DALLAS — The Atlanta Hawks set a franchise record by going 60-22 last season, a campaign that included a 19-game winning streak and the top seed in the Eastern Conference in Mike Budenholzer’s second year as head coach. The Hawks’ season came to a disappointing end with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but it’s hard to characterize the year as anything but a rousing success.
However, even with all of the success Atlanta had last season, one glaring weakness the Hawks consistently had was a lack of rebounding. That’s something that was addressed this summer with the trade for Tiago Splitter, and as the Hawks approach the 2015-16 season with high expectations, they’re implementing a different approach than most teams in the NBA with Splitter in and DeMarre Carroll out.
While most teams in the league are going small, Atlanta has been experimenting this preseason with a bigger lineup featuring Splitter at the center position, Al Horford at power forward and Paul Millsap down at the small-forward slot. The lineup has been a work in progress while producing mixed results, but in the end, the Hawks will be that much more formidable come playoff time if they can improve upon their rebounding woes that saw them rank 28th in the league on the boards.
Doing things different tends to raise eyebrows around the league, but fortunately for the Hawks, Horford and Co. are approaching the different lineup with open minds full of optimism.
“We’re mixing it up. Sometimes we go small, sometimes we play bigger,” Horford told Today’s Fastbreak after last week’s preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks. “Paul is a versatile player; he can play the 3 and the 4. So even though we’re going ‘Big,’ I feel that he can play with a lot of 3-men in the league and I’m comfortable playing the 4 as well. That’s the positive about our team. We’re very versatile and very excited about it.”
With Horford and Millsap starting at the regular 5 and 4 positions, the Hawks are averaging 47 rebounds this preseason while sporting a nice (4-1) record. But no matter how big or small their lineup is, the Hawks need to remember the biggest lesson they learned from their deep run last postseason. It doesn’t matter what you do from October through March, it’s all about what you do from April through June.
“We just got to continue doing what we do,” point guard Jeff Teague said. “Got to do a lot of the same as last year to be successful and try and do our best not to focus on how many we wins we can get but how good we can be at the end of the season.”
It’ll be up to Budenholzer to have his team prepared for the postseason, and he’s excited about the squad building on their success of last year.
“We like our group,” Budenholzer said. “A majority of the guys have been together for a year or two and we’re excited to come in and work and get better every day.”
How Budenholzer uses his big lineup will be worth monitoring all season, and perhaps it’s something that can be a true game-changer when the games really matter for Atlanta.