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The Hawks’ Encore Is Off To An Uninspired Start

After spending a couple of years waiting for a big breakthrough from 2018 No. 5 overall pick Trae Young and the core around him, the Atlanta Hawks finally got that — and then some — last season. Following a switch to coach Nate McMillan at midseason, Atlanta went 37-19 down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs, where they came within two wins of an NBA Finals berth before falling to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks. With that postseason run under their belts, plus Young and McMillan leading one of the youngest rosters in the league, the Hawks looked primed to build on their success in 2021-22.

But so far, consistent success has been hard to find. While the Hawks started the season winning three of their first four contests, they then proceeded to drop eight of their next nine before somewhat righting the ship with three straight wins this week, leaving their record two games under .500 as we approach the one-fifth mark of the schedule. After such an impressive playoff run last year, an Atlanta team that had follow-up aspirations to win the East now carries just a 3 percent chance of making the NBA Finals, according to our forecast model.

Some of the Hawks’ struggles come down to a brutal early-season stretch of schedule that they’ve had to weather. Atlanta has played nine of its 16 games so far on the road, including a stretch that saw the team travel for eight out of 10 games over the span of 17 days — and also face a number of tough opponents along the way. During that stretch, the Hawks had to go on the road against the Wizards (No. 14 in our Classic Elo ratings), 76ers (No. 5), Nets (No. 7), Suns (No. 1), Warriors (No. 3), Jazz (No. 2) and Nuggets (No. 9).1 All of that has added up to give Atlanta the league’s third-toughest schedule according to Elo, trailing only the Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers:

The Hawks have played a tough slate so far

Most difficult schedules faced by 2021-22 NBA teams, based on the average Elo rating* of opponents, adjusted for game location

Strength of Schedule
Team W L WPct Home Road Avg. Opp. Elo
Pacers 6 10 .375 6 10 1550.3
Cavaliers 9 8 .529 8 9 1544.2
Hawks 7 9 .438 7 9 1540.8
Bulls 10 5 .667 7 8 1539.8
Bucks 7 8 .467 6 9 1534.7
Heat 11 5 .688 7 9 1534.5
Trail Blazers 8 8 .500 8 8 1532.9
Pelicans 2 14 .125 7 9 1531.1
Celtics 7 8 .467 5 10 1527.0
Kings 6 9 .400 6 9 1526.4

*Using FiveThirtyEight’s classic NBA Elo ratings, through games of Nov. 18.

If we adjust Atlanta’s disappointing subzero point differential (-0.5 per game) for how tough its schedule has been, the Hawks have played 0.8 points per game above expectation for an average team. However, the Hawks were not hoping to be merely average this season. In those aforementioned away games against top teams, Atlanta went a combined 0-7. A team that has visions of a deep playoff run must do at least somewhat better than that against the types of teams it is likely to face on the road in the postseason. (For a counterexample, see the Miami Heat, who are 5-4 on the road this season against a similarly difficult slate of away contests.)

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The Hawks have also fallen off relative to the league in an area that was key to their turnaround last season: defense. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Atlanta is allowing 110.9 points per 100 possessions early this season, which ranks just 28th in the league. That’s even worse than the team’s 23rd-place ranking on March 1, 2021, when former coach Lloyd Pierce was let go, and far worse than the team’s improved 13th-place defense after McMillan was promoted. Interestingly, the raw efficiency rate allowed by this year’s Hawks is better than it was under McMillan last season (111.3 points per 100), but Atlanta’s ranking is far worse because early-season NBA defense has been so strong leaguewide this year.

The Hawks gave back their defensive improvements

Offensive, defensive and net efficiency ratings (and league ranks) for the Atlanta Hawks by season and coach, for the last two seasons

Season Coach Off. Rtg. Rk Def. Rtg. Rk Net Rtg. Rk
2020-21 Lloyd Pierce 112.7 12 112.9 23 -0.3 16
2020-21 Nate McMillan 115.9 8 111.3 13 +4.5 7
2021-22 Nate McMillan 110.2 5 110.9 28 -0.6 17

Through games of Nov. 18, 2021.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

Again, some of the decline comes down to strength of schedule. By Basketball-Reference.com’s accounting, each of Atlanta’s nine worst single-game defensive performances came on its dismal road stretch against tough opponents. But there are other reasons for defensive concern. Center Clint Capela, who had been the Hawks’ best defensive player last year by our RAPTOR metric (with an outstanding +5.2 defensive mark), has regressed badly; his overall defensive RAPTOR is now below average (-0.3) with Atlanta opponents scoring an astounding 18.1 more points per 100 possessions with Capela on the floor than on the bench. Forward De’Andre Hunter, who was a +4.3 RAPTOR defender when healthy last regular season, has struggled with even more injuries this year and merely has an average defensive RAPTOR. (He’s also out for several months after a recent wrist injury.)

And while John Collins and Cam Reddish have both improved on the defensive end, Young, Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanović are making last year’s defensive improvements look short-lived. The backcourt trio leapt from a collective defensive RAPTOR of -2.2 in 2019-20 to -1.4 in 2020-21 — still below average, but at least less so — as the Hawks’ team defense became respectable enough not to drag down their top-tier offense. But Young, Huerter and Bogdanović have combined for a horrid -4.2 defensive RAPTOR so far this season while logging nearly 35 percent of all individual Atlanta minutes. With Capela no longer backstopping them effectively, either, it’s been the recipe for a big drop-off on D for Atlanta.

Ironically, the Hawks’ offense has held up fine — again, relative to the league as a whole — despite some concerning trends of its own. (As my former colleague Chris Herring recently pointed out, the team is taking a lot more long midrange jump shots, which were known to kill more than their share of offenses in their pre-analytics heyday.) If Atlanta’s defense can reclaim its form under McMillan from last season — particularly in the playoffs, when it held the Knicks, Sixers and Bucks below the ratings we would expect based on their regular-season stats — the Hawks will be right in the Eastern Conference mix come playoff time. But for now, they’ve come out flat in what was supposed to be a big encore to last year’s unexpected playoff run.

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Footnotes

  1. The only top-five Elo team the Hawks didn’t pay a visit to in that trip was the Heat, whom they’ll face in mid-January.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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