Nate the Great and the New-Look, Good Vibes Atlanta Hawks

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Photo courtesy of NBA

Hawks head coach Nate McMillan.

Thomas Rice, Staff Writer

Last December, I wrote an article about my beloved Atlanta Hawks, in which I projected them to finish about eighth in the Eastern Conference. At the time of writing, the Hawks sit at fifth in the East standings, even by record with the 4th place, shockingly good, New York Knicks. But, to paraphrase the immortal words of David Byrne, how did we get here?

On March 1, Atlanta was eleventh in the East, and had severely underperformed its way into a 14-20 record. Fourth quarter collapses were frequent, and the offense just wasn’t clicking like it should have, given the talent on display. Then, a turnaround began. Since March 1, Atlanta has lost only 8 of its 28 games played (as I am writing this, the team seems on its way to a blowout loss at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers, but let’s be positive here), and has become one of the NBA’s best fourth quarter teams, authoring multiple late comebacks, most significant among them an April 25 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks while the Hawks were missing their best player, guard Trae Young, to injury. 

The largest, most obvious, and most significant change that has occurred since that fateful March day, is the firing of coach Lloyd Pierce and the interim hiring of his replacement, veteran coach Nate McMillan. First of all, this is not a piece made to bash Pierce. Not only is he beloved by other coaches and did a great job in the city of Atlanta working on voting initiatives, he is also, very notably, not a horrible basketball coach. He had his flaws, yes, but he was also a first-time head coach managing a newly-talented team that faced constant injuries and had to integrate a host of new players on the fly with no training camp. Few would envy his position. That being said, McMillan has truly been the man for the job. Being an experienced coach, he has whipped the Hawks into shape, creating better, more complex and effective offensive sets, as well as organizing the defense and getting players (Young most notable among them) to buy in on that end. The team looks more fluid, more connected, and has better chemistry with McMillan at the helm. 

McMillan hasn’t been the only factor rocketing Atlanta to success, though. On that note, I must first talk about Bogdan Bogdanović. The Serbian has been an absolute revelation under McMillan, and has shown himself well worth the massive contract he signed in the offseason. His value and talent relies on two incredibly important aspects of his game. First, shooting. So far in April, Bogdanović has shot nearly 50% from three on more than nine attempts a game. He has 66 made threes in the month, good for most in the league during that span by anyone not named Wardell Stephen Curry II. The value of Bogdanović’s shooting, though, isn’t entirely encompassed in his sheer accuracy. His movement without the ball in his hands makes him ideal to play alongside a ball-dominant creator like Young. His constant movement and ability to make his defender chase him around screens is masterful, almost Klay Thompson-esque. In addition to his off-ball talent, Bogi, as he is sometimes referred to, is a good ball handler, and can lead the bench unit when Young is off the court. In many ways, without Young on the floor, Bogdanović becomes a true point guard, running pick-and-rolls and creating for his teammates much in the same way Young does. While Bogdanović isn’t quite the passer or shot creator that Young is, he has made up some of that deficit with his absurdly accurate shot, which has led to Young-less minutes shifting from major negatives for the Hawks to minor positives in recent games. In my opinion, the greatest issue in Pierce’s time as head coach was Bogdanović’s lack of usage (although it must be noted he only played 9 games under that regime before getting injured), but McMillan has truly utilized him to the fullest. All of this came to a head in the aforementioned game against the Bucks, where Bogi rode a flaming hot fourth quarter into thirty-two points and six made threes. Add to his offensive qualities the fact that he is a solid defender, with incredibly long arms and good competitiveness on that end, and it is clear that Bogdanović is the secondary playmaker that Atlanta has been looking for ever since drafting Young in 2018. 

It is also important to note the only actual roster change that occurred since McMillan was hired. Point guard Rajan Rondo, one of Atlanta’s free agent acquisitions over the offseason, was unloaded to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for another veteran guard, Lou Williams, along with two second-round picks in a trade that, while it makes sense from Los Angeles’ perspective, still looks like highway robbery to Atlanta. Rondo has certainly become an impact player for the Clippers, but that is in sharp contrast to how he was playing in Atlanta, where he was ineffective and at times outright horrible. Lou Williams, also known as Sweet Lou, Lou Will, Fourth Quarter Lou, and Lemon Pepper Lou, however, has been exactly what Rondo wasn’t for the Hawks. The Gwinnett native is a constant scoring threat and has incredible chemistry with rookie Onyeka Okongwu, another player surging as of late, in the pick-and-roll. His role as backup point guard also meshes well with Bogdanović, and he is another reason the bench has turned it around so abruptly. 

Then, there are the rest of the Hawks. While Bogdanović has made the most notable leap since February, most Hawks have enjoyed newfound success under their new coach, with Young and forward John Collins being the only players to remain mostly steady, but they were playing rather well anyway. Danilo Gallinari has found his groove shooting the ball, and has been another effective scoring option off the bench. Clint Capela has been rock-solid all season, but has garnered more attention for his All-Defense level performance as Atlanta has won more games. Okongwu was mentioned earlier, and he has developed over the course of the season into a good defensive center while also showing more ability to be a quality player on offense, too. Veteran forwards Solomon Hill and Tony Snell have contributed far more than was expected of them heading into the season, with Hill providing tough, hardy defense and Snell shooting the air out of the ball (Snell, if he finishes the season with enough shots to qualify for the minimum requirements, could be the first player in NBA history to shoot 50% from three, 50% on field goals, and 100% from the free throw line over the course of the season). Fringe players have filled their roles admirably, too. Brandon Goodwin has injected energy and playmaking as Young has missed time, and rookie Nathan Knight has been serviceable in the absences of power forwards Gallinari and Collins. 

But that’s the tangible, quantifiable basketball performance. What has most surprised me has been the atmosphere around the Hawks. There were reports before and after he was fired that Pierce was disliked by Atlanta’s players, Young and Collins among them, and that showed on the court. There was a lack of chemistry, of fun, about the team. They didn’t look like they were enjoying playing basketball, so it wasn’t enjoyable to watch. I am happy to report, though, that the team that was suspected to have chemistry issues seems to have pulled it all together. I can’t really quantify it exactly, but just seeing Young’s reaction to his teammates’ big plays on the sideline as he has been injured, or hearing Williams joke about how much he dislikes afternoon matchups in a post-game interview, or seeing Hill and Goodwin tweeting jokes after games makes me feel better about the team’s earlier perceived internal struggles.

I’ll just finish with this, as the 76ers are now truly blowing out the Hawks (an important caveat is that Young and Bogdanović are injured, along with wings De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, who have missed entire months of games this season): if you lost interest in this team earlier in the season, frustrated by their performance, or you haven’t been following them this year at all, I would recommend another look. This team is getting really, really fun.