The Atlanta Hawks were not supposed to come very far this season considering injuries, a mid-season coaching change, and a pandemic-ravaged season. But thanks to a 22-year-old team member and phenom named Trae Young, the team is electrifying the city. Mike Conti, Managing Editor of 92.9-FM The Game and analyst for the Atlanta Hawks Radio Network joins us for this episode of Georgia Today.

Steve Fennessy: On Wednesday night, the Atlanta Hawks made history: For the first time since moving to Atlanta from St. Louis in 1968, the Hawks won a game in the NBA Eastern Conference finals and they did it on the road in Milwaukee.  

[TAPE Atlanta Hawks Radio Network] Steve Holman: Rebound loose and the Hawks, have it and the Atlanta Hawks have done it again. Folks, these gutsy, gritty young Atlanta Hawks have come into another building and win the first game of the series.  

Steve Fennessy: They weren't supposed to get this far. Not even close. Injuries, a midseason coaching change, a pandemic-ravaged season. No, this was not supposed to be the Hawks’ year, but led by a 22-year-old phenom named Trae Young, the team is electrifying the city. I'm Steve Fennessy. On this episode of Georgia Today: How a humdrum hockey season turned magical and where it could still take us. My guest is Mike Conti, managing editor of 92-9 The Game Sports Radio in Atlanta, and analyst for the Atlanta Hawks Radio Network.  

Steve Fennessy: As we talk today, almost three years ago, you were talking with Killer Mike on 92.9. That was a day that the Hawks had just acquired Luka Doncic in the draft. But then they turned around and traded him to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Trae Young. So every draft and every trade and involves fortune-telling. So some maybe thought that that wasn't the best decision. But Killer Mike had another idea. What did Killer Mike have to say?  

Mike Conti: Killer Mike said he felt that Trae Young would be a better fit for what the city of Atlanta needed. Almost more culturally than anything else, that Trae Young's personality may fit in better with what we want to have in the city of Atlanta with our professional athletes. And I think the term that he used was swagger — that Atlanta fans would appreciate a player like Trae Young, who played with a very, very high level of confidence and wasn't afraid to express his confidence verbally or through his style of play. Trae was, you know, sometimes thought of as being a little bit cocky when he played at the University of Oklahoma.  

Steve Fennessy: Well, talk briefly about that one season at Oklahoma, because you need more than swagger to — to declare yourself eligible for the NBA draft after just one season in NCAA basketball. What was it about his style of play that elevated him?  

Mike Conti: The one thing that really stood out to me about Trae Young in particular, along with his ability to score, was that he played with a fearlessness and he, even in the NCAA tournament, you saw him play with a fearlessness. His team was down throughout their entire first round game. But Trae Young was not afraid to shoot to try to take 3-pointers to do whatever he could to get his team back in the game.  

[ESPN TAPE Reid Gettys & Lowell Galindo]: Want it to be Young, to be the potential guy that beat you. No, I want to make somebody else do it. Well, Young wants to be that guy. Thirty-four Trae Young.

Mike Conti: And if it meant putting himself in dangerous positions where he was going to draw contact and maybe get fouled and maybe get thrown to the floor once or twice, he was willing to do that. And that meant a lot to me because it proved to me that he was a winner.  

Steve Fennessy: But he didn't exactly turn around the fortunes of the Hawks out of the gates. His first two seasons with them, they finished dead last in their division. Did you have any indication in those two years — or did anyone — that things would turn around in such a dramatic way as they have the season?  

Mike Conti: When we saw Trae Young in his rookie year go out and have a 49-point game against the Chicago Bulls, we knew that trade was going to be a special player. But in the NBA, where you're playing good teams night in and night out and teams that can roll nine or 10 really good players at you night in and night out, that trade was going to need some help. He was going to need a supporting cast so you could see the ingredients were there. His rookie year, his second year, he made the All-Star game. He was voted into the All-Star Game as a starter. But his second year, last year, the 2019-2020 season, Trae had to do a lot of the scoring because John Collins, who at that time was the second-best player on the team, was suspended by the league for 25 games.  

TAPE [Jalen & Jacoby ESPN]: And we've got some breaking news, not great, about another young star in the NBA. The Atlanta Hawks’ John Collins has been suspended for 25 games for testing positive for a growth hormone. This is unfortunate for the Hawks because when you have Trae Young and Collins, both of those guys have shown a level of camaraderie and promise that even if they didn't make it, they were going to continue to build on something special.  

Mike Conti: So I think in the back of our heads, we kind of wondered, all right, Trae’s averaging 30 points per game, but what does it really mean if his team's not winning? Finally, the Hawks were able to assemble that supporting cast this past November through free agency. They were able to find some veteran 3-point shooter that could could give Trae an option to be more of a facilitator and less of a need to score. The Hawks acquired Bogdan Bogdanovic. That was a very, very savvy move by Travis Schlenk, the Hawks’ general manager. I think we always knew that Trae was going to be capable of leading this team to big things and he finally got the help when this year's team was ultimately assembled.  

