The Atlanta Hawks entered the 2020-21 NBA season with tangible expectations for the first time since 2016-17. President of basketball operations Travis Schlenk handed out sizable contracts to multiple veteran players, headlined by Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, and prior to the end of the 2019-20 campaign, the Hawks sneakily acquired Clint Capela in a four-team swap for a modest price. With those new faces pairing with Atlanta’s intriguing young core, playoffs were the expectation for the Hawks but, through 34 games, the team wasn’t meeting those newfound expectations.
As such, the Hawks moved on from head coach Lloyd Pierce on March 1, and that decision came just days after Pierce acknowledged that a move like that could be coming in the future. At the time of the firing, Atlanta was 14-20 and actually in the middle of the race for the play-in, but with injuries and reported discontent behind the scenes, leadership felt that was the best time to pull the trigger. Veteran coach Nate McMillan was elevated from assistant to interim head coach and, well, the Hawks have been rolling since then.
It must be acknowledged that Atlanta’s schedule hasn’t been a murderer’s row during this recent stretch, especially when accounting for available rosters, but the Hawks went from the middle of the play-in discussion to a real chance to earn home-court advantage in the first round, all within five weeks.
The Hawks are 12-4 in their last 16 games, including an 8-0 start to the McMillan era. Though Atlanta had a couple of frustrating losses on a recent road trip, the team managed to navigate an eight-game journey out West with a highly respectable 4-4 record and, in the last 16 games, they own a dazzling +6.1 net rating buoyed by an offense that is scoring 116.4 points per 100 possessions.
Trae Young is the sun, moon and stars in Atlanta, which actually makes this recent run more impressive. That is because Young is actually struggling by his lofty standards, scoring only 22.5 points per game on a 44/34 shooting split and battling overall efficiency issues. In the last few seasons, any struggles by Young were essentially impossible for the Hawks to overcome, but right as the calendar was flipping to March, the Hawks were getting just a little bit healthier at a couple of key spots.
Injuries have been a massive issue for the Hawks all season, with De’Andre Hunter missing 30 games (after showing signs of a breakout), Bogdanovic missing 25 games, Cam Reddish missing 24 games, Gallinari missing 13 games and perimeter stopper Kris Dunn missing the entire season. Even now, Hunter, Reddish and John Collins are sidelined in early April, but the play of supporting pieces like Bogdanovic, Gallinari, Capela and even Tony Snell has helped the Hawks stay afloat and more.
Gallinari (64.6 percent true shooting) and Bogdanovic (58.2 percent true shooting) have found their strides since March began and, in an incredibly small three-game sample size, newly acquired Lou Williams is fitting in beautifully. From there, Snell is leading the NBA (!) in three-point shooting for the season and posting an obscene 82.0 percent effective field goal shooting mark in the last 16 games.
Both from a roster and identity standpoint, the Hawks are an offense-first team and that won’t change anytime soon. Though Young’s defense is improved from his first two seasons, he won’t soon be mistaken for Gary Payton, and players like Collins, Gallinari, Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter are all superior offensively than defensively. Still, the addition of Capela has been enormous in making Atlanta’s defense respectable. With Capela on the floor, the Hawks are yielding only 107.7 points per 100 possessions, and Capela is leading the NBA in rebounding at 14.2 per game. He isn’t quite on the level of Rudy Gobert, but Capela has been in the next tier down and, if he can sustain this pace, he should earn some ballot inclusions when it comes to Defensive Player of the Year voting.
If anything, Atlanta’s win-loss results are lagging behind their peripherals, albeit slightly. The Hawks are a top-10 team in net rating (+1.7) for the season, despite the reality that the team’s core pieces have essentially never been healthy at the same time. It is easy to envision a world in which the Hawks can take advantage of a schedule that is easing up, and combined with presumed improvement on the health front, this is a scary team.
In the grand scheme, it could be argued the Hawks are simply meeting expectations now with a pace to win just over 37 games. That basically aligns with their preseason over/under projections but, in recent weeks, Atlanta has been even better than that. To put it mildly, the East is wide open beyond the top three and, while their recent pedigree may not stack up to that of the Heat and Celtics, there isn’t much of a reason that the Hawks can’t stick around the No. 4 seed mix all the way to the end.
Where do the Hawks land this week in our DIME power rankings? Let’s explore.
