NBA
June 18, 2021

Hawks' Deep Bench is Key to Atlanta's NBA Championship Hopes

The Hawks are on the brink of their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since 2015 thanks to the emergence of star guard Trae Young. But Atlanta has a secret weapon that no other playoff team can boast: the deepest collection of depth.  

A strong set of reserves are few and far between in the NBA. Most squads usually shrink their rotations and lean more on their starters in the postseason, and while the Hawks are certainly playing Young and Co. a lot of minutes, they wouldn’t be flirting with championship contender status without their incredible reserves.

Thanks to a remarkable rebuild by Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, Atlanta — despite being without key reserves Kris Dunn, Cam Reddish and De'Andre Hunter — employs a high-scoring three-headed monster off the bench in Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams. 

Without the trio, the Hawks might already be watching the playoff games from home. 

Huerter, the No. 19 in the 2018 NBA Draft, has blossomed into a poor-man’s Klay Thompson. The 6-foot-7 guard is shooting 40% from deep this postseason. His length on defense has been very important next to Young, as evidenced by his Game 2 performance. 

Huerter has become such a big part of the Hawks' success that Atlanta, after losing back-to-back contests, inserted the guard into the starting lineup and, of course, came away victorious. At 22, Huerter has become a vital part of Atlanta’s future and present.

Schlenk has made plenty of other genius movies in hindsight, too. 

Last offseason, Schlenk wisely used his available cap space in the last summer when both Young and John Collins were still on their rookie contracts. Other than signing Bogdan Bogdanović, who has been everything they could have asked, Schlenk inked Gallinari to a three-year, $61 million deal. 

Despite a shaky start to the season where he struggled with his efficiency and injuries, Gallo has been a valuable veteran off the bench. In his past seven playoff games, Gallinari is splashing home 44% percent of his attempts beyond the arc and shooting an automatic 97% from the free throw line.

So many playoff series boil down to who can get a bucket in one-on-one situations, and that is where Gallo can thrive. 

After using free agency and the draft to acquire talent, Schlenk then struck a trade deadline move to deal Rajon Rondo in exchange for two future second-round picks and Lou Williams. 

There are undoubtedly flaws in Lemon Pepper Lou’s game that become tricky to deal with come playoff time as teams attempt to attack potential opposing weakspots. For Williams, defense has always been more of a chore to get through before he can resume getting buckets on offense again. But hey, there’s a reason why he’s only playing 13 minutes a game against the 76ers.

However in the playoffs, every minute — heck, every possession — counts. When Young is resting, the Hawks run more actions through Bogdanovic, but Williams has been a crucial secondary option who can score when called upon. Virtually every team knows the scouting report by now: when Williams attacks right, he likes to drive to the basket or dish to a teammate. When he veers left, expect a silky jumper to go right in.

The Hawks have outscored the 76ers by 19 points with Williams on the floor in wins, but have been outscored by 17 points when he’s on the court in losses. Even in his limited minutes, Williams has the power to slightly swing games, either by way of his troublesome defense or magical offensive abilities.

The Hawks are outscoring enemies by 2.7 points per 100 possessions with Huerter, Gallinari and Williams all on the floor. 

Atlanta entered this season under pressure, and they've stepped up to the challenge. There’s no doubt about it that the Hawks will go as far as Young can pull them, but Atlanta's deep and talented bench could be the key to their championship aspirations. 

Photo: Getty Images