With the Eastern Conference housing only a handful of good teams this year, could the upstart Atlanta Hawks slip back into the postseason?
When Kawhi Leonard took his straightforward trash talk and delightful chuckle to the suddenly-competent LA Clippers a couple of months ago, he didn’t just eradicate the repeat chances of his former team, the Toronto Raptors.
He also re-opened the playoff window for teams like the Atlanta Hawks.
With Leonard back in the Western Conference and injuries to stars like Kevin Durant and Victor Oladipo, the Eastern Conference’s brief renaissance is on a temporary hiatus.
The Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks remain the favorites to reach the Finals, but rest of the teams on this side of the NBA ledger provoke as much excitement as a Mike McCarthy-coached NFL offense.
The Leonard-less Raptors will likely settle into the “feisty playoff team” role, a spot they will share with the Miami Heat — who acquired two-way star wing Jimmy Butler this offseason — and the Boston Celtics — who replaced Kyrie Irving with a less talented, but less space cadet-y doppelganger in Kemba Walker.
Everyone else is either tanking or will make the playoffs via attrition.
So, where does that leave the Hawks, a team that isn’t positioning themselves for another high lottery pick but still has legitimate questions regarding how good they are and can be?
Well, as with a lot of things concerning these Hawks, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
There is plenty to like about this Hawks team; newly extended general manager and team president Travis Schlenk has surrounded promising point guard Trae Young with an assembly line of Swiss army knife wings and if Young and budding star John Collins continue on their upward trajectory to stardom, this club that started drawing the outlines of a great offense last year could paint a bucket-getting Mona Lisa.
Do you really think that a roster comprised of Young, Collins, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter is worse than whatever the Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets, or New York Knicks plan on trotting out to their respective courts this year?
Are the Brooklyn Nets, whose championship aspirations are on layaway while prized acquisition Durant recovers from his Achilles injury, that much better than the Hawks? How about the Chicago Bulls, who will probably be ground into dust by Jim Boylan come December?
Or the Washington Wizards, who have been a shining example of ineptitude for the better part of at least two decades? It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the Hawks finishing above all of those clubs and making the 16-team tournament.
Before you rubber-stamp the Hawks as a certified playoff team, however, you should know that this outfit has an equal, if not greater, chance to finish where they did last year.
The folks at ESPN and FiveThirtyEight didn’t project this bunch as a 30- to-34-win group because of some deep-seated bias against the organization.
Despite their promise, there are enough caution signs sprinkled throughout this roster to derail any playoff hopes, no matter how lofty.
Let’s not forget that this offense’s results often failed to match its aesthetic beauty last year; they ranked near the bottom of the league in offensive rating, pick-and-roll efficiency, off-ball screen efficiency, transition efficiency, and made open 3’s in 2018-19.
Defensively, they were even worse.
Some of their summer moves left some scratching their heads.
Swapping Kent Bazemore‘s expiring contract for Evan Turner‘s equally bloated one makes some sense — they will need a secondary initiator to play alongside Young and take over when he needs a breather — but bringing in defense-optional swingman Jabari Parker did not.
Ask the Bulls and the Wizards how much Parker’s ball-dominant style helped them win games. And most troubling of all, this entire operation hinges on the development of an undersized, streaky-shooting guard who offers the defensive resistance of a traffic cone.
But guess what? Most of the other Eastern Conference clubs have a lot of the same questions clouding their 2019-20 season. Which is kind of the point: outside of Milwaukee, Philly, and to a lesser extent, Boston, Toronto, and Miami, these teams could finish anywhere in the standings.
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Except for the LOLKnicks and maybe the Cavs, every other team in the East is a breakout performance or two away from making the same surprise leap that the Magic did last year. And if those teams are capable of it, then so are the Hawks.