The Atlanta Hawks currently sit at 34-28 on the season, which places them tied for fourth in the East with the Knicks. However, New York owns the tiebreaker over Atlanta. Behind them, the Celtics and Heat both sit two games back, but since the Hawks own the tiebreaker over both teams, Boston and Miami are essentially three games back from the fifth seed at the moment.
With just ten games remaining, the Hawks project to be in the four-five matchup in the first round. However, they could realistically fall all the way to seven if things go poorly down the stretch. This would place them in the play-in tournament, giving them an opportunity to play Brooklyn in the first round if they were to make it through. Regardless of seeding, the Hawks will make the postseason in some capacity. So once they get there, who will be playing and how much?
With Kris Dunn making his debut last night and news breaking that De’Andre Hunter and Trae Young could be back at the end of the week, the Hawks are getting healthy at just the right time. For the sake of this article, we’ll assume Reddish is done for the season. The team has no reason to rush back the second-year wing and should use extreme caution, considering it’s an Achilles injury.
With the number of injuries the team has faced, fans have received little insight into how Nate McMillan will handle player minutes on a nightly basis. To this point in the season, despite small decisions such as Okongwu or Knight playing the backup five, the primary factor affecting playing time has simply been availability.
Guys like Tony Snell and Solomon Hill were facing a season of bench-warming and garbage time minutes but have been thrust into significant roles this season due to injuries. Both players, Snell especially, have well-exceeded expectations, playing a critical role in the Hawks success. However, one or both may see their playing time significantly decrease in the postseason due to a combination of players returning and shortening of the rotation. The same can be said for players like Brandon Goodwin and Nathan Knight, who project to be entirely out of the rotation.
With the injury updates out of the way, let’s get into the potential first and second units the Hawks could deploy. One can safely assume that Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, John Collins, and Clint Capela will make up four spots of the starting five, with the fifth spot being up for grabs. If De’Andre Hunter can return for this final stretch of games and look like he did to start the season, then he’ll be at the three for Atlanta.
However, if Hunter comes back rusty or looks to need more time, don’t be surprised if Kevin Huerter grabs that final spot in the starting five. The third-year wing has had an awe-inspiring stretch of games as of late and looks to be playing the aggressive style of basketball the team has been hoping to see from him. Not only has his offensive game improved, but he’s also 16th(!) in the NBA in steals. Still, this is Hunter’s starting spot to lose.
So, let’s assume the starting lineup is Young, Bogi, Hunter, Collins, and Capela. This unit has played just 15 minutes together over four games, all under Lloyd Pierce. While that is much too small of a sample size to draw major conclusions from, those five players posted a net rating of 26.9, with blistering offense (120.7 OFFRTG) and lockdown defense (93.8 DEFRTG). This unit has the potential to be one of the best starting fives in the NBA. Young and Bogdanovic have both shown to be extremely high-level on-ball offensive players, with Young, of course, being one of the top point guards in the NBA.
This is not to say the two can’t defend, however, neither would consider defense a strength. That’s where the other three come in. Hunter, Collins, and Capela lineups have posted a 94.9 defensive rating in 224 minutes. The combination of size and strength those three possess terrorize offenses, and outside of Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic, Capela is specifically a nightmare for opposing centers. That’s not to say the Hawks frontcourt can’t score, though, as the three of them posted a 111.2 offensive rating when playing together.
Locks for the Bench
I think it’s reasonably safe to say Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, and Lou Williams will have steady minutes in the postseason. Williams and Gallinari are proven playoff performers and have been pivotal down the stretch of games this season in closing lineups. As highlighted earlier, Kevin Huerter has shown he deserves at least some minutes, as he’s really shaping up to be an excellent piece for Atlanta as of late. Since returning from injury, Gallinari has potentially been the Hawks fourth-best player behind Young, Capela, and Bogdanovic. While not posting the most efficient numbers of his career, Williams has shown in multiple games he’s capable of carrying the offense to a victory, most recently with his incredible performance in the fourth quarter against Milwaukee.
Lou Williams just caught one of the sickest heaters of the season.
