The best team in the Eastern Conference could very well be the team that no one is talking about. After a busy offseason filled with moves, all of the hype was placed upon the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls and even the Washington Wizards to win the conference. Those three (and maybe the Toronto Raptors) were regarded as the only teams with a shot at winning the conference by many analysts.
But after the first month and a half of the season, the Atlanta Hawks have emerged as a serious contender after notching a 17-7 record that has them sitting just a game and a half out of first place. The Hawks have become one of the hottest teams in the league over the last month, winning 12 out of their last 14 games, which included a nine-game winning streak. The Hawks have been so successful due to an offense and defense that are both ranked inside the top 10 in the league in efficiency, and the fact that they’re third in the league in team assists.
“I think that our success has to do with the way that we’re defending,” Hawks center Al Horford told Basketball Insiders. “We are doing a good job defending and our guards are doing a great job of rebounding the ball. Offensively we’re moving the ball around, sharing it and really playing unselfish basketball. We’re having some success because of that.”
The Hawks came into this campaign having made the playoffs in each of the last seven seasons, and did so last year even though they were missing Horford for much of their schedule. Horford went down with a torn pectoral muscle on Dec. 26 and would miss the rest of the season, playing in a total of 29 games. The Hawks were unsure how Horford would return after missing training camp and some games in the preseason, but the All-Star big man has nearly returned to form and has played in each of the Hawks’ first 24 games. He’s averaging 14 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting nearly 54 percent from the floor, which are all down from last season, but he’s shown improvement in each game that he’s played in.
“It feels good to be playing [and] be back with the team,” Horford said. “It’s something that I don’t take for granted and I try to do my best to help my teammates.”
While the team has fully welcomed Horford back to the lineup, they’re maintaining success due to a roster that had little turnover during the offseason. Much of the team’s core has returned including Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott, Shelvin Mack, Dennis Schroder and Pero Antic, adding only Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore through free agency and Adreian Payne through the draft.
“As we went through the entire year last year with people that were with us, we still felt strongly about our locker room and the guys we had on our team,” Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Going into this summer we still felt the same way. We feel really fortunate to bring the majority of them back and add guys in Thabo, Kent and Adreian. We are really fortunate to have so many guys back.”
Second-year point guard Schroder has made big improvements from his rookie season a year ago. Schroder has increased his points per game from 3.7 to 8.6, rebounds from 1.2 to 2, assists from 1.9 to 3 and steals from .3 to 1. Perhaps the biggest improvement has come in the form of shooting, as he’s increased his field goal percentage from 38 percent last season to 47 percent this season.
“I think just his understanding of what’s important for the team to be good and for the team to have success,” Budenholzer said on Schroder’s improvement. “I think defensively he can have a big impact on the game. He can be disruptive on the ball, off of the ball and has the ability to go get some rebounds. Offensively, I think [he’s] just understanding how to incorporate his teammates and keep the offense moving and keep guys involved and then also pick his spots to score and to finish. He just understands how to use his speed, when to use it. He has a long way to go, but he’s taken some big steps this year.”
Despite being ranked 10th in the league in defensive efficiency, the Hawks don’t have any one great defender. The team instead relies on a collective effort to lock their opponents down. They are holding teams to just 96.9 points per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor. Millsap helps anchor the defense with a team-high 7.8 rebounds and 2.21 steals per game, which is third in the league behind only Corey Brewer and John Wall.
“He’s very unique and gifted, just his anticipation and seeing things before they happen,” Budenholzer said on Millsap’s defensive abilities. “I’d say we’re fairly boring and vanilla defensively and I think to be sound and fundamental is important. If he can continue to have a big impact and stay within our principals and stay within the things we do, he’ll really help us. We’re fortunate to have him and it’s great to see him grow on that end of the court.”
Heading into the season, many thought the Southeast Division was one of the deepest in the league. The Wizards were coming off of a strong season led by Wall and Bradley Beal, the HEAT signed free agents Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger while re-signing Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, and the Charlotte Hornets seemed poised to make a strong run after adding Lance Stephenson through free agency. The Magic even looked like an improved team after making several moves over the offseason. While the division isn’t as good as initially thought, the teams within all have the ability to get hot at any time, giving the Hawks a tough challenge throughout the season.
“It doesn’t matter what place you’re in within the division, they’re always going to be tough games,” Horford said of division match-ups. “You play these teams four times a year so it’s important for us to have strong showings and to be able to get as many wins as we can within the division.”
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