Basketball

What the Atlanta Hawks Must Learn From the 2020 Miami Heat

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For the second consecutive season, a fifth seed made an improbable run in the NBA playoffs. Last season, the Miami Heat, led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, upset multiple higher seeded teams on their way to an NBA Finals matchup versus the Los Angeles Lakers. While the Heat were defeated, their unlikely playoff journey was heralded by many as one of the top headlines of a very abnormal 2019-2020 NBA season. As for this past season, the Atlanta Hawks also made an unlikely playoff run of their own, advancing all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals as a 5-seed, where they were then defeated by the Milwaukee Bucks in six games.

Aside from sharing the same playoff seeding, these teams’ roster construction were surprisingly similar. Both the Heat and the Hawks were led by a bucket-getter at guard and a defensive anchor at center (Butler/Adebayo for the Heat and Trae Young/Clint Capela for the Hawks), an exciting young nucleus (Tyler Herro/Kendrick Nunn/Duncan Robinson for the Heat and Cam Reddish/De’Andre Hunter/Onyeka Okongwu for the Hawks), and experienced veterans (Goran Dragić/Andre Iguodala for the Heat and Lou Williams/Danilo Gallinari for the Hawks).

Similar to the 2020 Heat, the Hawks have some important decisions to make and some major needs to fill this upcoming offseason. The Heat, who felt that their continuity and “culture” propelled them to an NBA Finals birth, opted for an offseason of minuscule roster additions (to counteract even larger roster subtractions), while also banking on the expected internal improvements of their young core.

This offseason plan was questionable to much of the Heat’s fanbase (including myself), as the Heat had more than enough cap space to address their needs. Banking on continuity and internal improvements backfired on the Heat, as they stumbled through the 2020-2021 NBA season, finishing with an underwhelming record of 40-32. They were then swiftly bounced out of the playoffs by the Bucks in only the first round.

Unlike the Heat, the Hawks must make smart, possibly uncomfortable decisions this upcoming offseason in order to position themselves for sustainable success in the NBA. One of these uncomfortable decisions might stem from the need for a more effective secondary shot creator next to Young, which may require the Hawks to give up one of their young assets to do so.

In the stretches and games throughout the Eastern Conference Finals when Young wasn’t on the floor, the Hawks’ offense looked anemic at times. A once pick and roll based offense that emphasized sharing the ball and moving it quickly up the floor with Young turned into an isolation-fest: an offense lacking an identity that didn’t have the necessary personnel to consistently win in 1v1 matchups with Young off the floor.

To avoid becoming too reliant on their young star, the Hawks must acquire a guard or wing who is able to carry the scoring load and effectively run their offense when Young isn’t playing. The Hawks might have to give up either Reddish, Hunter, or Okongwu (the latter of whom I am a HUGE fan of) in return for a player who would suffice this need. Travis Schlenk and the rest of the Hawks’ front office must embrace the uncomfortable and trade away one of these players, if necessary, in order to capitalize on this newfound championship window they now find themselves in.

The Hawks, like the 2020 Heat were last offseason, are entering this offseason “ahead of schedule” in NBA terms. The 2020-2021 season was not expected to be one of championship contention for Atlanta, thus their franchise plan of action must change accordingly. The Hawks must now cross the imperative bridge from “a rebuilding team” to a “win-now team” this offseason, and trading away one of their young assets for a “win-now” type player would accomplish this.

For the sake of comparison, let’s circle back to the 2020 Heat. They entered the 2020 offseason with one of the premier young talents in the NBA in Tyler Herro, who’s trade value appreciated beyond a level that I didn’t think was possible from him. This was thanks in part to his infamous “bubble run” that he had during the 2020 postseason.

Instead of capitalizing on Herro’s soaring value by trading him to a team that would have been willing to give the Heat an all-star caliber player in return, the Heat stayed put. They figured that the notion of continuity and a “team-first” attitude would satisfy the glaring roster needs they had, and that similar results from the season before would follow. The Heat were obviously mistaken.

Fast-forward nearly a year later and Herro’s trade value has diminished significantly. While still very productive, he doesn’t have quite the amount of buzz he once had to his name, thus a trade package in return for him wouldn’t expect to be quite as noteworthy. I hate being retrospective, but I wonder if anybody in the Heat’s front office would have handled the Herro situation differently last offseason knowing the information they know now (a dumb hypothetical, I know, but one to think about).

Both the 2020 Heat and this season’s Hawks team overachieved, which is fine, but overachieving often leads into the trap of self-deception: a trap in which the Heat fell face-first into last offseason by ignoring their obvious roster deficiencies. Will the Hawks learn from the mistakes of the 2020 Heat and make the uncomfortable decisions now for a more rewarding future of long-term success? We will find out our answer this offseason.


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