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2014-15 Atlanta Hawks Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues previewing the 2014-15 NBA Season with a look at the Atlanta Hawks of the Southeast Division.

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Even after seven consecutive trips to the playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks are still largely disregarded as a player among the league’s elite franchises. The inability of the Hawks to capitalize on their recent run of success is evident by the team’s middle of the pack attendance and the unsuccessful attempts to lure elite level free agents to Atlanta.

Despite the shortcomings, the Hawks as currently constructed aren’t going anywhere in the standings anytime soon. The team has plenty of firepower up and down the roster and if they can avoid the injury bug an eighth straight playoff berth is extremely likely.
But from management all the way to the team’s fan base, another early playoff exit just won’t do. The team is searching for a way to get over the proverbial hump and finally get the mainstream respect it has been desperately seeking – for years. That’s the mission. Anything less than this would be unfulfilling.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-2015 Atlanta Hawks.

Five Guys Think

It seems like every year basketball fans shrug off the Atlanta Hawks as this middling, uninteresting Eastern Conference team that nobody (including a lot of people in Atlanta) particularly care about. With new ownership apparently coming, there’s no telling if the team will even remain there long-term, but what is pretty clear is that, once again, the Hawks head into the season as one of the most underrated teams in the league. Mike Budenholzer is among the league’s best up-and-coming head coaches, and his team should be more competitive this year now that Al Horford is healthy again. They made the playoffs without him last year, and with essentially the same core returning this season (plus Thabo Sefolosha and Adreian Payne), they will have a great opportunity to end up there again come spring.

4th Place – Southeast Division

-Joel Brigham

The Atlanta Hawks have reached the playoffs for seven consecutive campaigns and the 2014-15 season won’t be any different. The next obstacle for the Hawks to overcome is getting past the second round of the playoffs. Atlanta has a strong frontcourt mixed with productive veterans and young guys who can produce if needed. The shooting guard and small forward positions don’t have the same depth luxury. Newcomers Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore will have an opportunity to earn significant minutes early. But at the end of the day Atlanta has enough firepower to get into the postseason but not enough to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

Credit to coach Mike Budenholzer for managing to bring his Atlanta Hawks to the NBA playoffs last season, despite having Al Horford for just 29 games. He did it by teaching and instilling a system marked by ball movement, off-ball and backdoor cuts and allowing multiple guards to handle the ball in an attempt to create opportunities for one another. DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott and Jeff Teague have proven that they are capable of collectively running an offense and with the expected return of Horford and continued thriving of Paul Millsap, things should only improve in Atlanta. The defection of Lou Williams gives the Hawks one less ball handler and represents the loss of their sixth man. That is not something that is easily replaceable, even if the Hawks did manage to sign Thabo Sefolosha. After agreeing to terms with Elton Brand, though, the Hawks will see most of last season’s cast return, and they should be somewhat competitive in the Southeast Division. The Charlotte Hornets, Miami HEAT and Washington Wizards all still seem to be a step above the Hawks at the moment, so finishing fourth in the division is a very plausible scenario. Unfortunately for them, 38 wins will not be enough to get into the playoffs this season, so if the Hawks want to get in, they will have to find a way to outlast the Hornets. While that is not impossible, at this point, it does not seem probable, though the level to which Horford is able to contribute will be the deciding factor. The Hawks are one of the more difficult teams to predict heading into the 2014-15 season, but at this point, they are far from a safe bet to qualify for the playoffs, even with Horford’s return.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Hawks managed to make the playoffs and give the Indiana Pacers a scare in the first round without their best player (Al Horford) so it’ll be interesting to see what they can do this year with Horford back and the addition of players like Adreian Payne and Thabo Sefolosha. Their core players will also benefit from having a year of experience playing under head coach Mike Budenholzer too, which should help. Their division is loaded with talented teams, but the East is still wide open compared to the West so the playoffs seem likely.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

With everything going on off the court it’s been easy to forget how well the Hawks persevered through playing most of last season without Al Horford and how much trouble they gave the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs. With Horford healthy and set to return, the Hawks should be even better. But, as of right now, it looks like no matter how successful they are, there’s going to be a black cloud hanging over their heads. This is an organization full of turmoil right now and in need of massive overhaul in the front office and with ownership. For this year’s sakes, both need to happen sooner rather than later so the focus can switch to making the most of this season. Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer shined amidst the road bumps last year, and will really have to keep this year’s team from letting all of the outside distractions affect them on the court.

4th place – Southeast Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: The Hawks don’t feature an overpowering offensive presence who will consistently go off for 25-30 points on a nightly basis. But the team does possess three guys in Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap who are more than capable of consistently producing in the 15-18 points per night realm. The guy best suited to carry the lion’s share of offensive responsibility is Horford, a two-time All-Star. If you strip out the 2012 campaign, where he missed all but 11 games due to injury, Horford has improved his scoring production in every season since he entered the league in 2007-08. Horford has one of the best mid-range games in the league at his position, is excellent in pick and roll situations and is adept at efficiently finishing at the rim. Horford has never been a volume shooter and can often go long stretches without touching or commanding the ball from teammates, but if the Hawks are going to be successful this season he needs to be aggressive offensively – from day one.

