Within a span of two months, the Atlanta Hawks went from holding a losing record to potentially starting the playoffs with home-court advantage. It wasn't an easy journey—it involved firing a coach, almost trading a rising star and real maturation of younger players who had never won before.
On Feb. 28, the Hawks were on the verge of a shake-up. The team was 14-20. John Collins disagreed with the offense and found himself on the trading block. It seemed Atlanta was on track for another losing season despite its veteran additions and All-Star point guard Trae Young.
The Hawks began the season a solid team on paper but had a more complicated dynamic below the surface. None of their young players had experienced sustained winning at the NBA level. The new veterans had to prepare them for those highs and lows.
Collins wasn't traded at the deadline despite rampant speculation. But head coach Lloyd Pierce became an unexpected casualty.
"It was a tough moment, especially with the franchise deciding to change a coach too," Danilo Gallinari said to Bleacher Report. "I think that it was basically not a brand-new group, but a lot of new players. Vets coming in trying to find chemistry with a young group of guys that they had. Of course, when you have a new group of players, there's always a process to get the chemistry going. I think that we did a good job with that. Of course, we're still working on it."
Less than two months later, the Hawks are about to secure their first winning record in four seasons and have a chance for home court in the playoffs. Their odds to make the postseason have risen above 90 percent.
"We did a good job turning the season around," Gallinari said. "Now you can see that even the young guys who were used to losing, they're getting better with that too."
After Nate McMillan became the head coach, things started falling in place. Injured players were starting to get healthy, confidence was growing and they went on an eight-game winning streak. Gallinari was finally able to play more than 20 minutes in a game as his minutes restriction eased.
One of the biggest differences has come in the fourth quarter. In the fourth quarter under Pierce, the Hawks had a league-worst minus-8.2 net rating; under McMillan, the Hawks are tied for the second-best net rating in the fourth quarter at a plus-10.7 net rating.
"Especially with a young group like this, I think confidence is key. When you start doing that kind of stuff and collecting wins and winning against tough times and proving yourself, it builds confidence," Gallinari said. "In that eight-game winning streak, we won two games with a last-second shot. If out of those eight games you don't win those, we're talking about a different record. Sometimes you have to be lucky too."
One of the most important parts of that turnaround was the improvement of Young—a player who reportedly left "his teammates on the outside looking in" with his offensive style.
"He's improved a lot, in many things," Gallinari said. "Two things you especially want to see from a point guard is how he controls the pace of the game and when to push or slow down, and he's getting way better with that. Also, reading the game—when to get guys involved, and when to be a scorer. He's of course an amazing scorer, and I think he's getting so much better with that ratio between deciding being a scorer and being a creator getting guys involved. He knows we have a lot of weapons, and you need to get those weapons going sometimes. He's getting so much better at these two things."
The communication between the Hawks' players seems to have improved tremendously, and their on-court play shows it. There's no discrepancy about team identity or reported shots taken at other players during these last two months of improved play. The comments Gallinari made about Young are congruent with how Trae feels about his own improvement.
"I'm continuing to build and learn with these guys," Young said last month, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I think I've gotten a lot better at understanding where they want the ball and like the ball, and I'm definitely trusting my teammates a lot more and it's feeling good."
That maturation doesn't extend to just Young. All of the Hawks' young players have developed both a newfound confidence and an ability to read the game better.
"It starts with them slowing down," Nate McMillan said to Bleacher Report. "You have to slow down, and you have to be patient. Part of the growth that we're looking for from our young guys is being patient and slowing down. A lot of times they're playing so fast that nothing is really clear to them."
Perhaps the most critical thing the Hawks had to address was the Collins situation. The key to fixing his displeasure with the offense? Post-ups.
"He has improved a lot, especially in his post-up game," Gallinari said. "We were not posting him a lot at the beginning of the season, and now we are posting him way more. We trust him in the post, and he's been very good and very efficient. … When Nate came, we had plays to get me and John in the post. That was a change when Nate came."
Gallinari has a deeper relationship with Collins since the two spent time together in South Africa for the 2018 NBA Africa Game. The two play the same position, and Gallinari provides veteran guidance, which adds an extra layer to their friendship.
"One of the reasons that I came here is because I know he was going to be a great player," Gallinari said. "We talked about that a lot in preseason in every single game about his post-ups. He's got it, and he's showing everybody that he's got it. The team trusts the fact that when we get the ball to him in the post, there's a very good chance he's going to do the right thing."
While posting up Collins more seems to be one of the keys to the Hawks' success, it wasn't one of the points of emphasis for McMillan's new offense. McMillan wanted to play more to the matchups.
"I wanted to personalize the offense a little bit more to get guys touches," McMillan said. "Whether they were in the post or playing on the perimeter. As far as John playing in the post, the NBA has gone to a defense that is going to force you to play in the post some. With teams switching 1-5, giving you matchups a lot of time, sometimes you're just forced to play in the post."
Collins may have been unhappy with the Hawks' previous offense, but their new one seems to lean toward what he's wanted since the preseason. Under Pierce, Collins and Gallinari were averaging 2.6 and 2.2 post-ups per game, respectively; they're averaging 3.8 and 3.5 post-ups under McMillan. To put that into perspective, Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 3.9 post ups per game.
Collins told Michael Pina of Sports Illustrated:
"I feel like a lot of people have been questioning my ability to create for myself. Obviously they know I can make open threes, make tough mid-range shots, finish, be athletic and all that great stuff. But skill always wins in my mind, and I feel like my ability to shoot has really opened up my ability to drive, make plays for other people and get downhill and attack. Just trying to read defenders, reading where the ball is coming from and attacking people's feet."
This new offense filled with matchup-hunting and post-ups wasn't tailored to him, though.
"That's not just a conversation with John. That's with the entire team," McMillan said. "That's what we're going to be faced with. We have to see those matchups and take advantage of them. When teams give us those matchups, we gotta win that. That's what NBA basketball has come to."
The Hawks are no longer the team that could have drafted Luka Doncic. They're 1.5 games back from home court in the playoffs and have stayed neck-and-neck with the Dallas Mavericks' record. No one could have imagined Young's team could keep up with Doncic's team at this stage of their respective careers with the support around them, yet here they are. The Hawks are ready to shock the world, and their younger players are learning how to do that game by game.
For those who may sleep on the Hawks, Gallinari has one message.
"We're already doing better than what haters or media or people are saying we were gonna do. But of course, we're not happy. We're still working on accomplishing something big."