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How The Atlanta Hawks Became The East’s Hottest Team

As the early March NBA All-Star break approached, the Atlanta Hawks sat at 14-20 and had just fired head coach Lloyd Pierce as they sat at the bottom of the play-in picture, a far cry from where expectations had been set in the offseason after some big spending in free agency.

Injuries played a significant role in the Hawks early struggles, as they were without many of those big signings, with Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, and Kris Dunn all missing significant time (and Dunn having yet to make his debut), as well as some of their young core pieces, most notably De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. All of that, coupled with being one of the league’s worst fourth quarter teams, spelled disaster and eventually led to Nate McMillan being elevated to interim head coach. Given the way the team has responded to the former Blazers and Pacers coach, one would think he will have a great chance of having the interim tag removed at the end of the season and be given a contract as the full-time head coach.

The Hawks are 15-5 since the coaching change, and while some of that is the result of a soft schedule early in his tenure, the recent results prove this is more than a team taking advantage of lesser opponents. Atlanta has won 7 of their last 10 to climb to fourth in the East, a half game clear of the division rival Heat for homecourt advantage in a first round series.

Getting healthier has been a big help, with Bogdanovic providing a significant lift over the last month-plus as he’s been the sharpshooter they hoped they were getting when they inked him to an $18 million a year deal in free agency. The former King is now shooting 40.1 percent from three on the season, including a preposterous 51.7 percent so far in seven games in April, as he finally looks fully healthy. Bogdanovic gives the Hawks a much-needed go-to scorer when Trae Young isn’t in the game — as was the case in their win without the star guard on Sunday in Charlotte — and while the two are still working out exactly how to work best together, you can see how Bogdanovic’s presence can take advantage of the gravity Young creates.

Their other big signing who is still in town, Danilo Gallinari, has also come to life over the last two months. After a dreadful February, the veteran forward has likewise morphed back into a lethal offensive weapon (16.1 points per game on 46/43.4/93.5 shooting since March 1), and the Hawks are bludgeoning opponents when he’s on the floor. Since McMillan took over, the Hawks have a +12.6 net rating when Gallinari is on the court (114.9 ORtg/102.3 DRtg) compared to a +0.4 net rating when he sits (115.8/115.4). Given Gallinari looked awful defensively early on, it’s rather stunning to see how much better they’ve been with him on the floor, but he’s moving much better than he was early on when he had nagging injuries and seems to be much more comfortable with what he’s being asked to do.

On offense, he’s doing exactly what the Hawks need him to do, which is to put immense stress on defenses in pick-and-pop action, particularly with Young and Bogdanovic. When defenses overcommit to Young or Bogdanovic, Gallinari ends up with a wide open three and now that he’s hitting those at well over 40 percent, it makes life incredibly hard for opponents.

Maybe most importantly, the improved play of their veterans — which also must include other less-heralded offseason additions like Tony Snell (the NBA’s best three-point shooter this season at 57.1 percent) and Solomon Hill — has allowed the Hawks to succeed even when Young doesn’t play, something that hasn’t been the case since the third-year guard arrived in Atlanta. Young has always been the sun, moon, and stars for the Hawks, and when he sat, the team often bottomed out. Their desperation for a capable offense when Young wasn’t playing was one of the chief reasons for the moves they made this past offseason, and also why Rondo was flipped for Lou Williams at the deadline after his early struggles in Atlanta. Over the last 20 games, that’s paid off as the Hawks, for the first time ever, boast a positive net rating even when Young leaves the floor. The offense gets worse, no doubt (119.5 to 108.3) but the defensive improvement makes up for that (113.1 to 104.0) to allow the Hawks to hold on to any advantage they build when their star isn’t playing.

However, no one has had a bigger impact on the Hawks recent run than Clint Capela, who has been nothing short of sensational for the Hawks all season. He has been the defensive anchor for the Hawks all season, and the way he elevates lineups loaded with offensive talent into being not just passable bout downright good defensive lineups is incredible. Hawks fans have, rightfully, called on Capela to be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, and while he may not earn those honors his work on the defensive end of the floor, particularly during this run has been nothing short of terrific. His instincts on when to rotate and contest are among the best in the league, illustrated beautifully by this denial of a lob to Zion Williamson, a man few are successful at deterring at the rim.

Trae Young gets completely taken out of the play by a great screen from Zion, left in chase mode as he scrambles back to Bledsoe who draws Solomon Hill on the rotation and tosses a lob to Williamson who has no one between he and the rim on the baseline. At the moment the lob goes up, Capela has his foot on the far side of the restricted area, preventing a lob to Adams from the dunker’s spot. This is, against most teams, a thunderous Zion dunk.

Twitter/ATLHawks

However, Capela rotates over with an efficiency of movement to take one step across the restricted area and jump off two feet, with near perfect verticality, to stuff Zion before he can cleanly make the catch and go for a dunk. That ability to erase mistakes made on the perimeter at the rim is something the Hawks were banking on when they went out and signed offense-first players this offseason, and Capela is making good on the promise he showed in Houston prior to his heel injury. His help defense has always been a known commodity, but where he really helps the Hawks is in the pick-and-roll game, where he’s agile and quick enough to play higher in drop coverage to at least present himself to the ball-handler and long enough to drift back to his man to take away the lob while also being capable of protecting the rim should the ball-handler go for a layup. This play against Zach LaVine illustrates that ability beautifully.

