Quite possibly the feeliest-goodliest story of the NBA’s 2014-15 season (Non-Riley Curry Div.), the Atlanta Hawks stormed out to its best campaign since moving to the state of Georgia. The team’s 60-win season came off a rather tumultuous offseason, however, as the relatively minor embarrassment behind making the playoffs in 2013-14 as a 38-win team was overshadowed during the 2014 offseason with the release of remarks made by general manager Danny Ferry regarding free agent Luol Deng.
In discussing the merits of the Sudan-born small forward, Ferry relayed a comment made by a scouting source in Cleveland that aligned conniving unprofessionalism to Deng’s heritage. Ferry immediately hit the apology circuit and was given an indefinite leave as coach Mike Budenholzer assumed both personnel and coaching leads.
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That kind of setback would have felled a rudderless crew, but on the court the Hawks’ superb pacing and diligent execution on both ends took the league by surprise. Regarded as an afterthought in Cleveland and Chicago’s race for Eastern supremacy, the Hawks raced out to the top of the Conference, turning what should have been an anonymous February matchup against the Golden State Warriors into a Finals preview.
The Hawks, just a few days removed from the end of their 19-game winning streak, took that contest. It was another seemingly anonymous game, however, that would derail the team’s season.
Following a win over the Brooklyn Nets in the first week of April, Hawks Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antic were involved in an altercation with police that resulted in injuries that would end Sefolosha’s season. The Hawks would enter the postseason without their versatile wing defender, and by the time the squad paired up with the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals the writing was just about on the wall.
DeMarre Carroll went down in Game 1 of that series with a frightening knee injury, and though he would return his work on both ends was never the same. Kyle Korver was lost for the series with a high ankle sprain in Game 2, as the Cavaliers trounced the Hawks in a sweep.
All was not lost. Budenholzer had the league on its heels with his pace and space system, Jeff Teague developed into an All-Star, Al Horford gutted through yet another injury-bit season, Korver also made the All-Star team and the entire starting lineup was voted the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month for January.
You have to wonder if this may have been the peak, though.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
We are very good and entertaining and also @ATLHawks is very good and entertaining.
Did the summer help at all?
At the very least, it allowed for each Hawk to report to camp duty at full health. Beyond that, though, it was a bit of a snooze.
The Hawks are fully formed, so it isn’t as if a team that ranked both sixth in offense and defense needed a huge makeover, but it declined to compete with Toronto for the services of free agent DeMarre Carroll. Carroll left for a four-year, $60 million deal. Paul Millsap was retained with a three-year, $59 million deal (the last season is a player option), and draft night maneuverings allowed the team to deal its middling first-round pick (switched with Brooklyn as a result of 2012’s Joe Johnson trade) for former Knick shooter Tim Hardaway Jr. Justin Holiday’s acquisition could provide crucial minutes should Sefolosha struggle to overcome his leg injury
If anything, the biggest move came in the days before the draft, when the team officially announced that it was parting ways with Danny Ferry. Ferry isn’t a bad man, he had a solid-enough turn as GM of the Hawks and he is most certainly not a racist, but that lapse of judgment in relaying the scout’s unfortunate words might prevent him from ever earning another lead job as a general manager.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
With the San Antonio Spurs furiously looking to shed cap space in their attempts to both retain their own free agents while signing LaMarcus Aldridge, the Hawks stepped up to plate in order to help their old chums (Hawks personnel el jefe is a former San Antonio assistant coach) out.
Tiago Splitter was acquired for the rights to Giorgos Printezis (a 30-year old Greek player whose rights have been held by eight different NBA teams, including the Spurs twice) and a second round pick the Hawks will likely never give up. Splitter is just about the opposite of what the Hawks had at reserve center in Pero Antic last year, as Antic preferred to stay behind the three-point line (he took 32 threes in the playoffs alone off the bench, making 11), while Splitter is a classic finisher in the lane.
Splitter had his moments in San Antonio, but the speed of the game and his various injury woes seemed to be getting the best of him in his final seasons there. The Spurs spent years attempting to convince Tiago to buy out his contract and come to the NBA, which made the one-sided, salary cap-minded trade so unlikely.
