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NBA AM: Hawks Looking To Join League’s Elite

Are the Atlanta Hawks stuck in neutral or poised for a breakthrough into the league’s elite next season?

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Are the Atlanta Hawks stuck in neutral or turning the corner into the league’s elite

From head coaches Mike Woodson to Larry Drew to Mike Budenholzer. From franchise leading men Joe Johnson to Al Horford and to a degree Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague. From general managers Rick Sund to Danny Ferry. No matter the amount of organizational transition over the years, the Hawks have managed to put together an impressive streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances.

However the Hawks’ inability to advance past the second round during any of those postseason appearances is typically the talking point fans and pundits usually harp on when discussing the current state of the franchise.

In 2014, the Hawks finished the campaign sub .500 but managed to push the Indiana Pacers, the Eastern Conference’s top seed, to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs.  While the Hawks had numerous chances to pull off the upset, the club failed to deliver the knockout blow.

Despite the setback Hawks forward Kyle Korver believes the franchise is in a great spot ranging from the Hawks’ cap space, fan engagement and the talent in the locker room.

“I think we’re in a great spot,” Korver said regarding the future of the team during his season ending exit interview. “I think it’s an exciting time to be a Hawk. I think it’s an exciting time to be a Hawks fan. I think we’re on the way up. We got some good pieces. We have some flexibility with the decisions the organization will make.

“But I think in every way that from the business side of the Hawks to the team to the coaching staff to the fans a lot of good things happened this year over the course of the whole season. So we’ll keep on building on that. We’ll keep on getting better and I think we’ll have a real good year next year.”

The three ways to improve in the NBA generally revolve around signing free agents, drafting new talent or acquiring assets via trade. The Hawks are strongly positioned to be players under all three scenarios.

From a salary cap standpoint, the Hawks have just over $47 million in guaranteed salaries on the book next season. Atlanta is set to roll into the summer with $10.2 million in projected cap space to target free agents in the market.

In terms of the draft, the Hawks will have the No. 15 and No. 43 picks respectively in a highly regarded rookie class. The team is also owed future second round picks from Brooklyn in 2015 and 2017.

With a solid assortment of draft picks and a decent amount of cap space, the Hawks could put together an attractive package for a team looking to sell off assets this summer.

The flexibility the team possesses has made a believer out of the veteran Korver who says the franchise is close to getting over the proverbial hump.

“You see what’s possible in every way,” Korver said. “For this team,  with the city, with the crowd and everything. You see what’s possible. It takes time to build some traction with a city. It starts with us. We have to put a product out there that fans want to come and watch and want to get behind and support. I think we laid a decent foundation for what we’re going to be and how we’re going to play.

“The next level for us is we have to learn how to win. We have to take those last couple of minutes and say this is how we win games, these are the plays we’re going to run, these are the looks we’re going to get, these are the shots we need you to make, these are stops we need to get, these are the rebounds we need to get and let’s get out there and do it. I think we had that – almost.”

Raptors on the rise but will they lose Kyle Lowry?

The Toronto Raptors surprised many by peeling off 48 regular season wins and walking away with the Atlantic Division crown this season. The franchise was also able to snap a five season playoff drought in the process, before coming up just two points short, in game seven, of reaching the second round for just the second time in franchise history.

Three areas are usually credited for the team’s rapid rise up the standings this season – the leadership of head coach Dwane Casey, the All-Star development of guard DeMar DeRozan and the clutch play of underrated point guard Kyle Lowry.

The Raptors recently issued Casey a multi-year extension shortly after the season ended and DeRozan is under contract through at least the 2016 campaign. But Lowry is headed to unrestricted free agency this summer and could be taking a huge chunk of the Raptors’ positive momentum with him in the process.

Lowry remains mum on his free agency plans but states he will indeed weigh all of his options while maintaining winning is at the top of list in terms of importance.

“I want to be happy,” Lowry said during his season ending press conference. “I want to win. But it is something me and my agent have yet to talk about. But I know I want to win and that’s important to me.

“It’s not really [about] convincing. It is just one of those things where I have to sit down and look at everything. Weigh the options. Do what’s best for myself and my family. But it’s still too early. I’m still in game seven mode. It’s still early for me to think about those things.”

DeRozan credits Lowry for a big part of the team’s rapid turnaround from lottery dweller to playoff participant. The guard says it is important Lowry is back in the fold next season for Toronto to maintain their growth rate.

“It’s definitely important,” Lowry said. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Kyle and the leadership that he brought and his toughness at the point guard position.”

Lowry averaged 17.9 points and 7.4 assists in 79 appearances this season. Finally healthy after years of dealing with nagging injuries Lowry emerged to produce a career season and logged his most court appearances since the 2008 campaign. Post All-Star break Lowry averaged 20.1 points, 7.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds.

But Lowry feels he can produce even more and is holding himself to a high standard, while entrusting the team’s front office to bring even more talent into the organization moving forward.

“I still expect more from myself,” Lowry said. “I did enough this year to get us into the first round and game seven of the playoffs, but I feel I can do more as an individual. I feel I can do a lot more.

“It’s about winning. The way the culture is around the team and the culture around here in unbelievable from top to bottom. My job is not to build a team. My job is to play. Masai [Ujiri] will do a great job. I’m sure of it. He’ll do the things that need to get the team to the next level. I love this place. I love this situation. Simple as that.”

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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