ESPN explores the biggest ‘what-if’ for the Atlanta Hawks

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The Hawks have been a roller coaster since the magical Eastern Conference Finals fun in 2021.

After taking care of the Knicks, the Hawks ended The Process, leading to Ben Simmons‘ downfall. The club then nearly upset the eventual NBA champion Bucks.

Atlanta was riding high with interim Nate McMillan and decided to remove the interim title. Travis Schlenk did little to upgrade the roster and instead chose to run it back with a very similar group.

It was a mistake. The Hawks overachieved the season prior and their true colors showed through, culminating in a gentlemen’s sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat in a series were Atlanta was completely dominated. Personnel changes had to be made.

Schlenk went out and acquired Dejounte Murray in a blockbuster trade with the Spurs in which three first-round picks went to San Antonio for the All-Star point guard. There was palpable excitement around Atlanta, and it couldn’t have gone worse.

Last season was probably more disheartening than the year after the conference finals run. With a much better roster, the Hawks were historically mediocre, but that was the least of their concerns. The organization was in flux with ownership meddling in basketball decisions, which was later revealed to have included the Murray trade, one that Schlenk was initially reluctant to do, given the asking price.

Travis Schlenk stepped down, and Nate McMillan was fired. It was an embarrassing chapter in franchise history, but what if it never happened? What if the Hawks never made the conference finals in 2021? Would the pair have even lasted that long to begin with? ESPN explored this exact scenario:

What if the Atlanta Hawks didn’t make the conference finals in 2021?

The Hawks reaching the 2021 Eastern Conference finals was seen as Trae Young‘s ascension to stardom. Instead, it was a team that caught a favorable draw and fortunate breaks; as a result, it achieved too much success too soon, and it has paid the price for it since.

By losing to Philadelphia in the second round, Atlanta’s season is seen for what it should have been: a solid success but one without the expectations that otherwise followed the Hawks into the 2021-22 season. As a result, the Hawks don’t have the same turmoil shadowing them through that campaign nor do they trade for Dejounte Murray last summer or fire Nate McMillan and Travis Schlenk this past season.

Instead, both are let go after the Hawks lose in the first round for a second straight season. And after Landry Fields ascended to take over the front office — but with Quin Snyder having gone to the Philadelphia 76ers after the season, rather than joining Atlanta during it — he would tap into his San Antonio connections and hire Ime Udoka as the team’s coach.

It’s a pretty cool experiment, and though Ime Udoka is an excellent head coach, I’d be more interested to see what not reaching the conference finals would’ve done to the roster. Coaches have an impact, but the NBA is a star-driven league.

Trae Young would still need help. Could they have traded for Kevin Durant instead of the Suns? Without trading for Dejounte Murray, the Hawks would have had the draft capital and young pieces to facilitate a deal for KD. Moreover, he and Young are good friends.

It’s a fun what-if, but the Quin Snyder era is here in Atlanta, and he’s confident DJM and Ice Trae can work together. Whether that comes to fruition is another story altogether.

Photo: Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire

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