Top Defensive Player: The Hawks have been searching far and wide for a solid perimeter defender who can guard multiple positions.  While the team struck gold last summer signing DeMarre Carroll in free agency, the team was still looking to address their need for a strong perimeter defender. Enter veteran wing Thabo Sefolosha who now becomes the team’s defensive stopper after signing a three-year deal in free agency. Elite level scorers are rarely shut down completely, but guys like Sefolosha make things extremely difficult for those players and are a safety blanket for head coaches.  Sefolosha battled injuries and his overall productivity declined last season in Oklahoma City and the Hawks are hoping thia slippage was a blip on the radar and not an indicator of Father Time.

Top Playmaker: Point guard Jeff Teague spent the first two seasons of his NBA career as a part-time performer behind veteran Mike Bibby in the lineup. But for the past three seasons Teague has served as the Hawks’ starting point guard, developing into a borderline All-Star caliber performer in the process. Teague is the Hawks’ best player at creating off the bounce and will once again serve as a key cog in head coach Mike Budenholzer’s offense. In Teague’s first full season as starter, back in 2011-12, he was known to routinely defer his primary ball handling duties to the team’s veterans. That was then. Teague has undoubtedly embraced the role of lead distributor and no longer shrinks away from commanding the rock to initiate his offense. That’s growth and a key reason why Teague will once again earn some All-Star worthiness whispers.

Top Clutch Player: Horford spent a great of time last season in custom suits due to injury, but when he was healthy the veteran center  was one of the league’s better scorers in clutch situations. But it’s just not about racking up points, Horford was extremely efficient in those clutch situations shooting 61 percent from the floor and 82 percent from the free throw line.

The Unheralded Player: The Hawks acquired shooting guard Kyle Korver from the Chicago Bulls for cash considerations back in the summer of 2012. Knowing what we know now, the move was highway robbery as Korver has rejuvenated his career since arriving to Atlanta, while Chicago has been looking for a sharpshooter ever since his departure. Korver connected on 185 three-pointers last season on 47 percent accuracy and en route to arguably his best season as a professional – at age 33. Korver earned an opportunity to try out for Team USA this summer in preparation for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, showing he has gained internal respect within league circles. However, Korver doesn’t get the same respect on a mainstream level.

Best New Addition: Much like DeMarre Carroll last year, shooting guard Kent Bazemore has an opportunity to be this season’s bargain steal in free agency. But the best addition the team made this summer was securing Sefolosha’s signature on a three-year deal. The veteran wing gives the Hawks a proven defensive commodity and should help shore up some of the team’s perimeter concerns there – immediately.

– Lang Greene

Who We Like

1. Mike Budenholzer: The longtime assistant coach was elevated to the top spot last season and managed to reach the playoffs without two-time All-Star Al Horford for most of the campaign. Budenholzer’s system is based on continuous ball movement, spacing and knocking down open perimeter jumpers. Players love playing for Budenholzer and the veteran skipper should be even more comfortable in year two at the helm in Atlanta.

2. Paul Millsap: The veteran forward became a first time All-Star last season  and was one of the leading reasons the Hawks managed to stay afloat when Horford was lost for the season due to injury. For most of Millsap’s career he has been overshadowed in some way, shape or  form, but has finally maximized his niche in  Atlanta. Millsap is set to earn $9.5 million this season and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. He will undoubtedly be hounded by free agency questions all year long and rightfully so, because he is productive player who brings his hard hat to work each and every night.

3. Jeff Teague: The former Wake Forest University product is a homegrown talent for the Hawks. After a couple seasons not knowing if Teague was truly the floor general of the future, the guard has silenced all internal critics and developed into a borderline All-Star type talent. Teague is in the right situation and system to  continue and further nurture his development.

4. Al Horford: The center hasn’t been on a team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since entering the league in 2007-08, which came after a successful collegiate career where he won back-to-back NCAA championships. Horford is a class act but more importantly his teams improve year in and year out.

5. Shelvin Mack: The stage was set leaving training camp last season for then Hawks rookie Dennis Schröder to assume the primary ball handling duties behind Teague. Not so fast. Mack earned head coach Mike Budenholzer’s trust and quickly took over primary backup duties. The Hawks re-signed Mack to a three-year deal this summer , two of which are fully guaranteed. Heading into training camp Mack will have to once again hold off Schröder, who has another year on his belt, in order to continue developing into one of the league’s better backup point guards.