Steve Fennessy: To what degree, Mike, was the — the ownership situation of the Hawks instrumental in this turnaround with Tony Ressler, whose ownership group purchased the team just a few years before Trae Young came aboard? 

Mike Conti: What Tony Ressler did was focus on the things that he could control, and that was create an atmosphere that would make it as easy as possible for the players that he did have on this team to develop and be winners. And he really went all in on facilities he helped to build. The Hawks’ beautiful training facility in Brookhaven — thought to be among the best training facilities in the NBA. He sunk a lot of personal money into renovating State Farm Arena with the hopes that the arena would become one of the marquee venues in the NBA. And with the arena and with the training facility, now you have two physical structures that could be attractive for a potential free agent to want to come and play. In his hiring of Travis Schlenk from the Golden State Warriors, to be the general manager of this team was a major, major turning point in the history of this franchise because Travis Schlenk has been the architect of all of those moves I spoke of a moment ago, not to mention the trade to acquire Trae Young on — on draft night after drafting Luka Doncic. That was Travis Schlenk’s move. Tony Ressler hired him. So Tony Ressler had to put the people in place to build the Hawks into what they are right now.  

Steve Fennessy: I think it's also important to talk briefly about the Hawks’ role in the community off the court and especially in this past year, what with the pandemic with Black Lives Matter protests? What have they seen as their role as in the wake of all of that?  

Mike Conti: The Hawks have taken a very, very active role in a number of different areas related to, as we said, Black Lives Matter. A lot of Hawks players marched in Atlanta this summer during those demonstrations. Lloyd Pierce, who was the head coach at the time, spoke at those demonstrations. Lloyd Pierce took a very active role in the NBA Social Justice Committee, really helping players and coaches and management navigate through the complications of what was going on last summer across the country. And then, of course, the decision to use State Farm Arena as one of the largest polling places in the election — and I believe the special election as well. You had Hawks players like Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando, who volunteered at the polling place, helping people get to the ballot box. Basically, athletes have a platform. They've always had a platform. But now I think they realize the power of that platform. 

Steve Fennessy: Going into the beginning of this 2020 season, what was the team chemistry like under Lloyd Pierce, who was, of course, the coach, at least for the first half or so of the season before he was dismissed back in March. 

Mike Conti: The team chemistry had to coalesce really quickly, because the Hawks were not included in the season-ending bubble that was installed by the NBA last July. The Hawks didn't have a good enough record to play in that bubble. So they basically went from March 11th of 2020 to the end of November 2020 without having played a competitive game. The team was assembled very, very quickly. And then once the team was assembled, they had some early-season challenges with injuries to Bogdanovich and Gallinari in particular. So I don't want to say the team chemistry was nonexistent. That sounds harsh. There was chemistry, but it wasn't the final product. When Lloyd Pierce was let go as the head coach of the Hawks on Feb. 28… 

TAPE [Chris Hassel & Bill Reiter CBS Sports]: The Atlanta Hawks firing head coach Lloyd Pierce, in his third season with the team — had a really bad February. They went 4 and 11. I mean, the reality is that if you don't get along with the superstar, the would-be superstar, the most important player on your team — and it was an open secret around the NBA that Trae Young just wasn't connecting with Lloyd Pierce back. Not even an open secret, just an open statement. 

Mike Conti: Sometimes that felt like the messaging from the coaching staff was better received coming from the mouth of Nate McMillan as opposed to the mouth of Lloyd Pierce. And that's something that happens with a young team. Sometimes it just takes a different voice for the message to resonate better. You know, not coincidentally, when Nate McMillan took over as head coach, Bogdanovich came back from his injury and was phenomenal in the final three months of the regular season. That was a big part of it, too, not just the change in the voice of the head coach, but being able to get that supporting cast of players assembled around Trae Young again in the way that they wanted this season to go from the very beginning. Nate McMillan even said that there wasn't really a whole lot that he changed from what Lloyd Pierce was doing. And he is correct because he didn't have time to change that much. And in some cases they were playing four games in a week or five games in eight days where you just don't have enough time to have live practices and install new plays and new sets.  

Steve Fennessy: Stay with us. Next on Georgia Today: What it's meant to the city in the midst of a pandemic for the Hawks to go on such an inspiring run. I'm Steve Fennessy.  

[BREAK] 

Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Mike Conti, who covers the Hawks, is an analyst for the Atlanta Hawks Radio Network and is also managing editor for 92-9 The Game Sports Radio.  

