The Atlanta Hawks were perhaps the biggest out-of-nowhere team in the NBA last season.
They won 60 games and took the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference behind great teamwork on both ends of the floor. Mike Budenholzer led the team on the sidelines as head coach, and he won the Coach of the Year award in his second season with the team.
Is the team going to have a similar season this year? Will they be better? Worse? We’ll look more in-depth at what Atlanta did in 2014-15, summarize their offseason, discuss a key player and then offer a prediction.
What Happened Last Year
Prior to last season, a lot of people predicted the Hawks to improve on their 38-44 record from the 2013-14 season. They’d pushed the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games in the first round of the 2014 playoffs without All-Star center Al Horford, and Budenholzer was entering his second season with the team.
But I can safely say no one saw 60 wins coming.
By the time the calendar had flipped to 2015, the Hawks had established themselves as legitimate title contenders on the strength of their beautiful chemistry. In fact, Atlanta won a mind-blowing 33 of its 35 games between November 28 and January 31:
The team’s starting five of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford were all having career years and were rewarded with four All-Star bids (all but Carroll) and a collective Eastern Conference Player of the Month award for January.
Off the bench, second-year point guard Dennis Schroder bounced back from a disastrous rookie season to become one of the most valuable bench players in the NBA with his blinding quickness. Mike Scott was an athletic stretch 4 who helped Atlanta’s offense avoid cold spells. Thabo Sefolosha was a defensive stopper who provided stability to the bench unit. Kent Bazemore and Pero Antic also played well on the less glamorous end of the court and sporadically delivered quality offensive production.
Down the stretch, with the No. 1 seed all but locked up, Atlanta elected to rest its starters during certain games. Often times, it was staggered which regulars would suit up, so sometimes you’d see two of the starters on the floor together and another game it’d be the other three.
The on-court chemistry began to to slip away.
Injuries to Sefolosha, Scott and Millsap near the end of the regular season also put a damper on all the Hawks accomplished. Sefolosha was out for the playoffs while Scott and Millsap were limited.
The Hawks played the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. On paper, the matchup wasn’t a close one, but Brooklyn’s veterans hung tough and took Atlanta to six grueling games.
In the conference semifinals, the Hawks went behind 2-1 against the Washington Wizards before eking out a few close ones to win the series in six again. Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall was out with wrist fractures for three of the series’ games.
Against the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James and Co. were just too much, sweeping the Hawks without Kevin Love and with Kyrie Irving sitting out Games 2 and 3.
Admittedly, Atlanta had caught the injury bug by this point as well. Teague and Horford were nursing maladies from earlier in the playoffs, DeMarre Carroll hurt his knee in Game 1 against the Cavs and Korver’s ankle injury in the next contest seriously hampered the team’s ability to play at the level it knew it could.
But throughout the playoffs, Atlanta failed to capitalize on the open jump shots they got, its passing wasn’t quite as pretty to watch and the defense’s rotations weren’t as crisp. Injuries weren’t a legitimate excuse for how sub-standard the team played, no matter what its fans might say.
The best way to describe the Hawks’ season is to use a marathon metaphor: they sprinted out to a lead in the first 15 miles of the 26.2-mile race, then walked the next five to fall behind their biggest rivals. When they realized they had to sprint to catch up, their main competition was already too far in the distance to reach.
What Happened This Summer
The biggest individual player transfer for the Hawks this offseason was Carroll bolting for the Toronto Raptors in free agency. The small forward told Bleacher Report Radio that, essentially, Atlanta’s cap situation made it impossible to keep both him and Millsap:
DeMarre Carroll tells us @BR_Radio that Atlanta told him that it came down to him or Paul Millsap
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) July 5, 2015
The Hawks chose to retain Millsap, who agreed to stay in the ATL on a three-year, $59 million deal.
Tiago Splitter and Tim Hardaway Jr. came over in two different trades, the latter of which came on draft night and resulted in the Hawks losing their first-round pick. Splitter is a dependable big man with good fundamentals from the San Antonio Spurs while Hardaway is a young, talented scorer who struggles in shot selection and defensive effort.
