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Atlanta Hawks 2016-17 Season Preview

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Over the past decade, the Atlanta Hawks have been known for their consistency. The franchise heads into training camp in the midst of a playoff streak that has spanned nine consecutive seasons, with the driving forces of their success being the continuity that stemmed from the front office all the way to the core members of the roster.

However, the 2016-17 campaign marks a new beginning in Atlanta after an offseason full of revisions to the standard script. In many ways, the summer of 2016 was an abrupt change of pace after years of undeviating roster transition. For starters, the last remaining member of the team that started the current playoff run, four-time All-Star center Al Horford, opted to join the Boston Celtics in free agency. A few weeks before Horford’s surprising departure, the franchise traded former All-Star guard Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for a lottery pick.

Teague’s departure wasn’t much of a shock to followers of the team after witnessing head coach Mike Budenholzer’s growing penchant for using fourth-year guard Dennis Schroder in pivotal situations and the veteran’s looming free agency in 2017. Horford’s defection will sting, but Atlanta did secure arguably the biggest free agent “name” in franchise history by bringing in hometown product and former three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard.

The team’s playoff streak doesn’t appear to be in any serious jeopardy, but most are hesitant to consider the current unit title contenders.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Atlanta Hawks.

FIVE GUYS THINK

Even though this will be a new-look Hawks team, I trust head coach Mike Budenholzer to coach the hell out of this group and I think enough core pieces are returning for them win a ton of regular season games. I’m curious to see how Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard can co-exist in the frontcourt. I don’t expect Howard to completely return to form in his hometown, but I do expect him to be more engaged and impactful after the change of scenery. He was clearly upset in Houston and it’s best for all involved that the marriage with the Rockets ended. We’ll see if Howard can avoid clashing with any of his new teammates or coaches. I love Millsap, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder among others on this roster, which is why I have the Hawks winning the Southeast Division (with the Charlotte Hornets coming in second). However, there are too many question marks surrounding this squad (particularly Howard) to view Atlanta as a legitimate contender. The Cleveland Cavaliers are obviously the best team in the conference, with the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors one notch below the Cavs (in my opinion). After that is where I have the Hawks projected, which honestly isn’t bad after losing Al Horford in free agency and trading away Jeff Teague this summer.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

It’s not often that you see a team overachieve for a few years and then return without two of their top players, but that’s exactly what’s happening with Mike Budenholzer’s squad. By effectively swapping Jeff Teague and Al Horford for Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, you could argue that the Hawks downgraded their two most valuable positions. You could also argue, though, that they had plateaued with Horford, so while I don’t like the moves, I do understand them. Howard will turn 31 years old in December, so unless returning home to Atlanta rejuvenates him in a major way, it’s safe to say the Hawks will take a step back this coming season. I’ve chosen the Washington Wizards as my favorite in the Southeast Division and I think the Hawks will be battling the Charlotte Hornets for the second seed out there. It’s tough to make the call between those two, but because Howard hasn’t left me much reason to believe in him and Schroder will have to adjust to life as a starter, I think I slightly favor the Hornets.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

It’s hard to see this Hawks group being a better team without Al Horford. Obviously Dwight Howard was the team’s high-profile free agency acquisition this summer and he’ll give them the “true” center they’ve desired for quite some time, but Horford and Paul Millsap had such a nice chemistry and symbiosis the last couple of years that it’s impossible to imagine Howard replicating it. Trading away Jeff Teague is less of a concern because Dennis Schroder really does look ready to run the show, but otherwise the changes with this roster weren’t drastic enough to inspire confidence in them to come back as the contender they were a couple of seasons ago. There’s nothing to hate here, just not enough to love.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

For starters, the Hawks lost two All-Star caliber performers this summer in center Al Horford and guard Jeff Teague. Normally these types of losses would indicate a drastic decline in wins is on the horizon, but Atlanta was able to sign center Dwight Howard in free agency and homegrown fourth-year guard Dennis Schroder looks ready to emerge from Teague’s shadow. The rest of Atlanta’s core group stayed intact for the most part, but the additions of veteran guard Jarrett Jack and rookie wings Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry give the club much needed depth. The Hawks’ current streak of nine straight playoff appearances isn’t in jeopardy of ending this season, barring any major injuries.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

Losing Al Horford and Jeff Teague won’t destroy the Hawks since they signed Dwight Howard in free agency and have Dennis Schroder filling in for Teague. However, Horford and Paul Millsap had such great chemistry together on offense and, in particular, on defense. The Hawks’ defensive schemes were heavily based on how Horford and Millsap were able to work together and make crisp rotations, so Howard will have to get up to speed quickly to preserve that defensive efficiency. I did like what the Hawks did in the draft by bringing in Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry. Prince and Bembry are some of the most NBA-ready players in this draft and should be able to contribute at least periodically. The Hawks have the talent to make some noise in the Eastern Conference, but I don’t think they took a significant step forward this offseason, which is what they needed to do to become real contenders, in my opinion.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul Millsap