Capela is, simply put, putting forth a sensational defensive effort this season, leading the team with 2.2 blocks per game. However, he’s not just lording over the paint on the defensive end, but giving the Hawks terrific two-way play as well. On offense, the vertical spacing he provides as a roll man and lob threat fits perfectly with the Hawks perimeter options. When Capela shares the floor with any two of the Hawks’ best, healthy perimeter players — Young, Bogdanovic, Gallinari, and Huerter — the Hawks boast an offensive rating of at least 120, which is stupendous. He’s an excellent screener, creating space for Young to get downhill where he is a nightmare for opponents because of his ability to finish floaters, toss lobs, pass to almost anywhere outside the arc, or create contact to get to the free throw line.

On top of being an elite lob threat, Capela also is the league’s best offensive rebounder at 4.7 per game, extending possessions and converting putback opportunities at a great clip.

Those three are the new additions to this year’s Hawks having the greatest impact, and it’s allowed Trae Young and John Collins to continue to do what they do best. Collins’ fit with the new-look Hawks was a question mark entering the season and led to trade rumors up to the deadline, but throughout the uncertainty about his future in Atlanta as he heads into restricted free agency summer, he’s plodded along playing great basketball. He’s currently sidelined with an ankle injury and has missed the last seven games, but prior to that he was still shooting from the perimeter at a great clip (38 percent from three) and while Capela eats up some of his space at the rim, thus dropping his two-point efficiency, he adjusted well to a different role and continues producing (18.2 ppg).

Young is also posting nearly identical numbers to last year in everything but points and shots, as he’s ceded a few shots (and thus points) each game to Bogdanovic and Gallinari for the betterment of the team. He is almost the exact same offensive player as a year ago, just with a better supporting cast and, shockingly, that makes both he and the Hawks look suddenly much better. Young’s abilities as a facilitator open up opportunities for everyone else, and the attention he receives necessitates that he be quick in his decision-making to find the open man when teams double. Happily for the Hawks, he’s tremendous at that and often gets his teammates high percentage looks both inside and out.

Take these two passes against hard doubles, one to Capela at the rim and the other to Gallinari behind the three-point line, both from the same game against the Bulls.

On the first, Young stretches the defense as far as he can, drawing three defenders towards him and pulling Nikola Vucevic out beyond the three-point line, but has the strength (maybe the biggest upgrade we’ve seen from Young this season) to push past Vucevic to create the angle to rifle a pass to Capela, as Lauri Markkanen has to stick at the top of the key to prevent a pass to a shooter. The next play, which came shortly after the first, shows why you have to protect against that, as Patrick Williams and Markkanen double Young off the pick-and-pop on the elbow and he fires a perfect behind the back dime to the popping Gallinari.

Young can be an exceedingly frustrating player for opponents, as no one is better at getting themselves to the foul line — and as such, opposing fans have soured on him — but he has grown more trusting in his teammates as he’s logged more time with them. Young is averaging three points fewer per game under McMillan than he did under Pierce, due in large part to having his co-stars healthy, and having more options around Young has provided a much needed boost to the Hawks fourth quarter production.

Since March 1, the Hawks have a +16.2 net rating in the fourth quarter, a dramatic turnaround from the -8.2 net rating they had in the first half of the season. That improvement is, in part, because in the fourth quarters of the last 20 games, Atlanta is shooting 42 percent from three-point range, up from 34.8 percent from deep in the fourth quarter over the first 34 games. Their hot shooting late in games understandably garners the most interest, but they have the second best fourth quarter defense since March 1 (103.6 DRtg), trailing only the Sixers, as they have figured things out on that end. Where Pierce had seemed to be tuned out by the Hawks by the time he was let go, McMillan has their full attention and is getting them to play with maximum effort on that end. Part of that comes with simply getting more time on the court together and a comfort in rotations and knowing who will be where and how to execute the defense, but sometimes having a different voice, even if what they’re being asked to do isn’t wildly different, can make a big difference.

The answer to “how are the Hawks doing this?” isn’t one thing, but the combination of a lot of players finally being healthy, comfortable in their roles, and playing their best basketball.

The adjustments for veterans like Bogdanovic and Gallinari to playing with someone like Young are pretty big, but they’re showing now how they can all fit together in this puzzle — and most impressively, doing so on both ends of the floor. The depth they had created this offseason but was stripped away due to injuries is finally showing up, and allowing them to be much more consistent no matter what group is on the floor. They have a legit offensive superstar in Young, a defensive centerpiece in Capela, and plenty of capable, talented players learning how to orbit those two one each end of the floor.

The Hawks won’t be favored whenever they match up with one of the East’s top 3 squads, but after an offseason of hype and the first half of disappointment, this is a team that suddenly looks dangerous. They have the pieces to make anyone sweat in a series, and if the shots keep going in, who knows how far they can go.

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