One season after making a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Atlanta Hawks had an opportunity to cement their status as an emerging contender in the NBA. They’ve bungled that chance so far. Still, Trae Young isn’t the least bit concerned.
It wasn’t long ago that the Hawks were seen as underdogs against the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers in the first two rounds of the 2021 playoffs. Atlanta conquered both challenges and silenced the critics. Now, with his season hanging in the balance, Young is calling on past experience as a means of remaining calm and instilling confidence within himself and his teammates.
The Hawks have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the NBA this season
At times, the Hawks have looked like the team that came within two wins of reaching the NBA Finals last season.
After falling to 17-25 on Jan. 15, Atlanta ripped off eight wins in its next nine games. The Hawks clawed their way back into the postseason hunt and looked ready to soar in the final few months of the season.
It hasn’t happened.
The Hawks lost four of five immediately after that 8-1 stretch. They won consecutive games before the All-Star break, but have gone 3-2 since and are coming off a horrendous loss against the Detroit Pistons, with Trae Young shooting a wretched 5-of-20 in that contest.
Some of this can be attributed to injuries. John Collins missed seven straight games between Feb. 13 and March 3, depriving the Hawks of a vital frontcourt piece. Still, the same issues keep plaguing Atlanta.
Young’s brilliance has steered the Hawks to the second-best offensive rating in the NBA. However, Atlanta ranks 27th in defensive rating. It gives up tons of points in the paint because Young and other guards struggle to contain ball-handlers at the point of attack.
But while the defensive issues lend themselves to skepticism, Young remains steadfast in his belief that the Hawks can make a run.
Trae Young thinks the Hawks can recover
Nobody can place expectations on the Hawks that Young doesn’t already have himself.
Ice Trae dished on Atlanta’s struggles during an interview with The Athletic. He said he “always” has high hopes for himself and his team. The All-Star point guard also explained that past successes have helped him block out all the noise.
Indeed, that contextualization has Young feeling like the Hawks can make a run.
“I’ve been doubted before and beat the odds. I knew last year that no one picked us to beat the Knicks. Nobody expected us to beat Philly. We beat those odds. We were six games in, almost beating the champions. I feel like we can beat anybody if you put us in a seven-game series and give us a chance to look at you. We have talent and smart-enough guys to make some noise. I feel confident.”–Trae Young, via The Athletic
The Hawks can score against just about any team. They also have marquee wins against some of the top contenders in the NBA.
Atlanta is 2-0 against the Milwaukee Bucks. It has split the season series (2-2) with the Boston Celtics while going 2-1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Hawks also have wins over the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Phoenix Suns.
Still, Atlanta has to find a rhythm, particularly on defense. Young has to find a way to ramp up his defensive efforts.
Can Young be part of the solution
In many respects, Trae Young’s offensive value practically negates his defensive shortcomings.
The Hawks score 118.3 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor, 8.1 points more than when he sits. They are outscoring opponents by 1.9 points per 100 possessions with Ice Trae in the game even though they concede an additional 5.5 points per 100 possessions when he mans the point.
That said, Atlanta needs more from Young defensively.
The Hawks cannot solely rely on Clint Capela, Onyeka Okongwu, and John Collins to protect the paint and consistently offer weak-side protection. They must do a better job of keeping ball-handlers out of the restricted area and orchestrating cleaner switches.
Much of that depends on communication and spatial awareness, two areas where Young has typically struggled. Atlanta tries to hide him on that end of the floor, but he sometimes gets lost off the ball and exposes himself to cutters getting into the lane and sparking ball movement.
Internal improvements should help the Hawks. De’Andre Hunter continues to play his way into shape. Capela and Okongwu have tremendous interior value. If Atlanta creates more turnovers, it can find more success. Still, all arrows point to Ice Trae.
Young might still have faith in the Hawks’ ability to make a deep playoff run, but he must show more engagement if they hope to reach their ceiling.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.