Steve Fennessy: After Nate McMillan took over as interim coach, was there a specific night, a specific game, a specific moment that you can recall where you said to yourself, “Wow, they could actually do something?”  

Mike Conti: They did think that there were some early indications that Nate McMillan would at least be able to get this team into the playoffs. In two of the first games that he coached, the Hawks came back from 15 down in the fourth quarter. I think it might have even been the very first game or second game that Nate McMillan coached in Orlando right before the All-Star Break — down by 15 in the fourth quarter. Clint Capela did not play in that game. Trae Young did not play in that game but the Hawks found a way to come back and win. One of the problems the Hawks really struggled with in the first half of the season under Lloyd Pierce was the inability to hold fourth quarter leads. And in fact, the final game that Lloyd Pierce coached in Miami, that was another situation where the Hawks had a lead in the fourth quarter and did not turn it into a win. I think ultimately that's the No. 1 reason why Lloyd Pierce was let go as head coach. So you started to see those trends reverse almost immediately — in fact, immediately underneath McMillan — where now they were holding fourth quarter leads. When they were down in the fourth quarter, they were coming back. Nate McMillan was doing something to to help this team believe in itself in a way that they weren't believing prior to his installation as head coach. That, to me, gave me some hope.  

Steve Fennessy: Well, there's no better example of that reversal of fortunes than Game 5 against the 76ers. Can you talk a little bit about it for those, maybe who — who didn't have the pleasure of watching that game, what occurred?  

Mike Conti: The Hawks in Philadelphia: the series, even at two games apiece, Philadelphia with a home game. If they win, they would have a chance to come to Atlanta and close out the series. Two nights later, the Hawks got off to a very, very slow start. It was a very raucous atmosphere in Philadelphia. It simply came down to the 76ers in the first half making all of their shots and the Hawks in the first half missing all of their shots. And in the third quarter the Hawks trailed in the game by 26 points. It is almost unheard of in NBA playoff history for a road team to come back from 26 points down in the second half. And Steve Holman and I on the radio broadcast during Game 5 started talking about,”Well, the Hawks, they probably now just have to focus on what they have to do Friday night to get this to a Game 7 where anything can happen. Hopefully no one gets hurt at the end of this game. Maybe you're going to pull your starters. Maybe Trae Young should come out of this game to rest.” But slowly but surely, the Hawks started making their shots late in the third quarter. Then they started getting some defensive stops. And then Trae Young made some very, very big shots, some clutch plays in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia got very, very tight. In that moment, the Hawks defensively did what they needed to do in the fourth quarter and all of a sudden the Hawks had the fourth-largest comeback in NBA playoff history.  

Steve Holman [TAPE Atlanta Hawks Radio Network]: And they will win game No. 5 in Philadelphia. How about the Atlanta Hawks, folks? Those of you listening nationally, Philadelphia was ahead by 26 points. And this Atlanta Hawks team that believes never gave up, never gave up, came all the way back. And they defeat the mighty Philadelphia 76ers 109 to 106. Atlanta leads the series three games to two. How about these Atlanta Hawks, folks? 

Mike Conti: It was one step short of unbelievable.  

Steve Fennessy: Yeah, but it is incredible to see how the city of Atlanta has sort of rediscovered its Hawks. You've covered the Hawks for quite some years. What's the feel you get this year that might be different from past years?  

Mike Conti: They have a superstar. You know, the Hawks in 2015 won 60 games. They were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They were the first Hawks team ever to get to an Eastern Conference final. So at that point, that was the greatest Hawks team of all time. And the city bought into that team. But I think there was a level of skepticism that, you know, you're going to have to play LeBron James and in the Eastern Conference finals, you know, this is about as far as it's going again. And I don't think anyone wanted to buy in all the way into that 2015 team. But now they have a superstar. Now they have a Trae Young who's as good as anyone else in the NBA. 

TAPE [Maria Taylor ESPN]: Who are the top five players under 25?  

TAPE [Jalen Rose ESPN]: Oh. So number five is who. Trae Young. Because he's giving me 25 points a game. He's giving me double-figure assists.  

Mike Conti: Now we have in Atlanta an individual player that opposing teams are afraid to play against. In the NBA, it's a superstar-driven league; the team that has the best individual player in the game is going to win more often than not. So I think Trae Young has kind of given us hope to a level that we've never really had hope with the Atlanta Hawks before.  

Steve Fennessy: We'll talk to about this time that we're living in, because the backdrop of the season is this horrific pandemic and, you know, couldn't go to games. We were all just sort of living these these internal lives, literally, and it was driving us crazy. And then to have this team sort of emerge from — from low expectations, what impact has that had?  