Still, Splitter doesn’t seem to have any hard feelings. In a quote that likely won’t ingratiate him to Hawk fans that consider themselves the championship favorites, he said this at the outset of camp:
“It’s a great squad,” Splitter told Basketball Insiders of his old unit in San Antonio. “On paper they are the favorites to win the title. They have David West. They have LaMarcus Aldridge. Of course, Tim [Duncan]. Just a great frontcourt over there. They are a very talented team. Of course you have to see how things work out for them on the practical side of the game, but on the interior they have a great team.”
The center will turn 31 on New Year’s Day, and he’s a bargain at any price as he looks to turn his career around with Budenholzer.
It’s true that there were fluke-y injuries, both on court and off, but the Hawks just seemed absolutely gassed down the stretch of the postseason last year. As we’ve learned with the Chicago Bulls under Tom Thibodeau in years’ past, perhaps there truly is something to overachieving in the regular season, only to fall apart come spring.
Mike Budenholzer didn’t exactly crack the whip as Thibodeau did in Chicago during 2014-15, no Hawk played more than Paul Millsap’s team-leading (!) 32.7 minutes a night, and at its healthiest the Hawk rotation ran ten deep with veteran Elton Brand and the intriguing Mike Muscala (41 percent on threes) sitting beyond that.
Millsap struggled in the playoffs, though, as did firebrand guard Dennis Schroeder. Jeff Teague looked tentative at times, still just not the sort of player that can take over crucial playoff games once the offense breaks down, and even Korver was hitting a rather pedestrian 35 percent of his three-pointers when he was lost for the postseason.
These aren’t liabilities with easy solutions. Teams like the Hawks just have to hope for the best once the playoffs hit, and all those percentages go back to zero.
Contributor with something to prove:
Jeff Teague will forever find a home in this part of the preview, especially if he fails to turn the corner after a promising 2014-15 regular season.
Teague earned his All-Star berth. He thrived in the pick and roll when Atlanta needed it most and he got after it defensively (even if he’ll never be a shut-down guy on that end). There is absolutely no shame in thriving in that middle ground between “solid starter” and “franchise talent,” the Hawks aren’t expecting Teague to yo-yo Atlanta into playoff wins as Chris Paul and Steph Curry can, but yet another emergence could prove crucial.
Before we can get to that, however, Teague needs to become more of a force in the isolation and two-man heavy playoff sets. He can’t act as an anonymous placeholder when the game is getting away from Atlanta in the third quarter.
Potential breakout stud:
Forward Mike Muscala put up darn good per-minute numbers last season, but with Atlanta’s crowded frontcourt it’s hard to see him getting enough minutes for him to bust out. Tim Hardaway will always be good for the occasional 12-point quarter, but unless that man found basketball religion over the summer, it’s still rather hard to trust that guy. Then again, we used to say the same thing about Jamal Crawford a decade ago.
No, it’s everyone’s favorite waterbug: Dennis Schroeder. The second-year scoring guard was crucial to Atlanta’s second quarter attack last season, catching defenders off guard off the bench and finding his own in both transition and the half court. After a miserable rookie season the 22-year old averaged ten points and four assists in just under 20 minutes a night last season, giving the Hawks a needed isolation threat.
Budenholzer found him somewhat untrustworthy in the playoffs, though, as the youngster pressed. Still, if his game keeps evolving he could turn into a Sixth Man Award threat soon enough.
Not only does Budenholzer’s Big System keep things revving enough during the regular season that the Hawks retain home court advantage in the first couple of rounds of the playoffs, but the team finds a spark mid-May – long enough to put the fear of spacing in the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It seems rather silly to be breaking down matchups between two potential playoff combatants, for a series to be played in late May, in early October; but this is how the East sometimes works. And Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, while potent offensively, still have quite a bit to prove when it comes to minding all the angles defensively.
This is where Atlanta and its band of versatile finishers could come in.
If everything falls apart:
It’s true that the rest of the league has hepped itself to Atlanta’s modus operandi offensively, but that was also the case last winter and yet the Hawks kept rolling. Even a lost month or two can be overcome due to the fact that the Hawks play in the East.
Injuries are the thing. Sefolosha is coming off of a non-basketball break, and it’s always hard to tell how players will respond to that. Horford and Millsap, still undersized, are often prone, high ankle sprains like Korver’s could linger, and Splitter rarely turns in a fully healthy season.
There’s also the fear that, as it was last season, the Hawks could work through the first 75 games relatively unscathed, only to see it all go wrong at the absolute worst time.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
52-30, tied for second in the East.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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