Atlanta Hawks

Fact or Fiction: Assessing the Atlanta Hawks' ceiling following Eastern Conference Finals run

The Atlanta Hawks shocked the NBA world last season, making an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Coming up just two wins shy of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history since relocating to Atlanta, the Hawks will face lofty expectations heading into the 2021-22 season.

To get a sense of those expectations, our NBA.com Staff played a game of "Fact or Fiction" to discuss what to expect from the Hawks this upcoming year.

Last year's run to the Conference Finals was a fluke

Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): Fiction. The Hawks dealt with various injuries to key players all of last season and still found a way to stay afloat in the tightly-contested East. Their run to the Conference Finals was a product of everyone getting healthy at the right time, parlayed with the All-Star level production of star guard Trae Young, who took his game to another stratosphere in the playoffs.

You could make the argument that Atlanta was the deepest team in the NBA last season, going a legitimate eight-to-nine guys deep, even in the postseason when you typically shorten up your rotation. They had nine different players average double figures scoring and that shone through when it mattered most, with different players stepping up around Young each and every playoff game. That type of firepower was tough to contain.

Kane Pitman (@KanePitman): Fiction. Calling it a fluke would be a little too disrespectful for mine. However, I think it's reasonable to suggest they had a friendly path to get to the Conference Finals when you consider the implosion of the Philadelphia 76ers.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Hawks run was the fearlessness they played with in big moments which does project well into the future. Game 7 on the road against the Sixers and Game 1 on the road in Milwaukee were marquee wins in a really enjoyable run.

Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Fiction. Saying the Hawks' run was a fluke would be grossly underappreciating what they managed to do in the postseason.

To start, Atlanta clearly outmatched the New York Knicks, who they were able to eliminate in five games despite not having home court advantage. I understand the flaws that the Sixers had, but the Hawks were viewed as major underdogs and overcame the absence of De'Andre Hunter to eliminate the East's No. 1 seed.

Did some things shake Atlanta's way? Absolutely. But given the amount of comebacks they staged and the adversity they overcame, the Hawks put together a legitimate run.

Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): Fiction. That makes four of us. After Nate McMillan took over midway through the season, the Hawks looked like a different team, posting a 27-11 record the rest of the way and more importantly, there was a real sense of clarity around everyone's role heading into the postseason.

Beating the Knicks wasn't entirely a surprise, perhaps the manner in which they did it caught people off guard. And while the 76ers were rightly favourites to win that series, the confidence and momentum the Hawks took into that series made an upset look more likely with each game.

The Hawks are a title contender this year

Irving: Fact. Again, this team went to the Eastern Conference Finals last season and they didn't get any worse this offseason. They took care of their biggest box to check, which was re-signing rising star forward John Collins. Their entire core of Young, Collins, Clint Capela, De'Andre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter and Lou Williams are back. Cam Reddish and Onyeka Okongwu are a bit more experienced. They brought in some new pieces who can make an impact like Delon Wright. I think rookie forward Jalen Johnson may shock people with how quickly he can make an impact.

This Hawks team isn't going anywhere any time soon.

Pitman: Fiction. I think it's fair to assume Atlanta will be in the mix for home court advantage in the first round but calling them a title contender is premature.

As Kyle points out, the Hawks are deep, but is there a genuine second star in the bunch? We know what Young can do, he delivered on the big stage last season but one or two of the young core are going to have to take a significant step for the Hawks to threaten Brooklyn and Milwaukee to come out of the East.

A playoff lock, but not yet a title contender.

McGregor: Fiction. I'm pretty high on the Hawks and think they have one of the most talented rosters in the league, but they are still young and in the Eastern Conference hierarchy, it's the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and everyone else.

Atlanta could show me something that changes my mind, but I think it's a year or two away from title contention, provided it continues to advance in the right direction.

Kidane: Fiction. The Hawks are bringing back the same core again this season, but it will be a tall order fighting their way out of the Eastern Conference this season.

The Nets are healthy and improved, the Bucks are the reigning champs for a reason and the Miami Heat took a big leap in the offseason. As it stands the Hawks could finish as good as third or fourth in the East, but come playoff time, the experience of those three squads makes it tough to see the Hawks get out of the East.

Trae Young will be an All-NBA team candidate

Irving: Fact. It seems crazy to say considering Young didn't even make the All-Star team last year - which was a snub, by the way - but I don't see why he can't make an All-NBA team this year. It's extremely hard to crack a spot as a guard, but if Young plays the way he did last postseason and the Hawks remain among the top teams in the Eastern Conference then he'll be impossible to ignore for an All-NBA selection. My guess would be Atlanta has to finish with a top three or four record in the East, though.

Pitman: Fact. Of course he will be a candidate. The Hawks are expected to push for 50 wins and Young will produce his usual explosive scoring with regularity.

Rememberm though, even Devin Booker missed out last season. With Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal and Chris Paul providing the competition there are only so many spots available.

McGregor: Fact. He'll have his work cut out for him, though.

In theory, Young would just have to be one of the league's six best guards to do so, but given the names that Kane listed above, it's much easier said than done. For what it's worth, we ranked each of those seven guards above Young in our preseason ranking of top 30 NBA Players, so Young would have to leap a few to get the nod. And honestly, as a 23-year-old entering his fourth season, that's good company to be in. The leap is coming.

Kidane: Fact. He'll definitely be in the mix, but the maths of six guard spots has seen extremely talented players miss out in the past.

Having said that, Young's ability to create offence both for himself and his teammates is now translating to winning basketball and that will make it hard for voters to ignore. He's already one of the best offensive players in the league and last season, he was the only player in the NBA to average at least 25 points and nine assists, with his 9.4 dimes per game behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

If he can take his game up a notch and the Hawks win 50 games, it will be hard to leave him out.

John Collins is the Hawks' second-most important player

Irving: Fact. As much as I want to ride the fence with this one and say he and Capela are equal in value to the team, that's not what this exercise is about. As great as Capela is - and he's probably the best rebounder in the NBA - I still think Collins is more important. He's the more versatile defender, he's a more versatile pick-and-roll threat and he helps space the floor for Young with his 3-point shooting ability when he's not involved in the play. When Collins is at his best, Atlanta's ceiling is drastically higher.

Pitman: Fact. He probably should be based on the $125 million contract he just signed. He can shoot the 3, finish around the basket and hit the glass. The production was down a little last season but his efficiency remained around the same mark. At times it probably felt like the sudden increased depth on the roster hurt his own individual game but he should be better prepared coming into the second season with the group. I mentioned earlier the Hawks really need a second star to emerge to take the next step. Perhaps Collins is the guy?

McGregor: Fact. When I think back to Atlanta's postseason run, it feels like the team's best performances came on nights where Collins was the team's second-best player.

It feels like an arbitrary fact, but through 10 playoff games in 2021, the Hawks were 7-0 when Collins sank at least one triple and 0-3 when he failed to connect from deep. That stat alone speaks to the importance of his versatility as a stretchy big man that also is an ideal lob partner for Young and, as Kyle mentioned above, versatile in the pick-and-roll.

For Atlanta, the most exciting part should be that Collins has room to blossom into an even more complete player.

Kidane: Fact. Collins is supposed to be that guy and last season he really stepped into that role in the biggest moments. Whether it was a timely 3-pointer or a big defensive play, the Hawks look unguardable when both Young and Collins are on fire.

We know how important Clint Capela is to the Hawks' success, but Collins offers them so much more variety on the offensive end and when defences are focused on slowing him down, it allows their perimeter players in Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter and Young to create even easier looks from the outside.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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