1. Utah Jazz (38-12, Last week — 1st)
Utah dropped its last game, falling by eight points in Dallas on Monday. Given that the Jazz won the previous eight games and still maintain the best record and point differential in the NBA, we’ll cut them some slack for a close road loss.
2. Brooklyn Nets (35-16, Last week — 2nd)
The injury bug is still biting the Nets, as James Harden left their win on Monday. Brooklyn continues to win games, though, and there is no sense in dropping them from this perch until something changes in a negative way. They hold a half-game lead in the East standings, for good measure.
3. Phoenix Suns (35-14, Last week — 5th)
Phoenix is 27-6 in the last 33 games, including 9-1 in the last 10 games and an active six-game winning streak. If anything, No. 3 is too low for the way they are playing, and they get a crack at the Jazz (in Phoenix) on Wednesday. That should be fun.
4. Denver Nuggets (31-18, Last week — 6th)
We discussed the Nuggets at length a week ago. All they’ve done since then is post a 3-0 record and surpass the Lakers in the standings. It’s going pretty well.
5. Milwaukee Bucks (32-17, Last week — 7th)
Jrue Holiday will be sticking around long-term and, when he plays, the Bucks are 27-11 this season. Milwaukee maintains a top-three net rating, and they won three in a row last week. It might even be weird to have them at No. 5, but they’ll have to settle for a two-spot bump.
6. L.A. Clippers (33-18, Last week — 3rd)
No one needs to worry about the Clippers, but they did go 1-2 this week. The real black mark was a weird home loss to Orlando, but the other loss came to the scalding-hot Nuggets. They still took care of business against the Lakers and this is a top-four team in net rating.
7. Philadelphia 76ers (34-16, Last week — 4th)
Joel Embiid is back and that is pretty much all that matters for the 76ers. He didn’t play in the home loss to Memphis on Sunday because it was the second of a back-to-back, but as long as Embiid is healthy, Philly is just fine.
8. Dallas Mavericks (28-21, Last week — 10th)
The Mavericks are pretty scary right now. They’ve won five in a row, including four road wins, and Dallas looked good in toppling Utah on Monday. They still aren’t in the top tier, but they are playing much closer to that level during a 19-7 stretch.
9. Portland Trail Blazers (30-19, Last week — 9th)
Portland continues to fly under the radar, but they’re 5-1 in the last six. The only loss in that span came to the Bucks, and the Blazers are 11 (!) games above .500 with a +0.5 net rating. If you want to understand how wild that is, Toronto has outscored their opponents by more total points (27) than Portland has (20) this season.
10. Los Angeles Lakers (31-19, Last week — 8th)
The non-LeBron, non-AD Lakers aren’t close to a top-10 team in the league. Everyone knows that. They have banked three wins in the last ten days, and that is helpful to keeping them afloat and out of the play-in, but the waiting game continues.
11. Atlanta Hawks (26-24, Last week — 12th)
Though they will play this week without John Collins and De’Andre Hunter, the Hawks have three home games against the Pelicans, Grizzlies and Bulls. Atlanta will likely be favored in all three, with the potential to keep things rolling.
12. Miami Heat (26-24, Last week — 16th)
Since the middle of February, the Heat have been as streaky as any team in the league with the potential exception of Sacramento. Miami won 11 of 12 games, then lost six in a row, only to win their last four. The end result is a 26-24 record that is tied for the No. 4 seed in the East. As a sidebar, it is wild that 26-24 is tied for the fourth in the East right now.
13. Boston Celtics (25-25, Last week — 15th)
Boston sitting at .500 through 50 games can only be described as disappointing. Many saw a step back coming with their roster decisions from the offseason but, with back-to-back wins to end this week, perhaps the Celtics can finish strong and attempt to avoid the play-in tournament.
14. Memphis Grizzlies (24-23, Last week — 13th)
If the season ended today, Memphis would be the No. 8 seed. Honestly, that is quite impressive for a team that has operated without Jaren Jackson Jr. all season and the Grizzlies are just… solid.
15. Indiana Pacers (22-26, Last week — 20th)
It’s not as if the Pacers are playing particularly well. They are 7-12 in the last 19 and basically just hovering the same area. Still, the door is open with the way Charlotte’s injury issues are popping up, and Indiana seems like they have another gear to find if their own health cooperates.
