The Atlanta Hawks were the talk of the 2021 playoffs. Despite being the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks got hot at the perfect time, leading to a run to the Eastern Conference Finals from seemingly out of nowhere. While they eventually came up short against the eventual champion in the Milwaukee Bucks, many folks expected big things from Atlanta coming into this season.
Maybe they overachieved down the stretch last season, but the Hawks never could kick things into high gear like they were last season. Instead, they went just 43-39 this season and only made it into the playoffs as the number eight seed in the East after winning their two Play-In Tournament games. While they fought valiantly against the Miami Heat, they bowed out after only five games.
Many people wondered what went wrong for Atlanta this season, but their owner, Tony Ressler, said the team's complacency last offseason came back to bite them. He said things are going to be different this time around:
"We thought we'd be better this season. We plan to get better this offseason. I think if you asked our front office, they would say that we thought based on last season's visit to the Eastern Conference Finals that we could bring back predominantly the same team and get better and expect it to be better. I don't think that worked out the way we thought. So yes, I think we should have tried to get better rather than bring back what we had. That won't happen again, by the way. It was a mistake, in my opinion." Tony Ressler, ESPN
The Hawks' 2021 offseason strategy was flawed for several reasons
Atlanta rode a hot streak they found themselves on towards the end of the season to the Eastern Conference Finals. By growing as a team this season, they figured that they would be able to maintain their spot at the top of the East. While that's not the worst logic of all time, it's safe to say Atlanta's front office did not build the Hawks roster well enough for those hopes to come to fruition.
Everyone aside from Trae Young saw their growth either plateau or take a step backward. Guys like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and John Collins were not nearly as effective as they were last season. This resulted in Young having to do more to drag his team to wins, which, in fairness, he was able to do from time to time.
The Hawks were also one of the worst defensive teams in the league, which was odd because they were pretty good during the playoffs last year. Atlanta finished the season 26th in the league in defensive rating, which was the worst of any playoff team. After sitting on the sidelines for most of the previous offseason, Atlanta has some clear areas that they need to address this offseason.
What should the Hawks do this offseason to establish themselves as genuine contenders?
It feels like the first thing Atlanta will have to do this offseason is figuring out what the deal is with John Collins. Collins has been the subject of trade rumors for the past two seasons, even though he signed a five-year, $125 million extension with the Hawks last offseason. Collins struggled through the season with injuries and inconsistent play, and if he wants a trade, Atlanta may need to oblige.
It's more likely the Hawks will hang onto Collins (and most of their core) and look to solidify their depth. A guy that may be available that they could target in free agency would be Mitchell Robinson, formerly of the New York Knicks.
Robinson is an elite interior defender who would be a solid contributor off the bench. Atlanta has some solid bigs, but guys like Collins and Gallinari are subpar defenders. Onyeka Okongwu was forced to play as an undersized center behind Clint Capela for most of the season, so this would allow him to be used in a role more fitting for him next season. Starting Capela and bringing Robinson off the bench would give the Hawks one of the most elite 1-2 shot-blocking combos at center in the league.
Atlanta has a lot of solid offensive depth on their team, but they need defensive help, hence the recommendation to look into a guy like Robinson. They exceeded expectations in 2021 before failing to meet them this season, but the Atlanta Hawks could quickly find themselves back atop the Eastern Conference standings with a solid offseason performance.