The days after a 39-point loss to a mediocre opponent would seem like an odd time for optimism, but the Hawks showed up to practice this week feeling as confident as ever about their future. During a film session on Wednesday, Lloyd Pierce made one of his boldest declarations of the season about Atlanta’s future, which raised the stakes for the remainder of the season and clarified the team’s intentions for the next year: “We’re a playoff team,” he said. “Now it’s about understanding what that means.”
With their playoff hopes for this season long since squashed, the Hawks’ process of developing the necessary habits to get there next season begins now. Pierce wants his players to think of their final 19 games as a head start on the 2021 season, when they hope to hit the ground running after whatever changes take place this summer. “We’ve gotta start it now, we’ve gotta continue in the offseason, we’ve gotta come back believing and knowing that all the stuff we’ve gone through this year is what we have to prepare ourselves for going into next year,” Pierce said.
As he spoke, Trae Young nodded his head in agreement. De’Andre Hunter straightened up and locked eyes with his head coach. Pierce sensed his team paying closer attention once he broached the topic of the postseason. It was the first time he had explicitly named that goal in front of his players and represented a meaningful tonal shift. Atlanta has been in a rebuild for the last two seasons, patiently accumulating young players in the draft and prudently cashing in other assets to help the team gradually develop. Pierce has been intentional about tempering expectations and measuring his team’s growth by its process and routine rather than on-court results. But given Young’s ascension to stardom and the promise of his surrounding infrastructure, the Hawks have designs of accelerating their timeline.
“We’re at a point where that’s more important for our growth,” Pierce said. “Next year, the progression is playoffs. That’s just a natural step. I’m not afraid to say it.” That’s an awfully high bar to set for a team currently 19-44 with a minus-7.7 net rating. The Hawks would need to win significantly more games just to sniff the postseason next year, and given the long-term viability of their competitors in the East, there will already be precious few playoff berths up for grabs.
This season’s results, however, may not be an entirely accurate baseline for Atlanta. The Hawks have played just one game all season -- before or after the trade deadline -- with their entire rotation available, and it was John Collins’ first game back from a 25-game suspension. Kevin Huerter began the year banged up, then missed 11 games in November with a shoulder injury. Clint Capela has yet to play since the Hawks acquired him on February 5. Rotation players moved on and off the injured list before the trade deadline shook up the roster. Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter will likely level out next season after up-and-down rookie campaigns.
“If you look at the injuries that we’ve had and the roster change and turnover that we’ve had, the extra young guys that we’ve brought in, the suspension that I had myself -- you add all of those things into this team and you look at what we can do with a healthy team next season,” Collins said. “It’s a real positive thing to think about.”
Atlanta will have six players aged 26 or younger, one of whom is already an All Star, and nearly $50 million in cap space to spend for next season. Capela should provide another threat at the rim and more defensive backbone once he returns from injury. The fivesome of Young, Collins, Hunter, Reddish, and Kevin Huerter has outscored teams by 10.4 points per 100 possessions this season (in a limited sample size). If that unit is even 75 percent as good as those numbers indicate and the Hawks upgrade the rest of the rotation, they could feasibly make the playoffs next season.
“We know what we have returning, and we’ll look to see what else is added,” Pierce said. “But the guys we have returning have been together enough, enjoy being with each other, believe that they’re a playoff team and want it. So we’ve got to change the mindset to that and really start approaching it that way.”
It will take more than internal growth and desire, however, to make the kind of leap Atlanta envisions. In the NBA, consistency separates great teams from mediocre ones and middling squads from the dregs of the league. Half the battle of making it into the playoffs is simply beating bad teams, and the Hawks (who currently number among the worst teams in the league) aren’t at the point at which they can consistently do that. In fact, they’ve been one of the most volatile teams in the NBA this season; they’ll rise to the challenge of facing some of the league’s best teams, but also tend to play flat against some of its worst. Atlanta has lost 19 times by at least 15 points -- nine of which have come against teams currently under .500 -- and have struggled against the likes of Cleveland, Chicago, New York, and Detroit. They rank second-to-last in defensive rebounding and last in 3-point percentage, and aren’t anywhere near league-average on either end of the floor.
Altering those trends requires a team to recalibrate its approach. Pierce has uttered some version of the phrase “we didn’t compete” innumerable times this season, and only three days ago maligned his team’s effort against the shorthanded Grizzlies. Every team has the occasional lapse, but the best ones know how to respond and prevent the next one from happening. Great teams have not only top-end talent and depth, but refined habits and a strong culture throughout the organization that can only be built with daily commitment to their larger goals. “Every day is more important than just the game,” Pierce said. “It’s: how do we approach every single day, how do we start enhancing the culture that we have, what’s it gonna take for us to get to that next level?”
An avid reader, Pierce spent most of Tuesday devouring the first seven chapters of Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which explores how people and teams outperform their talent level to achieve maximum success in their respective fields. The book has made its way around the NBA, and the qualities that Duckworth extols -- resilience, ambition, and discipline -- are the same ones Pierce hopes to engrain in the Hawks.
“We’ve got to combine all of our talent with a relentless effort and a relentless pursuit of making each other better and holding each other accountable,” Pierce said. “We just have to find a way as a culture and as a team that we can create an atmosphere where we’re just relentless, we’re tough, we’re gritty, no matter if the shots are falling in or not.”
For the Hawks, that means playing with pace, moving the ball, and communicating on defense, regardless of their opponent. Atlanta has the ability to be an explosive offense next season, and its best way to create advantages will be by playing small, pushing the tempo, and spacing the floor. It will also require players and coaches to hold each other accountable for their habits and mistakes. In Wednesday’s meeting, Pierce showed his players a video of the Clippers’ Paul George and Lou Williams hashing out a disagreement during a game not as evidence of a splintering team, but as an example of what it means for teammates to communicate and hold one another to a high standard.
“That’s what a playoff-mentality approach is,” Pierce said. “They hold each other accountable. They don’t wait until the fourth quarter or the next game, they get it right then and there on the next play.”
Atlanta believes Capela can help accelerate the team’s maturation and relate to the younger players just how demanding it is to not only make the postseason, but to live in it. This will be the first time in his six-year career that Capela won’t participate in the playoffs, and the center has been through some of the most tense and competitive series in recent memory. He understands the scrutiny, intensity, and stakes of the postseason in a way his younger teammates can’t, and was a key voice in the team’s film session Wednesday morning.
“I added about how important it is to be consistent, compete. We have a tremendously talented and skilled team, and now our goal is next year to go to the playoffs, and we’re gonna have to compete more,” Capela said. “It’s always fun when you’re young and you’re in the NBA, and it’s nice. But once after three, four years you get to the playoffs and you get to have a rivalry against other teams, and you’re coming back the year after and you play them again, it gets harder and harder.”
The Hawks still need to evaluate just how their roster fits together when all of the pieces are intact. That may not happen this year, but expectations will still rise and results will start to matter next season. Travis Schlenk will likely remain patient, but he and Pierce will feel more pressure to win as Young enters his prime and Collins, Hunter, Reddish, and Huerter all (presumably) take steps forward. The team’s moves around the trade deadline were partially informed by loftier aspirations for 2021, and Atlanta now feels it has the necessary pieces to reach them.
“Now I get to tell my experience and now I get to talk more about how you’re gonna go [in the playoffs], because they don’t know,” said Capela, who went from young buck in Houston to seasoned veteran in Atlanta. “I do know because I’ve been there, so I get to have a voice and tell them how to be ready, because this thing is hard.”