For the second time in as many seasons, the Atlanta Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers — with both outcomes ending in a four-game sweep.
Last year’s defeat occurred in the Eastern Conference Finals, while this year’s result happened in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. However, it seemed like the Hawks were poised to avoid another four-game sweep this year after their performance in Game 1 last Monday.
Atlanta was down by as many as 18 points during that game and came back to eventually take an 88-87 lead with 4:28 left in the fourth quarter. However, Cleveland finished the game on a 17-5 run to win, coming up with clutch shots down the stretch. While the Hawks lost, they showed fight in that game and looked like they’d be able to make it a competitive series.
The Hawks followed up that performance by completely falling flat in Game 2, losing 123-98. They returned home for Game 3 and were rolling for much of that contest. They led by as many as 11 points before unraveling in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers outscored the Hawks 36-17 in the fourth quarter and took a 3-0 series lead. By this point, it looked as though the Cavaliers were on their way to another sweep.
The results of this year’s matchup with the Cavaliers were especially troubling for the Hawks as they have now lost their last 12 playoff games in a row to Cleveland. Aside from Game 2’s blowout loss, the Hawks led at one point during every other fourth quarter in the series, but just couldn’t close the Cavaliers out.
For a Hawks team that has made the playoffs an East-high nine straight times, this year’s defeat leaves many questions moving forward. Perhaps the most pressing questions surround the roster. During the team’s current playoff run, they advanced to the Conference Finals just one time.
Given that the team has failed to compete for a championship, is it time to hit the restart button in Atlanta? While making the playoffs nine consecutive times seems like an accomplishment in its own right, it clearly hasn’t been enough to challenge for a title — at least not with the Cavaliers in the picture.
As currently constructed, the Cavaliers have their core players – Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert – all locked up under contract for at least the next two seasons. While LeBron James is only officially under contract for this season, he’s expected to continue signing one-year deals with Cleveland to take advantage of the rising salary cap.
Barring some big offseason changes this summer, it doesn’t appear that the Cavaliers will be leaving the top of the Eastern Conference any time soon. While they have their long-term plans seemingly set in stone, things are not as clear for the Hawks.
Big man Al Horford is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and is expected to command maximum-contract offers. He could be a great addition for a team on the market after averaging 15.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game this season while shooting 34 percent from three-point range.
There could be as many as 20 teams in the league that could offer Horford a max-deal, and he could be tempted to sign with another contender. At this point, Horford hasn’t offered much comment on his pending free agency, although he did express his gratitude for the city of Atlanta over the years.
“I’m not thinking about that,” Horford said after yesterday’s game. “We just had a tough loss. My main priority tomorrow is to meet with the team and the coaches one last time (for the season) and go from there and figure out how we can be a better group.
“I’ve set up [in Atlanta] with my family. We all live here. We live here in the summer. We live here year-round. I’m very grateful for all the people here. They have taken me in from the very first day, even though I was a Gator. They loved me. I really love the city.”
Players coming up on free agency often say all of the right things this time of year. A number of things could change between now and the beginning of free agency that could prevent Horford from staying. Although it seems unlikely, the team could opt to go in a completely different direction and not try to re-sign him.
In addition to Horford, Kent Bazemore will also become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He posted huge improvements this season as he boosted his points per game from 5.2 last year to 11.6 this campaign. His rebounds increased from three per game to 5.1 and his steals nearly doubled from .7 to 1.3.
Bazemore proved to be one of the best bargains in the league this season, as he earned just $2 million. As a guy who has made a living on the defensive side of the ball, he stands to earn a significant payday this summer with a number of teams expected to take a look at him. He’s previously said that he would like to return to Atlanta, but it remains to be seen if the Hawks will be able to re-sign him.
The Hawks have just eight players guaranteed on the roster for next season. After Horford and Bazemore, Kirk Hinrich and Kris Humphries will also become unrestricted free agents, while Mike Scott and Lamar Patterson are on non-guaranteed deals for next year. In addition, the team holds a $1,015,696 option on Mike Muscala.
Another question on the roster seems to be at the point guard position. While they still have Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder on the books for next season, they could decide to trade one of them this offseason. There have been times throughout the season that indicate moving forward with both point guards may not work out.
We often saw Schroder on the court over Teague down the stretch in many crucial games this postseason, which could signal their desire to keep him over Teague. Schroder also hasn’t hid the fact that he’d like to be a starter. It seems as though this will be a decision to monitor as the offseason begins. Teague is owed just $8 million next season, which could be a great bargain for a team in need of point guard help considering the cap will be rising to around $92 million.
Regardless of which players will be back next season, the team has plenty of decisions to make. In the event they let Horford walk, they could have as much as $37.4 million in cap space.
While Horford can still play at a high level, the team could sense that they’ve gone as far as they can with this group and opt to make wholesale changes. With just under two months until the start of free agency, the Hawks will have plenty of time to weigh all of their options.
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