BDL's 2014-15 NBA Season Previews: Atlanta Hawks

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Things could have gone worse. Things could not have gone that much worse, but nobody’s on crutches, at least.

The Atlanta Hawks have been shaken to their figurative core, though. The team is up for sale, the squad’s ostensible (and failed) leader is on indefinite leave, and the franchise has done little to enhance its roster in spite of a momentum shifting playoff turn, heaps of cap room, and decades-long presence in the jewel of the American south. Its prized free agent played a total of five seconds in his last team’s final game of its playoff run. Its second-year coach now has to run both the front office and work the sidelines.

Its general manager only makes news these days when some NBA legend or would-be Hawk goes on record to call him not racist. Not “racist,” but “not racist.” Such a wonderful distinction!

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That GM, NBA lifer Danny Ferry, did well to partially blow up the staid operation that was the Atlanta Hawks after taking over in 2012. He dumped Joe Johnson’s millstone of a contract, earned draft picks, refused to fall in love with what Josh Smith could do, and he appears to have done a sound job in his latest attempt at raiding Gregg Popovich’s staff – plucking Mike Budenholzer out of San Antonio to run his team.

The Hawks faltered down the stretch in 2013-14, losing 23 out of 36 games to end the season, but it still earned a playoff spot (that it may not have wanted) and dutifully took a reeling Indiana Pacers squad to seven games in the opening round before falling. The defense improved under Budenholzer, the outfit forced quite a few turnovers on both ends of the court (burn), and in all it played as expected – a group that was learning on the fly under a new coach, anxiously awaiting the reinforcements that summer would eventually provide.

Instead, the 2014 offseason brought embarrassment and shame to the Hawk franchise – though you couldn’t tell by the front office’s lingering reaction to terribly screwing things up. Danny Ferry remains the ultimate corporate “anyone’s fault but my own”-creature as he ducks away from press, fans, and culpability after creating a culture that made it OK to deem “a little bit of African in him” a knowledgeable and appropriate statement. Much less something that could work as blight on one’s character, as if being of African descent is something to be ashamed of.

Ferry remains, to Atlanta and the NBA’s great shame, and the scads of “I’m sure he’s not a racist”-re-castings doesn’t take anything away from the back-slapping atmosphere he created in the Atlanta front office. Ferry, and the remaining Hawk ownership (to say nothing of the NBA) appear to see no problem with this. It’s an astonishing, ongoing situation. To the discredit of many.

In less important, basketball terms – the Hawks messed up their offseason. They remain around $13 million under the salary cap, which would work to their advantage on the trade market only in a different era, and they’ve whiffed on supplanting a core that was just a few games above .500 even with Al Horford in the lineup last season. The Knicks are in flux, Brooklyn has diminished, Indiana has been taken out of the picture, Washington and Charlotte are just one injury away, the middle of the East is eminently ripe for the taking – and yet Atlanta isn’t scaring anyone.

Save for prospective free agents.

Teague and Thabo could turn into a devestating defensive backcourt. (Getty Images)
Teague and Thabo could turn into a devestating defensive backcourt. (Getty Images)

2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:

Good seats still available.
All seats still available.
I literally just sat on the Hawks’ bench.
Pero Antic just chest-bumped me.
I’m walking away from the Hawks bench.



Did the summer help at all?

Clearly not.

We’ve seen a generational shift, of late, when it comes to working with cap space and/or flexibility. Respected outfits (prior to their sniping like privileged babies, at least) in Houston and Dallas have made a point to roll over cap space from year to year, in ways that aren’t signs of free agent failure – as it was when, say, the Chicago Bulls failed to land any free agents around the fin de siècle.

At a point, though, the Hawks could be wasting their players’ time. All-Star Paul Millsap is in his prime, and there is no guarantee as to how long Al Horford will be able to hold up while playing undersized center. Losing out on Dwight Howard in 2013 is one thing. Missing out on complementary players in 2014, and rolling into training camp with nearly a max contract’s worth of salary cap space is another. Thabo Sefolosha should be fantastic in coach Mike Budenholzer’s system, but the Hawks needed something more than a mere answer to “how do we solve a problem like DeMarre Carroll starting in a Game 7.” Presuming Thabo is that answer.

Free agent pickups Kent Bazemore and the re-signed Mike Scott are solid enough rotation parts, Elton Brand will return for another underrated season, and dealing Lou Williams for a potential second-round pick and cap space was passable at the time, but the Hawks will be too reliant on internal development this summer to consider this offseason anything more than a massive loss.

Go-to offseason acquisition:

Thabo Sefolosha, the aforementioned “only played five seconds in his former team’s final game of the season”-fella.

Thabo can play. With Mike Budenholzer at the helm, as opposed to Scott Brooks, he’ll be cutting and finishing and making the sorts of extra passes that made him such a solid contributor in Chicago years ago. That three-point shot will never come around, but he’s able to guard three perimeter positions, and his presence will allow DeMarre Carroll to act as an energetic bench contributor.

Glaring weakness:

There’s no “there,” there.

Atlanta was a below-average offense team last season, even with Budenholzer’s wily ways behind the controls, and even with Horford’s needed return this doesn’t figure to change much. First-round pick Adreian Payne’s presence won’t really shift much in this regard, and Jeff Teague isn’t certain to bust out as an All-Star-level contributor any time soon. The fact that a healthy Al Horford could nearly triple his number of 2013-14 games played this season will allow for more open shots and frustration for opponents as he opens up his bag of tricks on both ends, but the Hawks remain the very definition of middling.

Contributor with something to prove:

Jeff Teague improved steadily for the fifth straight season and sustained his production against the league’s best defense in the playoffs. Though this is a bit unfair, if the Hawks are going to turn into anything special this season he’ll have to jump to a Kyrie Irving/John Wall-type level.

Like we said – not fair.

That isn’t Teague’s game, he’s best at filling in holes and picking his spots, but with Millsap entering a contract year and the rest of the East changing in oh so many ways, Jeff will have to start dominating the ball. Budenholzer’s offense doesn’t allow for as much too often, but if Teague shows a propensity for dominating stretches offensively, he’ll happily loosen the reins.

Potential breakout stud:

If he can control his turnovers, something that was clearly lacking in both Summer League and international play this summer, second-year hybrid guard Dennis Schröder could at the very least excite what looks like a moribund Hawks roster. The 6-1 ball handler suffered through a miserable rookie campaign with Atlanta in 2013-14, turning the ball over on nearly a quarter of the possessions he used up, but solid second quarter showings off the bench could turn this Hawks team into something … interesting?

Sorry, we got ahead of ourselves there. It’s still the offseason – everyone’s tied for first place.

Best-case scenario:

With Al Horford coming into his own, matching his prime with the all-around contributions of Millsap, the Hawks could develop into the steady, unrelenting team that nobody wants to play. With the vicissitudes of the NBA’s wearying schedule, the squad could pile up win after win over tired squads, and build upon the 25-21 showing it produced to start 2013-14. After all, everyone is a year older, and presumably better.

If everything falls apart:

A still-thin roster could fall victim to injury or inconsistency or both, and miss the playoffs entirely as outfits in New York City rally around their new coaching staffs. Teague could plateau, the helpers could fall short, and the promise of last year’s near-upset in the first round of the playoffs could go for naught. Even in the crummy East, the Hawks genuinely are teetering.

Kelly Dwyer’s best guess at a record:

Seventh in the East, staying true to Atlanta Hawk form at 41-41.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2014-15 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte HornetsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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