Mike Conti: You know, just being in State Farm Arena during these playoff games with the arena filled to its capacity, I think so many people are just elated to be able to — to watch a live sporting event without the specter of COVID and all the awful things going on in the world looming over the game. It really has been an escape for — it's been an escape for me personally. I think it's been an escape for all of us to be able to focus on something fun and a little bit mindless for two and a half hours on a weeknight.  

Steve Fennessy: I did want to talk a little bit about Game 7 of the conference semifinals and specifically to a point you referenced earlier about Trae Young being a superstar. Trae Young was cold for most of that night. And then — but other players, specifically Kevin Huerter I'm thinking of, stepped up. Can you talk a little bit about what that means when you when your superstar is, at least for most of the night, kind of hitting bricks. 

Mike Conti: A lot of teams in the NBA would not be able to recover if their superstar player made only three of his first 20 shots of the game. But to have Kevin Huerter step up and do what he did and contribute 27 points; to have John Collins contribute 14 points and 16 rebounds; this is ultimately why I think the Hawks are where they are right now, because they were a deeper team than the Philadelphia 76ers. They certainly were a deeper team than the New York Knicks. Joel Embiid may have been the best individual player in the Hawks-76ers series, but the Hawks had a better team.  

Steve Fennessy: There was a really nice moment at the end of Game 7 when they when they clinched the series against Philadelphia and Trae Young took his jersey off and gave it to his dad. What's the nature of their relationship?  

Mike Conti: Rayford Young, Trae's father, played collegiate basketball at Texas Tech and Ray Young was a major guiding force in Trae Young's development as a basketball player. They both have spoken quite a bit of how Ray would take Trae to the YMCA in Norman, Okla. And they would work and work and work for long hours as much as they could. And then they would stop and they would go back to Oklahoma City and they would watch the Oklahoma City Thunder play and they would watch Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, James Harden and try to learn from from the NBA players. And then it would be back to the YMCA. I think Raeford Young, Trae's father, has also been one of Trae's staunchest defenders on social media. I thought that was such a neat moment that at the end of the biggest game of Trae Young's life, the first person he's looking for is his father. 

TAPE [TNT]: And is Trae Young looking for his dad, maybe, on this Father's Day. He sure is. Rayford, proud papa right there. That is a happy Father's Day, if there ever was one.  

Mike Conti: And on Father's Day to be able to present him with his jersey like that. It was a very special moment in a season that has been full of special moments for Trae Young.  

Steve Fennessy: What's Trae Young's future with the Hawks look like?  

Mike Conti: Trae Young is under contract, I believe for two more years. He's still on his rookie deal with the Atlanta Hawks. He will undoubtedly become the highest-paid player in the history of the team, or at least will get an offer to be. Trae Young will also have a very significant voice, I would imagine, in the Hawks’ roster construction going forward. They're going to build the team around Trae Young. I think Trae will be allowed to offer his opinion on who he wants to play with and who he wants to play for. Make no mistake about it, Trae Young is going to be the centerpiece of the Atlanta Hawks for years to come.  

Steve Fennessy: My last question, Mike, is as we go into these conference finals against Milwaukee, the Hawks franchise hasn't won NBA Finals since 1958, and that's when they were in St. Louis. So since they've been in Atlanta, we have never won an NBA Final. How hopeful should we be?  

Mike Conti: How hopeful should we be? Well, I'll just say this: They're fearless. They don't shy away from the challenge of playing on the road at Madison Square Garden, maybe the most difficult atmosphere in which a road team can play in the NBA. They don't shy away from a difficult challenge. Weighing against Philadelphia on the road against Joel Embiid, who might have been the second-best overall player in the NBA this year behind Nikola Jokic. The Milwaukee Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been a league MVP the last couple of years. They are expected to not only be here but to win it all and if they don't win it all, changes are going to be made. They're going to feel pressure that the Hawks are not going to feel. I wouldn't rule anything out for the Hawks.  

TAPE [Trae Young 92.9 The Game Sports Radio]: I didn't believe we had any standing. I think we can go as far as we want to. I don’t think there is a ceiling unless you put the finals on it.  

Mike Conti: So no matter what happens from here, it's been very, very special. It's been something to enjoy. I think this team could absolutely go to the NBA Finals.  

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Mike Conti, managing editor for 92-9 The Game Sports Radio and analyst for the Atlanta Hawks Radio Network. On Wednesday night, the Hawks squeaked out a three-point win on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. How is this for a stat: Of the 108 points the team scored while Trae Young was on the court, 80 of them were either scored, created or assisted by him. This guy is crazy. Game 2 is Friday night again in Milwaukee, and the Hawks return to Atlanta on Sunday for Game 3. 

For more Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts; don't forget to leave us a rating in review on Apple. Jahi Whitehead produced this episode. Jesse Nighswonger engineered it. Thanks for listening. See you next week. Go Hawks.