On Thursday night, the Atlanta Hawks’ 2022-23 season came to an end with a 128-120 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 6. The series, which went a game or two longer than most pundits expected, certainly exposed some foundational flaws in Atlanta’s roster construction and execution, but it also revealed a talented team that gave what is now the NBA Finals favorite all it could handle and more.
While this will be a tough pill to swallow, especially considering that the Hawks had the lead for a sizable chunk of Game 6, here are three positives that Atlanta can take with them as they head into what will be a crucial offseason for the direction of the franchise.
1. They competed
Coming into this series, most reasonable Hawks fans who saw the clear talent differential between the two teams were just hoping that Atlanta would not get swept.
And after the first half of Game 1, that looked like it might be a tall order, with Atlanta finding themselves down by 30 (!) at halftime. There wasn’t much in Game 2 that could have made anyone confident that Atlanta wasn’t thoroughly outmatched in this series.
However, not only did the Hawks avoid this embarrassing fate by winning Game 3, but they then extended the series to a Game 6 that few could have predicted courtesy of one of the coldest game-winners you will ever see from Trae Young in Game 5.
Now for full disclosure, if you would have said in October that this Hawks team, not far removed from an Eastern Conference Finals run and just added an All-Star in his prime in Dejounte Murray, would lose in six games in the first round, there’s no way I would be looking for any kind of silver lining. Overall, this season was and is a disappointment.
However, it’s also not unreasonable to assume that if Atlanta played as well as they did against Boston against many other Eastern Conference playoff teams, there’s a good chance they’d be in the second round right now. This team was extraordinarily frustrating during the regular season and they paid the price for it with the most difficult first-round matchup available.
If the Hawks come back next year, teeter around .500 for all of the regular season, and are once again a quick exit next spring, no one will care that in 2023 they took the Celtics a game or two further than expected. For now, though, we can appreciate the fact that they didn’t lay down and quit against a team that was superior to them.
2. The Trae Young doubt was silenced
Towards the end of this season, there was a lot of public discourse surrounding the future of Young. This season was one of the most inefficient of his career and he largely struggled to establish any kind of synergy with the newly acquired Murray.
This led to some NBA reporters, crediting highly-vague-at-best “sources,” to fire up trade rumors, with many of the proposed deals in the media being flat-out disrespectful considering the talent that Young, for all his flaws, still possesses.
There was little in the first two games of this series to quell any doubt about just how far a Young-led team could go. However, Young turned it up a notch in the final four games, more closely resembled the player who burst onto the NBA star scene in 2021, and was the best player on the court in at least two, possibly three games in a series that featured Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
While Young is not a perfect player and can still be incredibly frustrating at times, we just watched him put a team on his back and carry them to a win in a road elimination game a few nights ago. He proved that he can be the best player on a highly competitive, and possibly championship, level team when surrounded by the right pieces (which he does not currently have).
This is not going to stop lesser media outlets and “reporters” from creating fake clickbait trade scenarios in an attempt to generate ratings. True basketball fans, though, saw a player that is still an offensive savant when at his best, and know that any talk of trading him this offseason can now be officially considered delusional.
3. Their flaws are clear and addressable
The biggest reason the Atlanta Hawks lost this series is that their point-of-attack defense was atrocious. It seemed that whenever a Boston player, no matter who it was, decided to put their head down and get to the rim, they were able to do so.
This isn’t necessarily a shocker with Young, who we’ve long known would have to be surrounded by plus defenders to succeed. What we didn’t expect, however, is that his supporting cast would fail, too. Murray, who has already made an all-defensive team in his young career, showed little to no resistance even against Boston’s smaller wing players and guards.
De’Andre Hunter, often viewed as Atlanta’s best wing defender, could do nothing to stop Tatum and Brown from getting to their spots. In Hunter’s defense, these are two of the best wings in the NBA. However, the reason they are so good is their ability to hit tough shots, and frankly, they didn’t have to attempt many tough shots in this series because they were able to get to the basket so easily.
If this flaw is not addressed, Atlanta will never be able to reach the NBA’s upper echelon. Some of the solutions to this is simply adopting better defensive mechanics and rotations. However, it would certainly behoove the Hawks to look into adding at least one or two more true defensive stoppers in free agency or the draft.
An underlying issue for the Atlanta Hawks
Another flaw that was exposed was Atlanta’s lack of floor spacing. John Collins is the current longest-tenured Hawk and is often considered the soul of the team. Save for Games 5 and 6, he was borderline unplayable in this series. Boston mostly declined to guard him on the perimeter, and he could not make them pay with any consistency.
For Young and Murray to be the best versions of themselves, they need maximum room to operate. They won’t have that if there are two players on the floor in Collins and Clint Capela who are not threats from three-point range.
These flaws must be addressed this offseason. With Quin Snyder now at the controls and likely at least influencing the front office’s decision-making, Hawks fans should have confidence that steps will be taken to diminish some of the shortcomings that reared their ugly heads in this series.