The 2021-22 Atlanta Hawks Are 14-15 This Season. Is There Cause For Concern?

December 18th, 2021

By Alan Lu

Last year, the Atlanta Hawks were the feel good team of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, and they embarked on a Cinderella run by defeating the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers before falling short and losing to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. This year, the 2021-22 Atlanta Hawks are underperforming and have won just 14 out of their 29 games, and they currently sit in 9th place in the East. Should Atlanta Hawks’ fans panic or be concerned right now?
Scott Wachter/USA Today Sports, via Fansided’s Soaring Down South)

Halfway into last season, it looked like the Atlanta Hawks were running out of gas.  Their players’ and team’s development were stalling under former head coach, Lloyd Pierce.  There was simmering tension between Trae Young and John Collins, and the Hawks had refused to give John Collins an extension early last year.  It looked as though they were going to need to go in a new direction and possibly either re-work their team around Trae Young, or at least to make minor tweaks by sampling replacing their coach.

By the season’s end, the answer for their team’s success appeared to be replacing their inexperienced former head coach with a much wiser, savvy, experienced head coach in hiring former Trail Blazers and Pacers Nate McMillan midway through the season.  Afterwards, they looked revived and rejuvenated.  McMillan guided them to a really strong, 27-11 record to help the Hawks get to a 41-31 record and to a 5th seed, and the Hawks marched on and continued their success and Cinderella story by pulling off upset playoff series wins over Julius Randle’s New York Knicks and Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers, and the Hawks’ upstart playoff success helped basically to turn nearly a whole city against Ben Simmons. 

Trae Young looked to be one of the best point guards in the NBA.  He was also proving that most teams need a Stephen Curry-esque sharpshooter and playmaking point guard to lead the way into today’s modern NBA.  John Collins was turning the corner as an up-and-coming, rising star big man that finally showed the defensive skills to add to his strong offensive repertoire and versatility.  Clint Capela was proving to be the anchor, defensive backbone, and one of the missing pieces to the puzzle. 

Even better, the Hawks had a truly talented team up and down their roster, and they continued to make head way before losing in six games to the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.  The Bucks were the best team of 2021, and the Hawks looked to be the team of the future.  Things seemed bright for the Atlanta Hawks.  So much so, that people started predicting that they would be one of the best teams in the East and win many games this year, including me.  Nate McMillan was made a full-time coach and John Collins eventually received his extensionCam Reddish had a strong 2021 postseason, and was looking like he was on an upward path. The 2022 Hawks were also poised to get a full season out of De’Andre Hunter. All seemed well in the land of Atlanta.

Fast forward to today.  The Atlanta Hawks are 14-15 and are 9th in the Eastern Conference, and they were in 9th place at the time of Lloyd Pierce’s firing. So what happened?  Did the Hawks get complacent?  Have other teams caught up to them and finally are understanding how to beat the Hawks?  Or was the Hawks’ second half and postseason surge under head coach Nate McMillan a mere fluke, and this is just how things were supposed to turn out?

In studying the 2019-20 and 2020-21 Hawks, the 2020-21 Atlanta Hawks had significantly improved their defense, as they went from being one of the worst defenses in terms of points allowed and shooting percentages allowed to being an above average defense in the NBA.  The Hawks had always been a good offensive team with Trae Young there, but they were rebounding and defending much better last season.  They especially did a great job of preventing opponents from making shots or threes, and they were 3rd in three-point percentage allowed last year.

This season, their defense seems to be down towards the middle of the pack, and it seems that most of their starters and reserves haven’t averaged nearly as many minutes per game this season compared to the 2021 playoffs.  Not only have Trae Young and Clint Capela averaged less minutes per game from the 2021 playoffs to now, but Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams’ minutes are also down.  In turn, it seems that they have been trying to incorporate some of their back-end players into games more, such as Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Delon Wright, and Solomon Hill, but it hasn’t really translated to much effectiveness or wins for their team so far this season.  Of those three, I was surprised that Wright has not played better, considering he was quite effective in his role with the Sacramento Kings as a versatile guard off the bench last year.

From analyzing the data, it seems that the 2021-22 Atlanta Hawks have plenty of talented offensive players, but they may not have nearly enough defensive players to balance out their roster to make them true contenders for the title in 2022.  They are still talented enough to pull out a surprise series win in the playoffs, but either their own players will need to pour in more focus on that end, or they may have to get more defensive minded players without sacrificing their offense in order to make gains for their team.

One significant issue is that Trae Young is definitively their best player, and they don’t seem to have another elite offensive player that comes anywhere close, or nor have a secondary player that either commands the level of attention that Young warrants nor looks to score nearly as often.  The Hawks have two players that average 15 or more points per game in Trae Young and John Collins, but they only have one player that has played over 500 minutes that has a Usage Rate of over 25% in Trae Young. 

Though John Collins is a versatile offensive player, he doesn’t shoot the ball nearly as often to make himself as credible of a threat as he looks on paper, and the rest of the players also don’t shoot nearly often, so defenses can key in and load up to focus on Trae Young.  This makes it tougher for the Hawks to execute their offense, so they either need another elite scorer that can create his own offense, or they’ll need their other players to step up, whether if it’s telling John Collins to be more assertive, or if they should play Cam Reddish or Lou Williams more.

The Atlanta Hawks probably should be patient, and they should not panic right now.  Their best player, Trae Young, is already an NBA All-Star and is one of the league’s best point guard at the young age of 23, and he’s not even eligible to sign an extension for another year yet.  They also should probably see what they have with some of the other players they have on their roster, especially with their younger players such as Jalen Johnson, Onyeka Okongwu, Syklar Mays, and Sharife Cooper, and see if they have players that could be solid contributors for them in the future. 

The Hawks’ fans are probably disappointed, and maybe mad even that their team is not winning as many games this season.  There are still over 50 games to go, and they should be grateful that their head coach Nate McMillan was able to lead them to get to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.  That combined with the fact Trae Young will be with their team for a while will give them time to sort out their issues.  Even if the Hawks don’t reach close to their ceiling as potentially an upper-tier Eastern Conference playoff team this year, they are still a very talented team that has a bright future.

Right now, we should not be concerned about the Hawks’ slow start to the 2021-22 NBA season so far. If the Hawks are still in the 7-10 range by the trade deadline, they may have to put their chips into the table and swing a trade to try to make another push to be contenders, but they’ll also need to ensure that it will be a move that will help them not only in the short term, but also in the long run.  Still, the Hawks don’t have to make a rash move, as prudent moves can help them, but rash moves could potentially set them back and put them in a worse state than they may be at right now. 

If this current roster is insufficient in truly making them contenders in the future, they may need to add a second star to their roster, whether if that is via trades or free agency.  If their problems persist this season, they could look to swing a trade for another star player, such as Philadelphia 76ers’ point forward Ben Simmons, New Orleans Pelicans’ forward Brandon Ingram, or they could see if they could swing a move to try to pry away Jaylen Brown from Boston.  Regardless, the Atlanta Hawks are in good hands, as they have a good roster, and a solid front office lead by General Manager and Team President, Travis Schlenk, so their fanbase shouldn’t have to worry about the direction of where their team is going right now.

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