NBA playoff notebook: How the Atlanta Hawks built a contender

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The Atlanta Hawks have proven they're not a one-man show, and they’re not on some fluke postseason run, either. (Getty)
The Atlanta Hawks have proven they're not a one-man show, and they’re not on some fluke postseason run, either. (Getty)

Trailing by seven with four minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday, the Atlanta Hawks mounted a late-game comeback to win their sixth road game of this playoff run, and their third straight Game 1 road win this postseason.

In a playoff filled with incredible individual performances, no one has both exceeded expectations and displayed an elite level of showmanship like Hawks guard Trae Young, who scored 48 points against the Bucks in Game 1, including this shimmy in the third quarter before hitting a wide-open three-pointer:

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The Hawks are not a one-man show, and they’re not on some fluke postseason run. They deserve full marks for the way they took care of business against the New York Knicks in five games in the first round, and vanquished the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in seven games in the conference semifinals.

Young has led the way, but this postseason run has validated general manager Travis Schlenk’s overall team-building. Every team dreams of a blueprint of stacking the roster through draft, trades, and free agency signings, but very few succeed in all three facets. The Hawks have done so since Schlenk took over in May of 2017.

Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari were Atlanta’s two key free agent signings this off-season. After slow starts and injuries, both have become vital playoff contributors. Bogdanovic, especially, was critical to the team’s second-half regular season push, when Atlanta—who were 14-20 at one point—made their run up the standings to secure the fifth seed in the East. Schlenk also acquired Clint Capela in a four-team deal at last year’s trade deadline. He was one of the most reliable defenders at his position this year and deserving of All-NBA consideration.

But it is through the draft where the Hawks have built a core group that seems positioned for long-term success. John Collins, selected 19th overall in 2017, has risen to the big stage in this postseason as a winning player. No longer a primary scoring option on this team, he has contributed in every other way. Kevin Huerter, the 19th pick the following year in 2018, is coming off a huge Game 7 performance against the 76ers, where he repeatedly hunted Sixers guard Seth Curry on defense, scoring 27 points in the victory. We haven’t even mentioned De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, the fourth and 10th pick in the 2019 draft, who will be key pieces to this Hawks team moving forward.

Of course, the most important piece of the puzzle is Young, who the Hawks traded Luka Doncic to Dallas on draft night to acquire (in addition to a first-rounder which turned into Reddish). The trade has been revisited over the past three years, especially after impressive postseason performances from Doncic in the last two seasons. But it’s hard to sit here and say the Hawks lost this trade. We can continually evaluate Doncic and Young’s careers in a vacuum to determine a winner, but every individual move is made with an eye towards building a contending team. So when you zoom out and look at what the Hawks have done in totality and the roster they’ve built around Young, it’s hard to argue against any of Schlenk’s moves.

Throw in interim coach of the year Nate McMillan, who is enjoying a personal victory lap this postseason after the Pacers relieved him of his duties following a first-round exit in the bubble, and all the pieces are coming together for the Hawks.

Young, Collins, Huerter, Hunter, and Reddish are all 23 or younger. Capela is 27. Bogdanovic is the elder statesman of the core group at 28. The roster is built for the long-term, and Schlenk will have the ability to either stand pat or go star-hunting with these core pieces over the next few seasons. With his track record so far, it’s easy to feel optimistic about the tinkering he can do to this team to make them a mainstay at the top of the East.

Of course, all this talk of the future is ignoring the fact the Hawks are three wins away from their first-ever Finals appearance and seven wins from a championship. Given the way they’ve played in these playoffs, it would be foolish to dismiss the idea of the Hawks winning it all this year. The present is filled with possibilities, and the future is looking bright.

The Atlanta Hawks have arrived.

A few other things...

The best reaction to the “Valley Oop” from Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals:

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The best account to follow on Twitter:

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Shoutout to Kawhi sitting in a suite to watch his teammates:

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