"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” - Rayford Trae Young. Or maybe it was Mahatma Gandhi. Actually, historians still are unsure where the quote originated. Nevertheless, the maxim still holds true.
National media members still dismiss the Atlanta Hawks as serious contenders due to their defense. Yes, the team has struggled with defense in recent years. However, shortly after Nate McMillan was named the head coach on March 1, the team began improving on the defensive end.
Sure, McMillan was a lockdown defender as a player, but he's an even better teacher. The Hawks starting lineup has an average age of 25-years-old. Couple McMillan's knowledge with a malleable roster that has been reverse-engineered to succeed in the modern NBA and you have the makings of a championship contender.
Last season, McMillan inherited everything from Coach Lloyd Pierce who served dutifully for three years (we don't slander L.P. around here). Unable to make any major changes midseason plus a litany of injuries resulted in a skeleton crew fighting tooth and nail in the playoffs.
Flash forward to last night, and fans got to enjoy the fruits of a multi-year rebuild. Currently, the roster is as healthy as it has been since early 2019. The Hawks smothered the Dallas Mavericks in a 113-87 opening night victory.
"We have a lot of depth...a lot of guys who can play a lot of different positions." - De'Andre Hunter on Hawks depth/defense.
If you pop the hood, the stats are even more telling. In the Mavericks' worst season-opening loss since 1991, the team shot an abysmal 33.3% from the field and 30.2% from three. The Hawks held the Mavericks to .85 points per possession. All-NBA First Team guard Luka Doncic was harassed all night by De'Andre Hunter, only shooting 1-9 when Hunter was his primary defender per ESPN Stats & Info.
"He really set the tone for us by just making him work." McMillan, on Hunter's defense.
Even more encouraging, this wasn't just a cold shooting night from outside. The Hawks implemented a strict no-fly zone and outscored the Mavericks 46-26 in the paint. Not to mention, Hunter seamlessly switched from guarding a generational talent to giving the 7'3 'Unicorn', Kristaps Porzingis, a rude awakening.
Following the game, Hawks players were proud yet unsurprised by their defensive performance. In addition to a solid offensive performance, John Collins tallied 2 blocks and 1 steal but focused his attention on Hunter.
"We can tell Dre ‘Sic ‘em,’ on anybody, and he’s up for the challenge, running over screens, getting hit, doing whatever he needs to do to be a great defender." - John Collins on De'Andre Hunter's defensive performance Thursday night.
In my season predictions, I wrote that Hunter exceeds the role of glue guy. He is their secret weapon. A 6'8 wing that can throw opponents out of rhythm on both ends of the court. If Hunter (and the rest of the team) remains healthy, they will advance to the NBA Finals this season.
I know it's unwise to draw too many conclusions from the first game of the season. But it's safe to say the youthful Hawks roster is no longer a mediocre defensive team, they are a force to be reckoned with. What's scary for the league is they will only improve with time.