– Lang Greene

Strengths

The Hawks’ assortment of talented big men who can play multiple positions is a luxury any head coach would love to have in their situation. Horford and Millsap were developing a very solid chemistry on the floor together before injuries hit and both could make a run at an All-Star selection this season. Forward Mike Scott displayed flashes of his potential throughout last season, but made an even bigger statement during the first round of the team’s playoff series versus the Indiana Pacers. Elton Brand is an established veteran who is still productive in spurts, while Pero Antic performed admirably when the rash of injuries infiltrated Atlanta. Rookie Adreian Payne has great potential but the Hawks are so deep in the frontcourt it will be tough for him to carve out consistent minutes in his first season as a professional. Budenholzer has plenty of options at the power forward and center positions.

– Lang Greene

Weaknesses

Atlanta remains one of the league’s most balanced teams. They have capable shooters, guys who can play multiple positions, decent depth and a few All-Star caliber talents on the roster. But NBA titles rarely feature offenses without a dynamic presence who can take over a game at will. The 2013-14 champion San Antonio Spurs is a rare example of a balanced offensive attack getting the job done. Horford has shown glimpses of being able to become a 20+ point per game scorer but he’s unselfish to a fault and will defer for long stretches. This must change. Horford, Millsap or Teague must take their offensive games to the next level. If this occurs, the second round of the playoffs might not be be the ceiling for this team in 2014-15.

– Lang Greene

The Salary Cap

The Hawks still have some spending power, with $57.6 million in committed salaries.  Kent Bazemore agreed to terms earlier in the summer, but he may hold off until the team gains the $2.7 million Room Exception (once over the cap).  If the Hawks renounced the rights to Elton Brand and Gustavo Ayon (who is playing overseas next season), they’ll have $7 million in spending power  — slightly more ($7.4 million) if they cut the partially guaranteed deal of Mike Muscala.  Atlanta is nowhere near the luxury tax line, but is technically hard-capped after acquiring Thabo Sefolosha from the Oklahoma City Thunder via sign and trade.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

Before he was placed on indefinite leave, Hawks GM Danny Ferry did an excellent job clearing the Hawks’ clogged cap sheet and picking up assets in the process.  The two plus years of his tenure have seen Joe Johnson traded to Brooklyn in 2012 while Josh Smith was allowed to leave for a massive contract in Detroit in 2013.  Through it all, along with two season-ending injuries to Al Horford, the Hawks have managed to stay nearly as competitive as they were before those departures while maintaining significant flexibility.  Additions like Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver have helped the Hawks stay in the East playoff picture.

That is the good, but the Hawks’ draft record is the bad.  The team has not drafted a significant contributor since Jeff Teague in 2009, and the early returns on 23 year-old Adreian Payne were not great in summer league.  Ferry also made a mystifying trade this summer, dumping the one year remaining on Lou Williams’ contract along with 2013 number 16 overall pick Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira to Toronto in exchange for a 2015 second-rounder and the almost entirely unguaranteed contract of John Salmons, who was waived.  Dumping a mid first-rounder who had never played a game for the team along with Williams (who might have improved in his second season after a torn ACL) to clear $4.45 million in cap space was mystifying.  Insult was added to injury when the Hawks’ key offseason additions were Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore.

The ugly is the fact that the Hawks have had significant trouble improving via free agency since no stars seem to want to play there.  And that was before the recent turmoil of racially charged comments by soon-to-sell owner Bruce Levenson and Ferry.  With an inability to add major free agents and a poor draft record, the plan for taking the next step and becoming a contender is murky indeed for the Hawks.

Best Case

51-31

The Hawks have better health, especially Horford.  Kyle Korver maintains his performance with age, while Horford and Millsap offer a versatile lineup that also provides adequate defense.  Sefolosha rediscovers his shot from downtown, and the defense improves to around 10th in the league from 14th last year.  The offense makes a similar improvement as the Hawks continue to embrace the three-ball the way they did against Indiana in the playoffs. They get a little lucky, and sneak into the 4th or even the 3rd seed in the East.

Worst Case

38-44

It is difficult to imagine how the Hawks could be any worse than last year’s identical record, but continued health problems from Horford, a decline from Korver, and a repeat of 2013-14 from Sefolosha could make that happen.  DeMarre Carroll, a plus/minus star last year, could also decline from outside to the point he becomes unplayable on offense.  If he and Sefolosha can’t space the floor, it could really hurt the defense as the Hawks need at least one stopper on the wings.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Can the Hawks finally get over the proverbial hump and also gain mainstream respect in the process?

The Hawks are in the midst of seven straight seasons of making the playoffs. In some NBA cities this would be cause for a ticker tape parade.  But Atlanta still lags in the middle of the pack in league attendance and the general buzz surrounding the team during their recent playoff streak has been generally lukewarm. Dedicated Hawks fans are tired of first and second round playoff exits and truly desire to compete for Eastern Conference supremacy on a yearly basis. However is this the year it all starts? The Hawks didn’t make any splashy moves in free agency this summer and are heavily counting on Al Horford to return to form after his season ending injury suffered last season. There’s talent in Atlanta, probably more than at any other time during the current playoff streak, but the league has also improved.

– Lang Greene

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