Not many observers expected the Atlanta Hawks to win 60 games and run roughshod throughout the Eastern Conference last season. Likewise, not many observers expected the Hawks to keep up their wave of dominance once the playoffs began. Such is the tale of the Atlanta Hawks franchise, a team with eight consecutive postseason appearances that is still struggling to garner true mainstream respect. Barring an unforeseen set of circumstances, this is another Hawks unit that will be in the thick of the conference’s playoff mix. However, the question remains, does this team have a title winning knockout punch?
Basketball Insiders previews the Atlanta Hawks’ 2015-16 season.
While the Hawks shocked everyone last year, it’s a little tough to see them repeating that success again this upcoming season. While losing DeMarre Carroll was the only real change in the lineup, there’s no question that the Hawks sort of overachieved last year. Despite that, Al Horford and Paul Millsap still are quite the dynamic duo, and Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver aren’t going to be any worse at their jobs, either. Tiago Splitter is a nice (and much-needed) addition in the frontcourt, but the team is pretty thin on the bench after that. They should be a perfectly enjoyable team again this year, but to expect them to sit atop the East with so many other great teams feels like a lofty expectation.
3rd Place — Southeast Division
The Atlanta Hawks are coming off a 60-win season in which they dominated the East for 82 games. Once the playoffs rolled around, however, they were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Conference Finals. The Eastern Conference race will be tighter this season and the Cavs look poised to take over the top spot. The Hawks will have to combat improved competition while filling the void of DeMarre Carroll, who signed with the Toronto Raptors in free agency. Their chemistry is one of their biggest strengths and this is a group that should be able to withstand roster changes. Another 60 wins seems like a stretch this season, but they still should be one of the top teams in the East.
1st Place — Southeast Division
I’m really not sure what to expect from the Hawks this season. On one hand, they took me by complete surprise last season, though I do think it’s safe to say that is probably true for almost everyone. In the end, I think the loss of DeMarre Carroll will hurt them immensely as a team, but I don’t think think the HEAT will play to win the division, but instead pitch-count both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in hopes of having them fresh for the playoffs. I’m not sure the Wizards are mature enough to play a full 82-game season at a high level and snatch the division title. On the other hand, Mike Budenholzer has implemented a system that encourages hard work, ball sharing and wise shot selection. That seems to be a recipe for winning and, if there is one thing he has taken from Gregg Popovich, it would probably be the ability to win with unlikely pieces. Playoffs will be another story, but I’ll take the Hawks in the Southeast.
1st Place — Southeast Division
The Atlanta Hawks were the surprise of the 2014-15 campaign. Seemingly out of nowhere the franchise marched to 60 regular victories and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. But those following the team closely understand that this was the Hawks’ eighth consecutive trip to the postseason. The Hawks are brewing something special in Atlanta but the team took a hit over the summer with forward DeMarre Carroll defecting to Toronto in free agency. Expect another 50-win season in Atlanta but the team still lacks the firepower to make a Finals appearance.
1st Place — Southeast Division
When I look at this Hawks team, I continue to see them as a great regular season team that will rack up wins and finish as a very high seed, but then sputter come playoff time. That’s exactly what happened last year, and nobody was really surprised since they lack star power and their attack isn’t as effective over a seven-game series. I think losing DeMarre Carroll will hurt this team since he was terrific on both ends for them last year, but I love the fact that they picked up Tiago Splitter. I see Atlanta winning the Southeast Division, but I think they’re still a piece or two away from being a contender.
1st Place — Southeast Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Paul Millsap
The Hawks employ an offense by committee approach so the team’s top options will never flirt with winning a scoring crown. With all due respect to All-Star center Al Horford, who may be the team’s best overall player, the club’s best offensive option is Millsap. The veteran forward has thrived in Atlanta since arriving from Utah and its due in part to his versatile offensive game. Millsap is a threat on the interior, perimeter and off the bounce. The Hawks offense runs at its highest levels when Millsap is hitting on all cylinders.
Top Defensive Player: Thabo Sefolosha
Sefolosha is coming off of a season ending leg injury, but if he’s fully healthy the veteran forward is the Hawks’ best one-on-one defender. Sefolosha, 31, may not be the defender he was during his prime years in the league, but his presence gives the Hawks’ lineup plenty of flexibility and an entirely different temperament. With DeMarre Carroll now in Toronto, Sefolosha’s role as a defensive pest rises to the forefront.
Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague
Teague rode the pine during his first two seasons in the league, but the former Wake Forest standout has since developed into one of the game’s better floor generals and an All-Star performer. While Teague led the team last season with 25 games of more than 20 points scored, it’s his playmaking and ability to wreak havoc on opposing defenses off the dribble that keep the Hawks in gear offensively.
Top Clutch Player: Committee Approach
At the foundation of Atlanta’s high powered offense is the premise of sharing the ball and working to find the best possible shot at the optimal time. As a result, six Hawks players averaged double figures in scoring last season. Likewise, down the stretch of close contests there is no set hierarchy of who is going to get the final shot. For Atlanta, it all comes down to matchups, the situation and who has the hottest hand at the time.
The Unheralded Player: Al Horford
Here are the facts of the matter. Horford is an under 30 three-time All-Star performer who has never failed to reach the playoffs since entering the league. However, on a national level Horford is still largely underrated given his complete arsenal of tools. Horford will be eyeing free agency next summer so this is a big year for the veteran center.
Best New Addition: Tiago Splitter
While Splitter may be classified as a new addition, the center will have a very short adjustment period due to his relationship with Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer from their days in San Antonio. As today’s big men go, Splitter is a blue collar workhorse willing to do the dirty work, set hard screens, rebound and defend. Splitter’s presence in the rotation will give Budenholzer multiple lineup options in the club’s potent frontcourt.
Who We Like
Mike Budenholzer: The coach has compiled a 98-66 (.598) record in two seasons at the helm of the Hawks. Budenholzer’s tenure boasts two straight playoff trips and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. The veteran sideline general immediately secured the buy-in of his players, implemented his philosophies and is one of the best minds in the business. Now, the team has entrusted Budenholzer to handle all personnel decisions as an executive. Plenty of guys have struggled to handle both roles, but Budenholzer has a solid infrastructure in place so there shouldn’t be many hiccups.
Kyle Korver: Guys who enter the league as role players typically don’t develop into first time All-Stars in their 12th NBA season. But Korver accomplished those professional heights last season and while his averages of 12.1 points and 4.1 rebounds don’t jump off the page, his ability to space the floor is crucial for the Hawks offense. In three seasons with the Hawks, Korver has connected on 595 three-pointers with an impressive 47 percent accuracy.
Dennis Schroder: Quiet as kept, Schroder made a huge jump in his sophomore season, improving in essentially every statistical category after an up and down rookie campaign. At 22, Schroder is just scratching the surface of his potential and playing behind an All-Star guard gives him plenty of time to fully develop.
Paul Millsap: The veteran could have seriously explored other options in free agency this past summer, but ultimately elected to re-sign in Atlanta where he has become an All-Star player. Millsap is not an overwhelming player, but continues to find a way to get it down night in and night out.
The Hawks have numerous strengths. The team ranked second in three-point shooting accuracy, fourth in field goal percentage, second in assists per game and tenth in points scored a season ago. Atlanta’s offense is elite and was the primary driver in the team’s 60 win campaign. The majority of the cast is back for another go, so expect to see more of the same offensive wizardry during the 2015-16 campaign.
Teams didn’t exactly steamroll the Hawks’ defense last season, but the fact remains that the team ranked 28th in rebounding and tied for 16th in blocked shots. Part of this is because the Hawks are an undersized unit in the frontcourt and lack a true rim protector. The addition of Tiago Splitter will help with the rebounding woes, while rookie Walter Tavares may develop into a solid rim protector in time.
The Burning Question
Is this Al Horford’s final season in Atlanta?
Sure, we could have asked whether the Hawks – after eight consecutive playoff trips – can finally get over the hump. But that’s the direction we’ve covered in this space the past few years and honestly the team had a breakthrough last season in reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. One of the keys to the Hawks’ long-term success will be securing Horford’s signature on a new deal next summer. For the first time in his career, Horford will be in a position to choose his own career path and situation. Sometimes the grass looks greener on the other side. For the Hawks, losing Horford would be a huge blow to their culture and program.
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