The Surging Atlanta Hawks Are Following a Familiar Script for a Playoff Push

Before the Atlanta Hawks lost to the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 31, one could forgive fans for having that old déjà vu feeling. Atlanta got off to a slow start coming off a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. A loss to the New York Knicks on Jan. 15 dropped the Hawks to 17–25. They were 12th in the East and 4.5 games out of a play-in spot.

Something clicked at that point. Atlanta ran off seven straight victories. The Hawks have since soared past the Knicks and the Washington Wizards into the 10th spot — play-in territory. If the script sounds familiar, it should. Atlanta did nearly the same maneuver a year ago.

A coaching change was the inflection point for the Atlanta Hawks in 2021

Lloyd Pierce came to the Atlanta Hawks as their new head coach in May 2018, replacing the fired Mike Budenholzer. It was a rebuilding project that got its kickstart when the Hawks acquired Trae Young at the 2018 NBA Draft.

But Atlanta lost a lot in the early days under Pierce. The club went 29–53 in 2018–19 and slid backward in winning percentage during the pandemic-shortened 2019–20 campaign. Their 20–47 record didn’t earn them a spot at the Orlando bubble.

The Hawks started 10–9, but a 4–11 stretch ended Pierce’s tenure on March 1, 2021. Veteran NBA coach Nate McMillan moved up from the assistant ranks as interim head coach. Atlanta ran off eight straight wins on the way to a 27–11 finishing kick. Their 41–31 finish netted it the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Hawks ambushed the Knicks in five games in the first round before shocking the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinals. The eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks ended the Cinderella run in a six-game Eastern Conference Finals. McMillan earned the full-time gig, and optimism was high.

But there was trouble in the Peachtree paradise.

Could addition by subtraction be a real thing?

The Atlanta Hawks opened with three wins in their first four games. But eight losses in nine games sent them spiraling down the standings.

The streaky Hawks followed six consecutive losses with a seven-game winning streak. But they were just 5–9 in December and started January at a 1–6 clip.

Atlanta surprised the NBA when it traded young wing Cam Reddish to New York on Jan. 13. Then reports circulated that Reddish asked for a trade last summer. The Hawks lost their first two games after the trade before running off seven wins in a row. Toronto broke that streak with Young out because of a bruised shoulder.

Reddish’s value stems from his defense and potential. But he saw himself as a player that the Hawks did not. He reportedly wants the ball and sees himself as a prolific scorer in the mid-range. The statistics tell a vastly different tale.

And Atlanta’s defense was a mess even with Reddish around. Before the trade, the Hawks were 28th in the NBA, allowing 113.1 points per 100 possessions. Since Reddish’s departure to the Knicks, it’s not like they’ve transformed into a lockdown club. But their 111.9 defensive rating over their last 10 games is 17th in the league.

More importantly, their net rating of plus-6.3 in that span is sixth-best in the circuit, fueled by a fourth-ranked offense with a rating of 118.2. Before the trade, the offensive efficiency was 112.1 points per 100 possessions, a net rating of minus-1.0.

The improvement came from within the Atlanta Hawks

The return of De'Andre Hunter from a wrist injury and the trade of Cam Reddish seems to have given the Atlanta Hawks a boost.
The return of De’Andre Hunter from a wrist injury and the trade of Cam Reddish seems to have given the Atlanta Hawks a boost. | Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

It’s fair to assume that Kevin Knox, the ninth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, isn’t what sparked the turnaround for the Atlanta Hawks. He’s been a DNP-Coach’s Decision for four of Atlanta’s nine games since he passed his physical and logged only 35 minutes in the five games in which he did get off the bench.

De’Andre Hunter missed almost two months with a wrist injury before returning on Jan. 12. He’s started all 10 games since the Reddish trade and is second on the team, scoring 14.7 points per game. Hunter has shot 48.6% overall and hit 38.5% (15-of-39) from 3-point range. He’s topped 20 points four times in that span

Hunter is a stronger, more mature version of Reddish. The third-year pro is 24 and, at 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, is a versatile defender who can function as a small-ball 4 and still cover guards at the defensive end.

The Virginia product missed much of last season with a torn meniscus. He’s a better shooter than Reddish inside and outside the arc.

Few things can drag a team’s morale down more than having someone in the locker room whom everyone knows doesn’t want to be there. McMillan complimented Reddish for handling his situation professionally. But it’s hard not to notice the team’s improved performance since the young wing from Duke got his wish.

The Atlanta Hawks might have to fight through the play-in to make a second consecutive playoff appearance. They trail the Brooklyn Nets by five games for the sixth spot. But after a season full of ups and downs, the team appears to have everyone rowing in the same direction. That could make for another interesting second half of the season in the ATL.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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