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The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.
There wasn't a single team whose 2014-15 outlook we got more completely wrong than the Atlanta Hawks. Kelly wrote the preview, but I felt the same way; coming off a perhaps-unwanted sub-.500 slink to the eighth seed and a summer full of turmoil, the Hawks looked to me less like a team about to put the league on notice than one content to settle in the middle of the pack and putter to a lower-reaches postseason berth that didn't last past the first week of May.
One month into the season, that assessment seemed sound enough — the Hawks sat at 8-6, in fifth place in the East, ranking in the top eight in offensive efficiency but the bottom six on the other side of the ball. And then, all hell broke loose: Atlanta won 35 of its next 40 games, rocketing to the top of the conference behind tightened-up, five-men-on-a-string defense, a ball- and player-movement-heavy half-court offense, and a combination of smart passing and capable shooting at every position.
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The Hawks won 19 straight games between late December and early February; their entire starting five was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month of January; 80 percent of that unit (Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague) made the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Mike Budenholzer won Coach of the Year honors for leading Atlanta to its first-ever 60-win season, and the Hawks made the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history before bowing out to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It was a season for the ages, a campaign of old feelings reborn and new fans created, overflowing with positive vibes even after a disappointing stumble to the finish line. (A stumble, it's worth mentioning, that came amid a spate of injuries to key cogs late in the proceedings.) And yet, when tasked with figuring out which Eastern Conference club seems poised to mount the most serious challenge to LeBron and the Cavaliers when 2015-16 action starts up, none of us here pointed toward the A, and I don't think we're alone.
So, what gives? Are we being unduly myopic prisoners of the moment, unfairly succumbing to recency bias in considering Atlanta's late-season scuffling — 25-19 from the All-Star break through the playoffs, an efficiency differential (whether or not you outscore opponents over the course of 100 possessions) nearly three times lower after the break than before it, those stumbles against the underwhelming Brooklyn Nets and a Washington Wizards team whose top player had a shattered hand, the inability to even slow LeBron's wrath — more meaningful than setting the NBA on fire for three straight months?
Or are we justified in thinking that our pre-playoff questions about whether the Hawks could be trusted were proven valid by the uneven postseason run, and in needing to see Atlanta do it again amid some important changes before we pencil them in for 55 wins and a top-four slot? And let's be clear: there have been some important changes.
DeMarre Carroll was the lone Hawks starter who wasn't sent to New York for All-Star Weekend, but he was arguably their best player during the first two rounds of the postseason and their primary perimeter defender. He's now gone, and while Budenholzer's got some options on hand to take his minutes — lively if unreliable Kent Bazemore, long-limbed and intriguing ex-Golden State Warriors wing Justin Holiday, shoot-first-and-do-little-else-later trade target Tim Hardaway Jr. — the respected veteran's combination of defensive acumen, offensive rebounding, positional versatility, competent-enough shooting and capacity to contribute without the ball figures to be awfully difficult to replace.
Atlanta's best chance of doing so lies in Thabo Sefolosha working his way back from the season-ending broken right fibula he suffered while in the custody of the New York Police Department, a matter that continues to wend its way through the legal system. The Hawks need Sefolosha to not only return at 100 percent, but also to take enough of an offensive step forward (just 41.6 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from 3-point land over the past two seasons) to remain a playable postseason option on the wing, which he wasn't in his last days in Oklahoma City. If he can't come through on both accounts, the Hawks' hole on the wing could be glaring ... especially if ankle and elbow surgeries that Korver spent this summer rehabbing prevent him from hitting the ground running, rising and firing as sharply as he did last season, when he led the league in 3-point shooting accuracy (49.2 percent) for the second straight season.
Even given those questions on the wing, though, Atlanta looks awfully strong elsewhere. Teague and birthday boy Dennis Schröder give the Hawks arguably the league's most dynamic point-guard pairing, and neither the 27-year-old Teague and the 22-year-old Schröder profile as finished products; both have room to improve as they grow more familiar with Bud's offense and with their teammates' capabilities within it.
Horford and the re-upped Millsap have become one of the game's most polished and complete front lines, and the trade for former San Antonio Spurs big man Tiago Splitter adds another smart, versatile, multitalented player capable of both locking down the paint and functioning smoothly in the whirring offensive system Budenholzer brought over from San Antonio. If Bud redistributes the minutes of Mike Scott — who was trouble for Atlanta on the court late last season, and now finds himself in trouble off it — to postseason contributor Mike Muscala and mammoth 2014 draft pick Walter "Edy" Tavares, Atlanta could have its biggest and deepest frontcourt mix in years.
It will be incumbent on Budenholzer to find ways to emphasize Atlanta's strengths on the ball and in the paint; it will be up to the Hawks' vaunted player development staff to mitigate what appears to be a weakness on the wing. If Atlanta can make up for Carroll's absence on the defensive end, and find enough shooting to keep the floor from getting condensed and the offensive flow from becoming disrupted, the Hawks could well rank among the best (or, at least, second-best) that the East has to offer.
"We're not satisfied," Budenholzer said after Atlanta's elimination back in May. "We want more."
And yet, given how much went brilliantly and beautifully right for the Hawks during their unforgettable year in the sun, and how violently the plates Bud spent all season spinning came crashing down in May, you wonder:
How much more can this group really get?
Previously, on BDL 25:
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