The Hawks struck gold back in 2013 by luring the underrated forward away from the Utah Jazz in free agency. Although Millsap put together multiple quality seasons in Utah, the veteran forward was largely unnoticed by the mainstream. Fast forward three seasons and three well deserved All-Star selections later, Millsap has developed into one of the best power forwards in the game today. With Horford and Teague now in different zip codes, the pressure on Millsap to deliver the goods offensively will increase – every single night. Millsap scored in double figures in 75 out of 81 appearances last season, but there are a few areas of concern as he transitions into the team’s true offensive focal point. Millsap’s road production (15.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists) significantly paled in comparison to the stat lines he posted at Philips Arena (18.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists). Millsap also showed signs of decline post All-Star break, dropping from 17.7 to 15.8 points per game and his shooting efficiency declined from 49 to 44 percent from the field. This may just be a blip on the radar, but Millsap turns 32 years old during the season so it’s definitely a trend worth watching.

Top Defensive Player: Paul Millsap

The case can be made here for veteran forward Thabo Sefolosha as the team’s leading perimeter defender. Howard will undoubtedly get a few votes for consideration as well because of his past dominance as a defensive force. However, Millsap is the team’s top defensive player present day. The veteran posted an impressive defensive real plus-minus of 3.2 in 2016, finishing 12th in the league, and also posted the best defensive rating (96.2) on the roster.

Top Playmaker: Dennis Schroder

Whether the fourth-year guard is truly ready to assume the full-time starting point guard role is still up for debate as we head into training camp. But Schroder will be the unquestioned starter on opening night, barring a major injury or abysmal camp. Schroder hasn’t been shy about publicly stating his goal of becoming a full-time starter and now he’ll get his shot. While Schroder has become slightly known as a chucker in some circles, the guard ranked ninth in the league in assists per 48 minutes (10.3) and ninth in overall assist percentage (36.4). Those are two quality metrics to evaluate a point guard’s ability to distribute the rock and the youngster notched top 10 finishes in both categories. Schroder could become a free agent next summer, but the Hawks can sign him to an early contract extension to get a jump on the market. The club could also allow Schroder to enter next summer as a restricted free agent so the market sets the price of their floor general. There are risks associated with either road the franchise pursues.

Top Clutch Player: Committee Approach

While the most expected answer in this space would be Millsap considering how much the Hawks will lean on his offensive talents this season, digging deeper into the metrics shows that the Hawks are in desperate need for someone to step up and assume the go-to role. With five minutes remaining and with the team ahead or behind by five points or less, Millsap shot just 32 percent from the floor and 14 percent from three-point range last season. This is where the loss of Horford will hurt the team, as the departed center connected on 53 percent of his field goals in this same situation. Surprisingly, forward Kent Bazemore was fourth on the team in points in this situation and shot 50 percent from the floor, 71 percent from three-point range and 89 percent from the free throw line in the clutch. Millsap will obviously get the most looks based on his skill set and standing on the team, but his performance in the clutch last season indicates this designation is up for grabs.

The Unheralded Player: Kent Bazemore

Bazemore signed a four-year, $70 million deal in free agency this past summer, so the Hawks organization clearly values their starting small forward. However, for those who casually follow the team, Bazemore’s value is occasionally questioned. Bazemore struggled down the stretch, specifically post All-Star break, which saw his three-point accuracy decline from 39 to 29 percent to end the season. Overall, Bazemore shot 36 percent from downtown en route to a career high 109 three-pointers made. The club will be expecting another significant leap from Bazemore during the 2016-17 campaign.

Top New Addition: Taurean Prince

Prince, the No.12 pick of the 2016 draft, was the prize the Hawks received from the Utah Jazz in the three-team Jeff Teague trade. After missing the start of Summer League awaiting on his trade to become finalized, Prince led the Hawks in scoring – contributing 13.7 points and six rebounds. Like most rookies, Prince struggled with his shot, connecting on just 38 percent of his attempts from the floor and 25 percent from three-point range, but defensively he managed to walk away with three steals per contest. It’s rare for a playoff team to rely on a rookie for production, but the 22-year-old Prince is more NBA-ready than most first-year players and could carve out a role in the rotation before season’s end.

– Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Mike Budenholzer

Budenholzer has amassed a 146-100 (.593) record in Atlanta since taking control of the team before the start of the 2013-14 season. Immediately after his arrival, the Hawks – once considered a bland offensive unit – developed into one of the most polished scoring teams in the league. But Budenholzer’s impact also extends to the defensive side of the ball, where the team finished sixth in points allowed (99.2) in 2016. The squad also ranked second in defensive rating (98.8), trailing only the San Antonio Spurs (Budenholzer’s former squad). Budenholzer’s fingerprints are all over the Hawks organization and that’s more evident than ever after witnessing the team sign Howard and have the confidence to trade Teague over the summer to make way for Schroder.

