The 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks were one of the great surprises in recent NBA history, a team full of very good, not great players who rode team chemistry and ball movement to a franchise-record 60 wins and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The 2015-16 Hawks were a reminder that such seasons are hard to replicate.
Although glue-guy wing DeMarre Caroll left in free agency, a very similar roster sputtered to 48 wins and the No. 4 seed before getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second consecutive season, this time in the conference semifinals instead of the finals. Last year’s Hawks never seemed to coalesce despite the fact that none of their top seven players played fewer than 75 games. Jeff Teague failed to match an All-Star season, Dennis Schröder seemed to grow frustrated in his backup role, Kyle Korver put up his worst 3-point shooting percentage since 2009, and Al Horford became increasingly perimeter-oriented for a team that needed more of an interior presence. Another overwhelming defeat to the Cavs only made it clearer that this roster had reached its ceiling.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the front office made considerable changes this summer. Teague was traded before the draft for a No. 12 pick that became tough Baylor wing Taurean Prince, and Horford left in free agency to join the Boston Celtics, the Hawks’ first-round opponent. That departure was preceded by the signing of much-maligned center and Atlanta native Dwight Howard, who will look to recapture his All-Star form in a more positive environment than those he experienced in both Los Angeles and Houston. There were almost more moves, too — starting wing Kent Bazemore was a hot commodity in free agency before he re-signed, and Millsap was almost dealt to free up the space to keep Horford in a bigger frontcourt pairing with Howard.
It would take an unlikely return to dominance from Howard and a massive breakout campaign from Schröder for this team to challenge the Cavs, but sometimes a fresh start is its own reward. The Hawks still look like a team just good enough to win a playoff series (and two if they’re lucky), which isn’t the most exciting situation for fans. Yet this somewhat new roster contains possibilities the last one didn’t. Everyone knew what the group with Teague and Horford was capable of doing. Just discovering what these guys can do together could be fun, even if the final result ends up looking a lot like what came before.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Good: The Hawks are 15-5 over their last 20 games!
Bad: Four of the five losses have been to the Cavs or Raptors.
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 12, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
This question functions as something like a basketball Rorschach test, because the Hawks probably didn’t get any better and yet seem to feature far more potential than they did in early June.
Or, I don’t know, maybe you don’t like Dwight Howard, in which case the answer is an obvious no. Few players in this era have been savaged as regularly as Howard, a former superstar whose popularity cratered as soon as he entered the orbit of Kobe Bryant and coincidentally suffered several injuries. The 30-year-old big man will attempt to reclaim his good name in a town that should theoretically be more open to him, especially at the relatively solid price of $70.5 million over three years.
The problem is that he’s an aging center who won’t be able to become the perennial Defense Player of the Year favorite again just by thinking happy thoughts. It’s silly to expect Howard to play like an All-Star again simply due to a change of scenery. The player who manned the backline for the Rockets’ sieve-like defense often looked slow to challenge shots and increasingly frustrated by all those intentional trips to the free-throw line. He is who he is at this point.
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If you can put Howard’s past aside, though, then you may find that the player he is at this point can be pretty effective. Howard’s scoring range is nearly nonexistent at this point, but his 62 percent mark from the field on limited shots suggests he’s still an effective finisher. He also remains a very effective rebounder, grabbing 11.8 boards in just 32.1 minutes per game last season. Plus, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer actually gets his team to defend as a unit in a way that the Rockets never did last season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Howard get much better at that end if only because he’ll have more help. In particular, Millsap is one of the league’s most versatile and talented frontcourt defenders.
Still, Howard is a much different player than the man he’s replacing and will change the entire look of the Hawks because of it. Whereas Horford often seemed like the picture of dependability, Howard often inspires the opposite of confidence, if only due to his goofy demeanor. He’s also not a quarter of the shooter Horford is, which should significantly alter the team’s spacing and require more of an inside-out approach. It’s entirely possible that Howard could see his performance improve significantly without making the Hawks look any better.
The stakes of the team’s other big offseason move are much clearer. Trading Teague represented a clean break with the team’s recent success and a declaration of faith in the still only 23-year-old Schröder. The direct haul — the No. 12 pick that became Prince — is almost incidental to the trade. Schröder has lots of potential and will be Atlanta’s biggest X-factor.
The other biggest moves came on the wing. Prince and No. 21 pick DeAndre Bembry should bring back some of the wing toughness that the team lost when Carroll bolted, although their use as worst-case scenario cover for Bazemore was negated when he re-upped for $70 million over four years on the first day of free agency. That’s a lot of money, but it’s also the going rate for young 3-and-D types in the NBA’s new financial reality.
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The team’s other moves were minor, though not meaningless. Veteran Jarrett Jack will be around to serve as Schröder’s backup and make the local media’s job much more enjoyable, while Kris Humprhies and Ryan Kelly are in town to provide frontcourt depth.
Potential breakout stud:
It’s most definitely Schröder. It’s taken him some time to develop after coming into the league hailed as Germany’s answer to Rajon Rondo (back when that was a thing teams wanted), but Schröder looks ready to prove himself as a capable NBA starter this season. He’s not the most efficient scorer, but Schröder has a knack for making plays and put up very promising numbers — 19.5 points and 7.8 assists per 36 minutes with a 15.5 PER is nothing to sneeze at.
The problems with Schröder are just as obvious as his talent. NBA point guards have lots of responsibilities beyond putting up numbers, and he struggles with decisioin-making and especially tempo control. Teague wasn’t the steadiest hand in the league, but he at least had the capacity to downshift. Schröder still has to prove he knows how to run a team.
The Hawks were willing to put their faith in him in part because he may flourish without Teague to block his minutes. However, the risk is also not so great. If Schröder fails, they can let him and Millsap walk as free agents next summer to kickstart a rebuilding process. That’s a better outcome than if they’d locked themselves into an unclear future.
Howard finds his form in a legitimate defensive unit and returns to All-Defensive Team contention. Schröder casts off his mistakes as a backup and becomes one of the East’s best young point guards. Korver becomes one of the league’s most consistent shooters again, Millsap makes his third-straight All-Star team, and Bazemore proves that he’ll be a very good small forward in this league for years to come. The bench gets by, the Hawks finish with a top-three seed, and they manage to get eliminated from the playoffs before having to face the Cavs again.
If everything falls apart:
Howard doesn’t get any better, breaks the locker room apart with his farts, and heads into next season looking like an albatross of a contract. Schröder doesn’t thrive as a starter but does just well enough to convince the front office he’s worth a long-term deal. Korver sees his shooting percentage drop again, Millsap begins to age poorly, and Bazemore plateaus. The Hawks sneak into the playoffs with enough having gone wrong to convince Budenholzer that a better future awaits, and the franchise gets locked into a different version of the sameness that plagued them last season.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
48-34, 3rd in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 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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