One of the toughest things to do in professional sports is to recapture the momentum from a magical season the previous year. The 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks are the embodiment of this dilemma and they’re finding this out in a major way this season. The Hawks were the darlings of the league last year, winning 60 games and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals before the franchise was unceremoniously swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. But as we enter the dog days of the NBA season, the Hawks (31-27) no longer resemble a team with legitimate title aspirations. In fact, the team is trending in the opposite direction as losers of three straight since the All-Star break and six of their past 10 overall.
This season was supposed to develop much differently.
After all, this is a team that still had all four All-Stars from last year’s unit returning to occupy major roles in the nightly rotation. The only significant loss was forward DeMarre Carroll, who skipped town and headed north to Toronto during free agency last summer. However, the team had Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha waiting in the wings, ready to fill the void. Of course, the team was expected to take a slight hit due to Carroll’s departure, but consistent on-court success has not returned to Atlanta. Instead, the Hawks are surprisingly stumbling just to remain relevant in the East.
The Hawks’ struggles can be attributed to a few areas.
One of the major issues is shooting guard Kyle Korver’s bout with Father Time. Last year, Korver was on a historic pace to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line. The veteran fell short of pulling that off, but there were no warning signs that the aging guard, who became a first-time All-Star deep into his career, would see his production fall off the proverbial cliff this year. This season, we’ve witnessed Korver crash back to earth suddenly. The guard’s numbers are down across the board and there have been numerous stretches when the veteran has struggled just to buy a bucket. To be fair, Korver had offseason ankle surgery due to an injury sustained in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Even though he was given the full bill of health entering training camp, you have to wonder if the ankle injury sapped some of his mobility. Sprinkle in the fact that he’s getting older and the Hawks have to seriously consider that Korver won’t flirt with past production consistently – if ever again.
Korver’s struggles are magnified by the fact that the depth behind him in the rotation hasn’t panned out as planned. The Hawks acquired Tim Hardaway Jr. from New York during last year’s draft with the expectation that the third-year pro would be able to carve a solid spot in the rotation. But Hardaway spent the early part of the season glued to the bench and even had a couple stints in the D-League to work on his craft. Although Hardaway has become a fixture in the lineup recently, the fact is he’s still shooting below 25 percent from three-point range and hovering around 40 percent overall since the start of 2016.
The next area where the Hawks have uncertainty is the looming free agency status of center Al Horford. The four-time All-Star has handled his impending free agency with class and tremendous character. The situation has not turned into a major distraction externally, as we’ve seen around the league from stars in similar situations. However, Horford’s status cannot be ignored completely and remains the elephant in the room as we approach the home stretch. The Hawks could lose arguably their best player in July without receiving anything in return. Horford will be offered a max deal this summer and with over half the league expected to be major free agency players, it’s fair to wonder whether the grass will be perceived to be greener on the other side of the fence.
Horford has publicly stated his desire to remain in Atlanta long-term. The franchise has reiterated their hope for a long-term deal as well. The team has never missed a playoff appearance since Horford entered the league and the Hawks boast a program with a very strong infrastructure in place. The team has new ownership, increased fan excitement and attendance levels, and a strong coaching staff calling the shots from the sideline.
Another area impacting the Hawks has been the recent decline of swingman Kent Bazemore. Early on, Bazemore was in the discussion for Most Improved Player, shooting roughly 40 percent from three-point range. Bazemore, an unrestricted free agent this summer, appeared destined to follow in the footsteps of the DeMarre Carroll and cash in on a lucrative eight-figure-per-year deal. However, Bazemore has struggled tremendously in February – shooting a woeful 33 percent from the floor and 24 percent from long range while seeing his minutes in the rotation start to diminish. If the Hawks are going to make a late-season push, Bazemore is going to have to be one of the major players in the efforts.
The last area to focus on is at the point guard position.
The Hawks have a former All-Star in Jeff Teague, who is a legitimate force at the position. But Atlanta also has the emerging Dennis Schroder, who has publicly voiced his desire to be a franchise’s top floor general at some point. The duo was subject to rampant trade rumors as we approached the deadline earlier this month. However, Hawks management smartly decided to keep both in the fold – instead opting to ship Shelvin Mack to Utah for a second-round pick.
But Teague isn’t out of the trade waters just yet.
The veteran is headed to free agency at the end of next season, so expect his name to be in rumors during draft time, free agency and all the way up to next year’s trade deadline. The biggest question is when will Schroder be ready to assume the starting floor general role with little to no impact to the team’s winning on the floor.
If the playoffs started today the Hawks would be sixth in the conference, two games behind Southeast Division leading Miami and without home-court advantage.
But even with all the struggles the Hawks have been going through this year, in a seven-game series the only team that will be overwhelming favorites over the Hawks at this point come playoff time would be Cleveland. So despite all of the mounting losses, the decline of Korver, the uncertainty surrounding Horford’s future, Hardaway’s rough adjustment period, Bazemore’s recent struggles, Tiago Splitter’s season-ending surgery and the emerging starting point guard duel – the Hawks could ultimately end up in the same position as last season. A different path, yes, but could the end result ultimately be the same? If so, it would be a tale of tremendous perseverance.
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