collins this summer (5 years, $125 million). Collins and some lottery talent could get them a star, while matching salaries to satisfy CBA rules. Any deal for a star moves them to the top of the East—the better conference this year—with the Bucks and Nets. There are so many ways to put together realistic trades that would make the Hawks contenders.
It’s not hard to imagine that by January 1 the Hawks will be in line for home-court advantage in the playoffs, with an entire young core playing well. It’s also not hard to imagine the Timberwolves will be considering hard choices.
What if Schlenck offered Capela, Hunter, and Reddish for Towns? It would almost certainly give the Hawks a top-three offense, All-Stars who are just 26 and 23, with plenty of experience and a top tier talent potentially in Johnson. The Wolves add two young top six picks who fit well next to Anthony Edwards, their future star, plus a starting center on a good contract. It’s doable for both teams. How many teams can say that?
In a lot of odds, the Hawks are about 12th most likely to win the 2022 title. Odds I saw are around 25/1.
I think we are being deluded by big names who, in the NBA at the moment, tend to be in their later years. The teams ahead of the Hawks in the betting odds have a star or stars in their 30s (Lakers, Nets, Bucks, Warriors, Suns, Clippers, Jazz, Heat), potential for chemistry issues (Jazz, 76ers), or have top players who are either definitely out or coping with some kind of injury concerns (Warriors, Clippers, Nuggets).
Only the Mavericks and Hawks don’t have any red flags.
I’m not saying the Hawks will win the title this year, but either now or later, it’s coming. They have two well-lit paths to follow. The hard work of building the team is done. What’s left is a game of timing and poker. Schlenk would be wise to heed the words of Atlanta’s hero, Stacey Abrams; “To make a good decision, you actually need to think about it, the contours and the consequences.” If handled well, Atlanta can be the closest thing to what we saw in Golden State from 2014-2019. That’s how well positioned they are. Given that youth, maybe even longer. For the first time since the 80’s Braves, Atlanta is entering a golden age for one of its teams.
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