Walter Tavares and Justin Holiday were two of the key free-agent acquisitions. Tavares is 7’3″ and a huge defensive presence, which may earn him some minutes. Holiday is a defensive pest who showed flashes as a Golden State Warrior reserve last season. He also hits threes at a decent clip.
To make room for these players, Antic signed with Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey, Elton Brand retired, Austin Daye signed a training-camp deal with the Cavs and John Jenkins is a Dallas Maverick.
Scott, while still with the team, may end up being a non-factor this season. The forward was arrested in July on felony drug charges and could receive up to 25 years in prison. Per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Chris Vivlamore, Scott’s court date has yet to be finalized.
Atlanta made a few other minor acquisitions to fill out its training camp roster, but none of them looks like they have much of a chance to crack the team’s rotation.
Key Player: Dennis Schroder
I could’ve gone with one of the new faces, but the 22-year-old Schroder is the guy whose development and attitude could have a big impact on Atlanta’s season.
A lightbulb seemed to click on in the German point guard’s head last season. He went from an out-of-control rookie to a slick sophomore who could turn on the afterburners and get to the rim whenever the mood struck him:
For some more visual proof of how much he improved, check out the below video of Schroder’s sensational second season:
Once the playoffs rolled around, however, Schroder’s brash confidence got the best of him. He forced his offense and ended the postseason with more field goal attempts (145) than points (144).
Atlanta’s three-round playoff run reminded us that the Schrodrunner (please help me circulate this nickname), while extremely talented, doesn’t yet have the consistency or mindset to start for a team-first outfit like the Hawks.
However, if he takes another leap that’s even close to the one he took between his rookie and sophomore seasons, developing his decision-making some more, he’ll be breathing down Teague’s neck for that starting position by midseason.
If that happens, the Hawks will have to start thinking about a trade. Schroder is a brazen young man, and he’ll become a distraction once he believes he should be starting.
There’s also no use keeping around two very good point guards when the team could use a quality starting small forward. Would Atlanta look to flip the potential-filled Schroder (still on his rookie deal) for some nice value at other positions? Or would they trade Teague, opting to bank on Schroder’s potential?
We’ll know the answer to those questions soon enough.
Before continuing on to a prediction, take a look at how I think the rotation might shake out for the regular season. Projected minutes per game are in parentheses:
The chances of the Hawks winning 60 games again are slim. Atlanta probably realizes it attacked the middle portion of the regular season too ambitiously last season and will try to pace itself better in the 2015-16 season.
Losing Carroll hurts, because having him as the No. 5 option just made it so hard on defenses. There was no one to hide a bad defender on because everybody in the starting lineup had a nice long-range shooting stroke.
I’m probably in the minority here, but I don’t think DeMarre will be missed too much on defense. Carroll may have been a stopper on occasion, but Sefolosha was actually the team’s best perimeter defender when healthy. The Junkyard Dog graded out below-average (negative-0.38) in defensive real plus-minus while Sefolosha was fourth among all small forwards (plus-2.97).
The worry, of course, is that Thabo won’t be fully ready when the regular season comes around. However, Vivlamore gave an encouraging report from Tuesday’s practice about Sefolosha and Korver regarding their recovery:
CMB said Mack did nearly all practice. Sefolosha and Korver between 50-75 percent. All did 5-on-5 work.
— Chris Vivlamore (@CVivlamoreAJC) September 29, 2015
So losing Carroll does hurt the team, but Atlanta is deeper overall now and added a couple of bodies (Splitter and Tavares) who could help them against the likes of Cleveland and the Chicago Bulls.
Hardaway and Holiday also bring skills that can add a new dimension to the second unit — Hardaway with cold-blooded scoring and Holiday with blue-collar defense and spot-up shooting.
Expect Atlanta to take the regular season a bit lighter this season so the team has enough left in the tank for a better postseason performance.
I originally had the Hawks and Bulls in an evenly-matched battle for the No. 2 seed in the East, but Mike Dunleavy’s lower back surgery and another Derrick Rose injury (even though it’s not serious) has convinced me to lean toward Atlanta.
In the postseason, home-court advantage will serve the Hawks well as they take narrowly take down the Chicago Bulls in Round 2 before falling to the Cavaliers in the conference finals again.
Prediction: 53-29 record, No. 2 seed in the East and a loss in the Eastern Conference Finals