Coming out if the 9-minute TV timeout in the 4th, here is every Hawks scoring play until the final moments:
Lou AST Bog 3
Lou AST Bog 3
Lou AST Bog 3
Lou AST Bog 3
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) April 26, 2021
Via Rob Perez on Twitter
Rounding out the bench
With eight players locked into the rotation, let’s look at the end of the bench to see who can potentially contribute as well. It’s entirely possible none of these players make the rotation, as McMillan may choose not to look past eight. However, McMillan’s playoff history suggests he’ll go with at least nine and likely ten players in the rotation, with the tenth receiving anywhere from four to ten minutes per night. This is where Tony Snell, Solomon Hill, Kris Dunn, and Onyeka Okongwu slot in.
Of the four, I’d say Snell is the most likely to grab that ninth spot, seeing as he is still the league leader in three-point percentage and brings size and strength to the defensive end as well. Perhaps Dunn’s defensive ability is too much to look past, and McMillan feels he deserves the minutes here, but it’s possible that Young, Bogi, Lou, and Kevin take up all the guard minutes, leaving Dunn to play in a matchup based role or at the three. Say, for instance, the Hawks play Brooklyn at some point and have no answer for Kyrie Irving; that would be where Dunn could find himself getting extended time. It’s tough to project what happens with the end of the bench, but as of now, I’d likely say Snell and Dunn take the two openings.
This leaves Solomon Hill out of the lineup, despite the solid job he’s done this season by providing leadership and accountability on the defensive end of the floor. Since he’s a four at this stage of his career, Collins and Gallo likely won’t leave any minutes for him there. Okongwu has an outside chance of some minutes if Nate trusts him, but at this point, he’s likely too raw for the postseason, so I’d project not to see him outside of garbage time. The same goes for Nathan Knight, Skylar Mays, and Brandon Goodwin, who have had their moments this year but should not be playing meaningful minutes in the playoffs.
With the rotation set, how will Nate distribute the minutes? This is what I’d project
I think my Hawks playoff minutes breakdown would be:
Hunter 35 (if healthy)
Nate's gone ten deep historically in the playoffs, but wouldn't be surprised if Dunn minutes are distributed elsewhere
— Christian Salvador (@ChristianSalv24) April 27, 2021
I’d expect to see Young, Collins, and Bogi all around the 40-minute mark, given their ages, roles, and impact. Collins will play both the starting four and backup five and has never shown any problem playing many minutes, while Bogi and Young are the Hawks two best offensive players.
Capela and Hunter will certainly get their fair share of minutes as well, but they have some conditioning concerns that may force them to sit a little longer than they’d like. While I’m in no way suggesting Capela is in bad shape, it’s just a fact that seven-footers have a more challenging time getting up and down the court, even if they are one of the fastest centers in the league. For reference, Capela played an average of about 30 minutes per game with the Rockets in the playoffs. It would also be unreasonable to expect Hunter to play more than 35 minutes, seeing as he’ll have no more than nine games to get back in game shape.
Gallo will likely take all of the minutes that Collins and Capela sit. While a Collins-Gallo lineup may not produce a ton of stops, they’ll present a significant problem for the opposing defense. Williams will certainly play every minute Young sits; however, I’m unsure if Nate will choose to play him next to Trae in a playoff game. We’ve seen him play the two together at points this season, but perhaps that’s more a result of players being out than a strategic decision. For now, I’ll lean towards McMillan deciding not to play the two together for defensive purposes, and Williams gets around 10 minutes per game. It seems crazy to think a player of Lou’s reputation would play less than a quarter of the game, but the combination of him and Young on defense could cost the Hawks against a team with solid offensive guard play.
From there, Huerter would take all non-Bogdanovic minutes and perhaps will play next to him in some lineups as well. Then Snell and Dunn would account for all remaining playoff time. While it’s no guarantee everybody is healthy come the postseason, I think this is a fair look at what to expect if they are. I’m most skeptical of the Lou Williams prediction, as it would not surprise me at all to see him play with Young and cut into Bogi/Huerter/Dunn’s minutes. Regardless of who is on the floor, Hawks fans are rightfully excited to see their team firmly in the playoff picture, and it’s going to be a ton of fun to cover them as well.