16. Charlotte Hornets (25-24, Last week — 18th)
The Hornets got brutal news with Gordon Hayward this week, as he will be sidelined for several weeks with a foot issue. That adds to the already persistent absence of LaMelo Ball, and the Hornets are just trying to hang on for dear life.
17. New Orleans Pelicans (22-27, Last week — 14th)
This was a week that can only be described as “incomplete” for the Pelicans. Zion and Ingram are both injured, and the Pelicans were running out some bizarre lineups as a result. They got a win. They lost two games. Wake me up when the big guns return.
18. New York Knicks (25-26, Last week — 19th)
New York ranks higher this week than last week, but not because they are playing well. The Knicks have dropped four of the last five games, and there just wasn’t anywhere else to put them.
19. San Antonio Spurs (24-24, Last week — 17th)
Is it time to worry a bit about the Spurs? They’ve lost eight of the last ten, including three straight home games, to fall to .500 on the season. Two of the home losses were in overtime, though, and things would feel much better if those break in the right direction. They are now outside of the top eight in the West for the first time in a long while, and they will face Denver (twice) and Dallas in the next three games.
20. Toronto Raptors (20-30, Last week — 30th)
The Raptors were genuinely horrendous in March, as evidenced by their No. 30 placement last week. Obviously, Toronto isn’t the worst team in the league and, after a buzzer-beating win on Monday, the Raptors are back within striking distance in the race for the play-in. Nothing is solved, but they should be fine if health cooperates.
21. Sacramento Kings (22-29, Last week — 11th)
No team has bounced around more than the Kings in this space, and that aligns with their maddening inconsistency. After a winning binge last week, they were rewarded with a big jump. This week, Sacramento went 0-4 with three double-figure losses. They still have the worst defense in the league as well, which makes life difficult.
22. Chicago Bulls (20-28, Last week — 21st)
Chicago was going to drop more than this before a nice win over Brooklyn on Sunday. Prior to that victory, the Bulls lost eight of nine games, and they were heading the wrong direction. They are unquestionably better on paper after acquiring Nikola Vucevic, but they need to start banking wins in short order.
23. Golden State Warriors (23-27, Last week — 22nd)
It is basically common knowledge that the Warriors are rudderless whenever Stephen Curry (and Draymond Green) is off the floor. That puts Golden State in a considerable bind overall and, after a 53-point (!) loss to Toronto, the Warriors lost to the Hawks with Curry and Green back in the lineup. They’ve lost seven of eight and it’s not going particularly well.
24. Detroit Pistons (15-35, Last week — 25th)
The Pistons picked up two blowout wins in the same week. That hasn’t happened much this year, but the victories came over Washington and OKC (see below), so there may be a small asterisk. Detroit also lost by 44 at Madison Square Garden.
25. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-38, Last week — 26th)
It’s been a lost season for the Wolves, but they got D’Angelo Russell back on Monday night. That’s a small consolation, but Minnesota can evaluate their young core down the stretch and see what they have. If nothing else, they’ve been more competitive under Chris Finch.
26. Cleveland Cavaliers (18-32, Last week — 27th)
Even with a dominant road win over San Antonio on Monday, the Cavs are 4-11 in the last 15 games. They are now tied for the worst net rating (-7.9) in the NBA with the Thunder, and they just can’t score. Maybe that 125-point eruption against the Spurs will ignite something.
27. Oklahoma City Thunder (20-30, Last week — 24th)
OKC is still playing well above its baseline when you compare their win-loss record to their point differential. Things are starting to correct, however, with the Thunder losing six of the last seven games. They are deploying a fun roster of young guys, but it’s not exactly conducive to high-level performance on a consistent basis.
28. Washington Wizards (17-32, Last week — 23rd)
As noted above, the Hawks had a 14-20 record in early March. The Wizards had the same 14-20 mark at one point. Now, Washington trails Atlanta by 8.5 games in the Southeast Division with a 3-12 mark in their last 15 tilts. Yikes.
29. Orlando Magic (17-33, Last week — 28th)
Following a hideous stretch in late February and early March, Orlando has been more competitive. At the same time, they are also clearly in a different stage with their roster, letting young guys play larger roles. They won twice this week, but also got walloped in Utah by 46 points, so there will be some growing paints.
30. Houston Rockets (13-37, Last week — 29th)
There isn’t really any debate about this selection. Houston is 2-27 in the last 29 games. That is mind-numbing and, while they still don’t have the worst record in the league, they are well on their way at this point.