The Long Two: Are the Atlanta Hawks title contenders?

Atlanta Hawks, NBA

After two strong offseasons and a Conference Finals run, the Hawks have moved to the fringes of the NBA title picture. Can they break through as a true contender?

Among the most difficult questions to answer in the NBA is how an overachieving young team will carry its success into the next year. Improvement isn’t always linear in the NBA, on either a team or an individual level. Massive overperformance is harder to replicate than modest success, and a drastic step forward one year might precede a small step back the next.

But a leap like the one the Atlanta Hawks took last year could also become a jumping-off point for the next season, a first step in a longer ascension. Given all the variance affects the NBA landscape, it’s hard to tell the direction in which teams like the Hawks are moving.

Are the Atlanta Hawks ready to take the next step?

There’s a good argument Atlanta punched above its weight last postseason by making a run to the Eastern Conference Finals as the fifth seed. The Hawks were undoubtedly a good team, but not quite on the level of the NBA’s absolute best at full strength. With improved competition in the East, it may be unlikely Atlanta exceeds — or even matches — last year’s success. But it’s likely that the Hawks, who won 27 of their 38 games under Nate McMillan last season, will also take a step forward next year, and with two of the team’s most important young players signing long-term contracts this offseason, Atlanta may be entering a window of title contention as Trae Young hits the prime of his career.

Young grabbed attention in the 2020 playoffs with mesmerizing scoring performances and late-game heroics, but it’s his playmaking consistency that puts him among the most valuable offensive players in the world. There are few plays in all of basketball more reliable than Young running a high pick-and-roll and simply reading the game.

Last season was the first time in his career that Young had teammates who could consistently pay off the looks he created, and the result was a healthier, more dynamic offense. The Hawks spent the last two offseasons solidifying their guard depth around Young, and now have the personnel to not only stay above water with him off the floor, but flank him with capable playmakers and defenders when he’s on. With multiple secondary ball-handlers and off-ball weapons bookended by Young and rock-solid defensive anchor Clint Capela, Atlanta projects as a team with a high regular-season floor that can play multiple styles on both ends of the court.

The Hawks can play small, offensive-focused lineups with John Collins at center, or run bigger units with Young off the floor in which Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanović handle the playmaking duties. It still makes sense to deploy Young as a ball-dominant playmaker, but that’s now one of several ways Atlanta can run its offense rather than the only sensible option.

It isn’t easy to build a balanced roster around a player like Young, whose defensive limitations require a certain kind of supporting cast. Atlanta’s front office has done well to mask Young’s deficiencies with a stable of versatile wings, two of whom — De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish — will be particularly important in determining the Hawks’ playoff upside. Hunter missed most of an otherwise promising second season with a torn meniscus, while Reddish is coming off a season in which his availability and effectiveness vacillated drastically. Both will be critical to Atlanta’s perimeter defense next season but will need to establish themselves as greater offensive threats in order for the Hawks to contend with the giants of the Eastern Conference.

Hunter showed promise of that improvement last year, improving meaningfully as a ball-handler and shot creator before injury truncated his season. He bumped his usage rate over 20 percent and his true shooting percentage over 60, largely on self-created shot attempts. While that realm of efficiency likely isn’t sustainable at this point in Hunter’s career, that sort of jump suggests Hunter could be more than just a spot-up shooter on offense next year. His individual defense against Derrick Rose and Julius Randle was crucial in stifling the Knicks’ offense in the playoffs, and he might be Atlanta’s only viable defender against burly perimeter creators like James Harden and Jimmy Butler.

Reddish, meanwhile, still lacks the strength to contain big, physical wings, but his length, agility and hands make him Atlanta’s best option against quicker guards. He harasses ball-handlers and navigates screens better than Hunter does, and has shown a proclivity for disrupting plays away from the ball as well. He has yet to pose enough of a threat on offense — as either a shooter or decision-maker — to warrant heavy playoff minutes, but Reddish needs only to hit open jumpers more regularly to avoid being made a liability. That consistency may come in his third season as he plays within a more structured offensive environment, and if Hunter returns as the scorer and defender he appeared to be last season, the Hawks will have answered two exceedingly important questions at a critical position.

That so much hinges on the reliability of two third-year players with spotty health records underscores how much would need to go right for Atlanta to crack the title conversation next year. Even with Hunter at full strength, Reddish taking a step forward and steady progress from the rest of the team, Atlanta still may not be in Milwaukee and Brooklyn’s class, and could also be susceptible to regression in some areas — particularly on defense. Yet on paper, next year’s Hawks appear stronger than the team that came within two games of the NBA Finals last season. Where that leaves them in a healthy and revamped Eastern Conference hierarchy remains to be seen, but Atlanta has put itself on the fringes of the title picture, with its future still as bright as ever.

How will Paul Millsap’s free agency shape up?

One of the few consequential free agents left on the market is Paul Millsap, a 15-year veteran who, in the right situation, could help tilt the championship race ever so slightly in his team’s favor. The 36-year-old is past his prime as a scorer and athlete but remains one of the savviest team defenders in basketball and a semi-reliable shooter — though his accuracy from beyond the arc has varied from year to year.

Last season was the first since 2016 that Millsap’s team hasn’t been markedly better on defense with him on the floor, and his skill set is such that he can play alongside almost any type of frontcourt partner. It seems clear that after four years as a Nugget, Millsap won’t return to Denver, who solidified its backup frontcourt with other players this offseason. Yet he can still be a capable backup big — maybe even a fifth starter — for a contending team looking to bolster its frontcourt depth for under $6 million annually.

The Philadelphia 76ers, who have perennially struggled to defend with Joel Embiid off the floor, come to mind as a logical destination, as do the Phoenix Suns, who could still use a more reliable defensive big to back up Deandre Ayton. Millsap would also slot in nicely with the Warriors if James Wiseman isn’t up to speed defensively, and a reunion with Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee might solve the Bucks’ backup center question and help compensate for the loss of P.J. Tucker.

The Nets still have virtually zero rim protection and can offer Millsap a key role on a championship favorite, while teams like Portland and Dallas could use some defensive fortification. None of these teams will lean on Millsap as a defensive anchor or offensive focal point, but all would benefit from putting him in a role that allows him to complement better players around him. Those are the kinds of players who help solidify contenders; perhaps Millsap is just biding his time until he finds the team for which he’ll move the needle.

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