  1. Dwight Howard

Atlanta has a long history of polarizing sports figures. From John Rocker to Michael Vick to Josh Smith, there’s been no shortage of players who have divided fans in the city over the years. Howard is the biggest “name” the Hawks have ever secured on the dotted line in free agency. A former three-time Defensive Player of the Year and future Hall of Famer, Howard comes back home slightly past his prime and replacing an All-Star performer in Horford. Conversations regarding Howard’s impact have varied wildly since his signing was announced. Seemingly everyone has drawn their line in the sand. Some believe Howard’s presence will translate into net negative wins for the franchise. Others believe Howard is ready to resume his dominance on the league after flame-outs in Los Angeles and Houston. As always, the truth is somewhere in between. Peak Howard, circa 2009-10, isn’t walking through those Philips Arena doors. But naysayers are foolish to dismiss a player who has never averaged less than 10 rebounds over 12 seasons. Mind you, rebounding was a huge area of need for Atlanta in recent years. Howard performed his best under a hard charging coach in a defined system during his days in Orlando playing for Stan Van Gundy. The Hawks have a defined system and Budenholzer is well respected, so we’re expecting a slight bounce-back season from Howard in 2016-17.

  1. Jarrett Jack

Jack is coming off a torn ACL and appeared in just 32 games for Brooklyn last season. But the veteran floor general is the perfect insurance policy for the Hawks, who have entrusted Schroder to take command at the point. If the youngster falters, Jack can step in – as he has averaged 13.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists over his career when starting. Obviously the team’s goal for Jack is to assume the backup point guard role and serve as a mentor for Schroder, but the Hawks are fully aware the veteran can absorb a larger role if needed (and assuming he’s fully healthy).

  1. The Hawks’ assortment of wings

The Hawks’ wing depth over the years has been questionable. But entering the 2016-17 campaign, the Hawks have an intriguing unit of forwards that will give Budenholzer plenty of lineup flexibility. Bazemore is the starter at small forward, and Sefolosha figures to get extended minutes in the rotation too. However, the question is can the Hawks’ duo of young forwards, Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry, break the rotation in year one? This is the most talent the team has had on the wing in quite some time.

– Lang Greene

SALARY CAP 101

The Hawks went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, signing Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Kris Humphries and Malcolm Delaney. Now over the cap, Atlanta still has their $2.9 million Room Exception, but have a full roster with 15 guaranteed contracts. The team may look to shed one guaranteed player in trade (or by waiver) to make room for Mike Muscala, who has $507,848 of his $1 million deal guaranteed.

Looking ahead to next summer, Atlanta could have $31 million in space under a $102 million projected salary cap, although that assumes Paul Millsap opts out of his final season at $21.5 million. Both Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. are eligible for contract extensions by the end of October. Both Kyle Korver and Tiago Splitter are eligible to have their contracts restructured and extended, but the Hawks no longer have the cap room to do so.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Offense gets the headlines, but the Hawks will continue leading with their defense. The team won 48 games last season and were primarily driven by their ability to negate opposing offenses. But the unit does enter the season with a few question marks. Howard, in his prime, was one of the better defenders the league has seen over the last 25 years. However, at this point in his career, he’s likely a downgrade from the departed Horford. But one area Howard excels where Horford doesn’t is providing elite rebounding. The Hawks allowed the third most offensive rebounds in the league last season and this should immediately be improved by the glass cleaning Howard. Schroder is an upgrade over Teague defensively, on paper, but the youngster will have to be consistent and truly lock in. Expect the Hawks to remain an elite defensive unit in 2017.

– Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

Atlanta’s depth at shooting guard is a bit concerning. When the Hawks rollicked to 60 victories during the 2014-15 season, the team ranked second in three-point percentage (38 percent), trailing only the Golden State Warriors. Last season, the Hawks connected on just 35 percent of their attempts behind the arc. A significant portion of the team’s decline from distance can be traced to veteran guard Kyle Korver’s struggles to find a consistent rhythm. Korver shot 49 percent from three-point rage in 2015, but just 40 percent in 2016. It marked the first time in three seasons Korver didn’t finish in the top 10 for three-point accuracy. Korver will turn 36 years old before season’s end and the team’s primary depth behind him is Sefolosha and Tim Hardaway Jr. Some believe Korver’s decline is Father Time beginning his work, while others point to the fact the veteran entered training camp less than 100 percent after suffering an injury in the playoffs the prior season. Wherever the truth falls, the Hawks must start a succession plan for their starting shooting guard sooner rather than later.

– Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the new additions, after a summer of defections, negatively impact the team’s chemistry?

As stated earlier, the Hawks have made their bones over the years by being consistent in their approach. It hasn’t always been what the team’s fan base has wanted, but attempting to dispute the success year in and year out would be hard to do. The core group has mostly remained the same with a carousel of revolving role players keeping the team perennially in the playoff mix. However, the Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Jeff Teague crew responsible for so much of the team’s success over the past decade are now all wearing different uniforms. This means the locker room culture will shift. The arrival of Howard, after some internal turmoil in Houston, is a dynamic to watch. The big question is can the Hawks continue their winning ways with new guys manning pivotal roles, previously reserved for the old guard? Only time will tell.

– Lang Greene

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