Led by Trae Young, the Atlanta Hawks began this season with more buzz than the city’s best lemon pepper wings. They were a quality young League Pass team who’d matured into an Eastern Conference heavyweight overnight. The 2021 postseason served as the setting for Young’s glow-up from empty calorie stat-sheet stuffer into a bona-fide superstar.
Expectations for the Hawks 2021-22 season soared after they ricocheted into the Eastern Conference Finals last postseason. First, Trae Young lobotomized the Knicks in a 4-1 gentlemen’s sweep. In the semifinals, Young then sent the Sixers spiraling for the next nine months, and in the Eastern Conference finals, went mano-a-mano for six games against the eventual champion Bucks. In October, they returned more undercooked than Paula Patton’s fried chicken.
A Hawks team that was projected to contend with the East’s top teams has been on the verge of sending a rep to the draft lottery instead. Meanwhile, Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies have ascended to a level we expected the Hawks to attain first, creating the perception that Young was lagging behind his peers.
It’s possible Young won’t be named to an All-NBA team despite averaging nearly 28 points and 10 assists because of the narrative that the Hawks have underperformed. Amazingly, Young has never been named to an All-NBA team, and if voting NBA media members punish the Hawks point guard the same way they penalized Jayson Tatum for a subpar Celtics campaign in 2021, it could cost him $30 million. In reality, Trae Young has improved on everything he has become synonymous with. He’s still a pyromaniac on the offensive end, averaging career-high averages in points, assists, 3-point shooting percentage, field-goal percentage and just generally setting scoreboards ablaze.
However, the core group hasn’t evolved with him. After April 1, last season, Bogdan Bogdanović averaged 22.0 points per game while shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 49.5 percent on 3s and 88.9 percent at the charity stripe. That’s the Bogdan Atlanta needs instead of what it got, someone whose effective field-goal percentage has dipped 7 percent from last season.
At some point, Kevin Huerter or De’Andre Hunter have to leap the gulf between promising young players and supporting stars on a playoff team. Atlanta’s second-leading scorer, John Collins, has played only six games in the last two months because of a plantar fascia tear and a right ring finger sprain.
One of the signature moments of their run was Cam Reddish’s 21 points and 6-of-7 shooting from 3-point range in 29 minutes in Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks. Reddish’s breakout became a fixed point for Hawks fans to rest their hopes on. When Reddish was drafted, he was pegged as an All-Star-in-waiting. If you drank the Kool-Aid, his upside was compared to Tracy McGrady’s. In 118 games throughout three seasons, Reddish shot 38.5 percent from the field, averaging 11.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.1 steals in 26.3 minutes per game. At the midpoint of this season, the Hawks had seen enough and on Jan. 13, they traded Reddish to the New York Knicks for Kevin Knox and a 2022 first-round pick.
During the first half of the season, the Hawks were getting cooked defensively and allowing 116.1 points per 100 possessions, the 3rd-worst rate in the league. Since Jan. 15, right after the Hawks traded Reddish to the Knicks, the Hawks have been a middle-of-the-pack defense, ranking 14th in points-per-possession, allowing 114.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Supplemented by Young steering the NBA’s second-best offense, Atlanta has cranked out the NBA’s fifth-ranked scoring differential since Jan. 15.
In November, Young pinned the slow start on their nihilistic realization that the regular season was meaningless.
“It’s the regular season. I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot more boring than the playoffs. You’ve got to find that motivation to play like the playoffs,” Young admitted to The Ringer’s Seerat Sohi.
As the playoffs approach, there are signs that Young and the Hawks are building motivation and momentum. Between Dec. 10 and March 16, the Hawks hovered at or below .500. Winning six of their last seven games since March 25 has positioned them four games over .500 heading into the final weekend of their regular season. Last season’s 27-11 finish after Lloyd Pierce was fired, looks eerily like this year’s post-Cam Reddish 25-13 record.
The Hawks are finally making their move. However, they have even less room for error than in 2021. Atlanta sits at 9th in the East, one game ahead of the Charlotte Hornets, but has an identical 42-38 record as the Brooklyn Nets. Young wanted the postseason; he’ll get to it earlier than most. The Play-in games will be the playoff atmosphere Young asked for. If this doesn’t awaken the young Hawks, nothing will.