The Atlanta Hawks changed the team’s identity over the offseason, trading away a former All-Star point guard, swapping All-Star centers and re-signing an undrafted swingman – once ranked as the league’s 499th best player by ESPN – to a four-year, $70 million deal.
After winning 60 games and being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, the Hawks took a step back last season, winning 48 games before being swept again by the Cavaliers during the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
It was time for a change in Atlanta after being swept in back-to-back playoff series by the Cavaliers.
The first domino to fall was a three-team deal that saw Atlanta send Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers, George Hill went to the Utah Jazz and the No. 12 pick in the 2016 draft (Taurean Prince) went to the Hawks.
The Hawks then turned to a hometown hero once free agency started by signing eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard, who replaced four-time All-Star Al Horford at center.
Finally, Atlanta decided to retain its own free agent: Kent Bazemore. Several teams, including the Bucks, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Nets, Pelicans, Rockets and Magic, coveted the former two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year and 2011 Lefty Driesell award winner from Old Dominion. However, Bazemore decided to remain with the Hawks.
“I’ve always echoed you can be the greatest person you can be if you’re comfortable and I’m super comfortable in Atlanta,” Bazemore told Basketball Insiders. “My fiancé loves it and we’re starting to plant some roots there, my network is growing there, and it’s just a city of opportunity. It’s up and coming, and it’s a place I can see myself actually growing with, more so than going to other places where they may be too far behind or way ahead of the curve. This is a place where I can see myself being for the next 10 years maybe.”
Bazemore’s ARMS foundation has helped him plant roots in Atlanta by developing and operating programs, activities and facilities to increase the health status for underprivileged, less fortunate or distressed children and younger adults. In August, Bazemore hosted a bowling, golf and UNO tournament.
For Bazemore, positively affecting the community and earning a $70 million contract was unfathomable after earning the 15th roster spot on the Golden State Warriors and starting a combined 25 games prior to his breakout campaign last season.
“It’s still unreal,” Bazemore said. “When you put it into perspective, what I’ve done, it’s a thing of the past for me and I think about it here and there to kind of humble myself. I want more, I’m a relentless worker. For me, seeing that I’ve come this far, who’s to say I can’t go even farther, twice as far, three times as far? It’s definitely a piece that gives me tremendous belief and faith. But there’s still more to go for me.”
While Bazemore believes there’s more to go for himself, he also believes the addition of Howard – playing alongside three-time consecutive All-Star Paul Millsap – in the frontcourt will help Atlanta challenge the Cavaliers.
“Dwight is such a big presence and last year, with Cleveland for example, they were able to put Tristan Thompson on Paul and put Kevin Love on Al,” Bazemore said. “So, with Dwight down there, you can’t really do that anymore. He’s able to be guarded by true power forwards and able to use his quickness and speed against bigger defenders, so they’re such a perfect duo, I think, because Paul can move out a little bit and give Dwight his space and Al was kind of a pick-and-pop big. He started shooting a lot of threes last year, so it’s good to have a true center down there, somebody that can rebound the ball. We went from like 29th to like second or third. That within itself has changed the total dynamic of our team.”
When asked about the different dynamic Howard has brought to the Hawks so far this season, head coach Mike Budenholzer praised the big man.
“Dwight is very unique,” Budenholzer said. “His physical gifts and attributes give our whole group a greater physicality. We’re rebounding the ball a lot better. I think we’ve been a very good defensive team and he allows us to maintain that and hopefully maybe even be better. Offensively, I think the group is adjusting to him and what he can do and what he can create kind of with that same physical presence on the offensive end.”
After making eight consecutive All-Star appearances, Howard has failed to make the All-Star team over the past two seasons. Therefore, after being regarded as the league’s best center during his prime, did Howard return to his hometown team with something to prove?
“People are always going to have something to say,” Howard said. “But for myself, I know what I can do for a team and I know what kind of problems I can present for opposing teams every night. It’s always about opportunities and systems. I don’t think I had the right opportunity or right system the last two places I was in and where I could be the most effective. I think with this system right here, I get an opportunity to be effective on both ends of the floor and I still have a lot left in the tank.”
Howard and Millsap have averaged a combined 32 points, 21 rebounds and three blocks per game. Howard has shot 60 percent from the field, including 65 percent from within five feet of the basket. Millsap is shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc. Millsap has provided Howard adequate spacing needed to operate down low on post-up plays and diving on pick-and-rolls.
While Howard and Millsap have formed a cohesive frontcourt, he and new starting point guard Dennis Schroder are continuing to develop chemistry.
“So far he’s been playing pretty good,” Howard said of Schroder. “He still has a lot to learn. I think it’s tough coming in as the starting point guard after being a sixth man for a couple of years and now being asked to lead the team. It’s super tough. It’s one thing where you have to be patient and you have to allow him to go through that growing process and just stick with him through the process. There are going to be some good days, great days and some days he won’t have it, but we’ve got to continue to put our trust and faith in him that he will overcome all those little battles in his mind and he’ll be the point guard that we need.”
“He’s a good guy,” Schroder said regarding Howard. “He did a lot of amazing things in his career and now he’s home. He’s tried to prove to everybody too that he’s like the top center in the league and we’re on a mission with the team. Everybody is counting us out, but we like it and we just try to get better every game so when the playoffs start, then we’ll be prepared for that.”
A major key to Atlanta’s success going forward will be the pick-and-roll chemistry of Howard and Schroder.
“When [Howard] dives, he puts a lot of pressure on the rim,” Schroder said. “It’s good for us. People from the weak side shift and we’ve got Kyle [Korver] and Kent Bazemore wide open in the corner.”
Similar to Bazemore, Schroder spent the first three seasons of his career coming off the bench before earning a full-time starting role with the Hawks.
“I think he’s done well,” Bazemore said of Schroder. “He got his extension, so the pressures of playing in a contract season are diminished. He’s just out there trying to win ball games and he’s one of the most fearless guys I’ve met to date. That’s what you need with a young point guard and he’s a defensive-oriented guy so regardless of how he’s doing offensively, he’s going to impact the game, whether it be with a steal or disrupting the timing of an offense. He’s good to have out there at the point of attack and he’s been great for us.”
As Bazemore flourished in his first season as a full-time starter, Schroder is prepared to do the same as the team’s floor general.
“Coach and the organization trusted me and gave me the keys to the team,” Schroder said. “I worked a lot the last three years, and yeah, they trust me. I got the keys and it means a lot to me, and I can’t be more thankful.”
With Howard anchoring the paint on both sides of the court, Schroder pushing the pace as the floor general, Bazemore locking up opponents’ top scoring perimeter players and core players like Millsap and Korver returning, Coach Budenholzer believes it can all come together for a more prosperous postseason run.
“Well there’s still a long ways to go, [but] I think the thing we’ve been talking about since the first day of camp is we brought back 10 or 11 guys too, so I think it’s been a great balance of continuity with some significant change,” Budenholzer said. “When you have 10 or 11 guys that have played together for a couple years, and have had some success, and understand what we want to do and what’s important to us, I think you can integrate some changes, including a point guard and Dwight. Maybe it just made it a little more possible for us to hopefully [go further] with the results we’re having so far.”
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