With free agency almost over, every team is close to finalizing its roster for next year. And this is the part of the year when most team’s fans can talk themselves into a scenario where their favorite team wins the championship. Maybe it’s too hard for fans of the Nuggets and 76ers to imagine their team winning the title, but there are several teams that can look like contenders if you squint hard enough.
Before the season actually comes around and spoils everyone’s fun, let’s take our time to embrace optimism and tell you why your team will win the title. We continue with the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks had an ugly end to the year and lost a key player in DeMarre Carroll in free agency. It’s not been a great couple of months for them, but there’s a reason to think that’ll change once the season starts.
For starters, losing Carroll hurts, but not as much as losing Paul Millsap would have. Millsap is possibly the best player on the team (and definitely top two), and is the exact sort of versatile player that this league is starting to value more and more.
Teams love playing small ball, but it works even better with a big who has small player skills. That’s what Millsap brings to the table. His ability to stretch the floor and handle the ball while also banging down low make him invaluable to the Hawks, and the team needed to get him back. The choice between Millsap and Carroll wasn’t a particularly hard one.
With Millsap back in the fold and a healthier Al Horford, the Hawks still retain the most important players from a team that won 60 games last season. And this is the other important point. This team won 60 games last season! The playoff struggles make everyone forget how good this team was. It won 60 games and will return to a conference with exactly one elite team.
Kyle Korver struggled during the playoffs, but had surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow in the offseason (which was preceded by an ankle injury caused by Matthew Dellavedova rolling over his leg). It’s reasonable to wonder whether that had anything to do with his issues in the playoffs, and it’s reasonable to assume he’ll be a better player next postseason if he’s healthy.
Dennis Schroder might take a step forward, as he’s shown flashes of being a very impressive player. Thabo Sefolosha will return at some point and presumably replace Carroll as the stopper on the team. And the biggest acquisition in the offseason for Atlanta should be a huge boost to the team as well.
Tiago Splitter is a much better player than most realize. He’s an excellent rim protector and was an acceptable ball-mover in the Spurs’ system. Had it not been for one of the best players in the league deciding to go there, San Antonio would’ve held on to the talented Splitter.
When he became available, the Hawks wisely pounced. Atlanta desperately needed some depth in the frontcourt, and now Splitter provides that. Millsap’s versatility will allow Mike Budenholzer to try super big lineups with Millsap, Horford and Splitter playing together. If that lineup can defend well enough (and Millsap has shown an ability to guard plenty of small forwards), it’ll be a difficult matchup for teams.
Throw in Walter Tavares, a 7-foot-3 project who could bring some shot-blocking right away, and the Hawks look to be deep in the frontcourt. Again, the Carroll loss will sting, but it’s possible the Hawks will be more prepared when the playoffs roll around this year as opposed to last. The team could be deeper, and Budenholzer, one of the best system coaches in the game, will have learned from his first deep playoff run and will make adjustments more quickly this time around.
The Hawks were one of the least-talked about 60-win teams ever, and that’ll likely continue this season. But that doesn’t mean this team isn’t a threat. Don’t be surprised if the Hawks have a worse regular season, but a better postseason, and represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals. Perhaps Atlanta is finally ready to take that next step.