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Hawks, Trae Young, Knicks

Trae Young, Hawks are the biggest stealth contenders in the East

It’s understandable and even smart to root for either the Philadelphia 76ers or the Brooklyn Nets as the ones who’ll represent the East in the NBA Finals. They have been on a tear for pretty much the entire season. If you’re familiar with some NBA history, the top teams in the regular season are usually the ones who win the chip. However, we also know how unpredictable things can get in the league.

Just look at the Miami Heat last season, who entered the playoffs as the fifth seed but made it all the way to the NBA Finals. As such, we cannot discount the possibility of a mid-tier team representing the East. You might be thinking of the New York Knicks which is reasonable, but a look at the recent performance of the Atlanta Hawks indicates that they might be the biggest stealth contenders in the East.

As an introduction, it’s important to point out that the Hawks parted ways with Lloyd Pierce in March after their horrendous 14-20 start to the 2020-21 NBA season. It was a surprise move given that Pierce was key in the development of the likes of Trae Young and John Collins. But such doubts were cast aside after they started piling up the victories under Nate McMillan, including an eight-game winning streak right off the bat.

As of writing, the Hawks hold a decent 39-31 record for fifth in the East. This leads to a key question: what if the Hawks made the coaching change earlier? Would they be somewhere in the top three of the East with analysts raving about their chances to win it all?

We can never have the answers to these questions, but it’s an interesting thought to toy with. Perhaps the Hawks, given their core of Young, Collins, Kevin Hurter and De’Andre Hunter–who has been together for quite some time–have established a good identity as a team. The guidance of veterans Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo (now Lou Williams), and Clint Capela boosted this and now we see a solid group.

It’s unfortunate how the media doesn’t rave much about the Hawks. It’s probably because they’re not a historic franchise with an epic fan base like the Knicks. Nonetheless, the Hawks’ records show that they’re an excellent franchise. They’re set to make a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2017. From a broader perspective, this will mark their 11th playoff appearance over the last 14 seasons. This speaks volumes on how the winning culture is deeply integrated into the organization.

The last few weeks, too, have been terrific for Young and Co. They’ve won five of their last six games, including convincing and dominant victories over the Portland Trail Blazers and the Phoenix Suns—two Western titans who are considered stealth contenders themselves.

From the point of view of advanced statistics, the Hawks look mighty impressive as well. As of writing, they have a 114.2 offensive rating (9th overall) and a 112.6 defensive rating (21st). Together, this gives the Hawks a net rating of 1.6 for 12th in the league which isn’t too shabby.

The defensive ratings might raise some eyebrows. There’s a ton of truth in the adage that defense wins championships. Regardless, the Hawks are still a developing team. Their last few games show much promise that they might be peaking at the right time. Come the postseason, we may see Atlanta in their full form. Let’s not forget that McMillan is a veteran coach with loads of playoff experience. Even in the most intense and high-octane situations, McMillan knows how to remain calm and execute.

Apart from McMillan, expect the voices of Williams, Capela, and Gallinari to be the loudest among the bunch. They’ve been in the postseason plenty of times in their careers, and they know the dynamics of these games.

We’re not forcing everyone to believe or expect the Hawks to make a deep playoff run, kick out the 76ers and the Nets in the process, and beat whoever comes out in the West. Rather, we don’t want anyone to be caught off guard if the Hawks suddenly turn things up a notch in the playoffs. They’re a very talented team prodded by a hungry young core and an experienced coach. If things don’t pan out for them this season, then don’t expect the team to suddenly disappear out of contention. All the losses will be charged to experience and will be turned into fuel to ignite the fire.

From this day forward, the Hawks will and should only keep on rising.