This season, Hawks must be better just to make it as far

070321 Atlanta: -- NICE JESTURE -- With thirty nine seconds remaining interim head coach Nate McMillan pulls his players, last but not least Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks as the season comes to an end falling to the Milwaukee Bucks in game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
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070321 Atlanta: -- NICE JESTURE -- With thirty nine seconds remaining interim head coach Nate McMillan pulls his players, last but not least Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks as the season comes to an end falling to the Milwaukee Bucks in game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

It’s tempting to say a great Hawks season came down to Trae Young’s right ankle. The Eastern Conference finals might have gone differently if the star point guard hadn’t suffered a freak injury in Game 3. Just get back to the playoffs this season, and with better injury luck for their best player, the Hawks have a good shot to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since the franchise moved to Atlanta.

I don’t see it that way. The Hawks are going to have to be better just to make it as far this season. Young, a great player, will have to be greater. Other Hawks will have to give more when it matters most. For the Hawks, being just as good will mean backsliding because the top East contenders are stacked.

The NBA champion Bucks return essentially the same team as last season. The 76ers and Nets are set up for another run, assuming they eventually work out conflicts between key players and management. I view those three teams as the top three in the East, with the Hawks a notch below.

The FiveThirtyEight statistical projection sees things similarly. It gives the Bucks a 31% chance to win the East, followed by the Sixers (18%) and Nets (14%). The caveat: The model assumes disgruntled stars Kyrie Irving (Nets) and Ben Simmons (Sixers) will play zero and 50% of games, respectively. The Hawks have a 10% chance per the model, behind the Celtics (12%).

I’d reverse the Hawks and Celtics, but otherwise, the order looks right to me. With both teams at full strength, the Hawks would be underdogs in a playoff series against the Bucks, Sixers and Nets.

Writes Jared Dubin of FiveThirtyEight: “The Hawks have the best projected regular-season record among the trio of teams behind the top two, but the worst conference and title odds.”

At this point, you may be thinking that the Hawks were underdogs when they eliminated the Sixers in last season’s East semifinals. True, but Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has acknowledged that his team was fortunate that Sixers center Joel Embiid, the best player in the series, played on one good leg. Schlenk also rightly notes that all teams need good luck to advance in the playoffs.

To wit: Milwaukee probably wouldn’t have even made the East finals if the Nets hadn’t lost both Irving and James Harden to injuries in the previous round. The Bucks are the best team in the East as things stand now. The Nets are the better if Kyrie Irving drops his opposition to getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

It will help the Hawks if that situation continues to be a problem for the Nets. Irving wants to be allowed to skip practices and games in cities with vaccine mandates. The Nets told Irving that he can’t be a part-time player. For now, the Nets will have to make do with two future Hall of Fame players, Kevin Durant and James Harden.

There’s trouble in Philadelphia, too. Sixers coach Doc Rivers messed up when he publicly trashed Simmons after the Hawks series. That created two problems: Simmons declared he wants to be traded, and other teams know the Sixers have no leverage. Simmons belatedly reported to the team recently, but it wasn’t clear if he’s changed his mind about playing for the Sixers.

The Sixers and Hawks are chasing the Bucks and Nets. Now that the Hawks have established that they are a playoff team, lesser teams will be taking aim at them.

The Hawks made easy work of the Knicks in the first round of last season’s playoffs. The Knicks addressed a major weakness during the offseason by adding better scorers and playmakers so that Julius Randle won’t have to do it all. The Celtics and Heat also improved their rosters.

The Bucks and Nets are the biggest obstacles for the Hawks in the East. Embiid may not be hobbled the next time they see the Sixers in the playoffs. Those are among the reasons why it’s wrong to believe the Hawks are close to the NBA Finals. Also, remember the full circumstances for that series loss to the Bucks.

The Hawks faded to a loss in Game 3 when Young left the game with the injury. They won Game 4 at home without Young to even the series but lost Game 5 at Milwaukee with Young still sidelined. Young wasn’t himself when the Bucks ended the series with a Game 6 victory at State Farm Arena.

But the Bucks were without the best player of that series, Giannis Antetokounmpo, for Games 5 and 6. The Bucks beat the Hawks anyway because their complementary players were better. They didn’t need their two-time league MVP to conquer one of the best Hawks teams ever.

The Hawks will be very good again. Every player who played important minutes against the Bucks is on the roster to begin this season. New additions make the team deeper. Injury lucks tends to fluctuate, so the Hawks can hope for fewer games lost this season after so many players went to the injured list in 2020-21.

The playoffs are the floor for the Hawks. They’ll clear that even if they aren’t healthy. Winning a playoff round should be expected. After that is when things will get harder for the Hawks. Young’s injury left them wondering what might have been in the East finals. This season the Hawks will have to be better just to make it there again.

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