It feels like much more than a year since we were watching the 60-win 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks, a team that was thriving atop the Eastern Conference under head coach Mike Budenholzer. Running one of the most fluid offenses in the league with constant selfless passing and four All-Stars, they were dubbed by some as “the new Spurs” for the way they moved the ball and won without the typical superstar emphasis of most contenders.
Now, after each of the nine seasons of his career and four All-Star appearances, Al Horford is gone, and the former Superman and divisive character of Dwight Howard is in.
Jeff Teague, another of the four 2014-15 All-Stars was dealt away this summer and one of the other All-Stars, Kyle Korver, is coming off a significant down year.
In other words, the identity of the Hawks has changed.
Their limited ceiling of potential in the Eastern Conference, involving the seemingly doomed fate of being beaten by LeBron James, is still the same.
Their identity revolving around free flowing passes and a starting lineup in which everyone can shoot the three? Well, that’s gone.
It leads onto the question of what their identity will be going forward into the 2016-17 season, although it’s simply hard to answer that question right now. With all the roster changes and so many new dynamics to alter the team’s style and what will lead them forward, there are a host of unknowns.
First, there’s the change over at point guard, with former backup Dennis Schroder stepping up into the Teague-less limelight as the new starter. It’s what Schroder has wanted and moving one of the two felt likely for the Hawks at some point, but how Schroder adjusts and takes the next step forward is yet to be seen.
Even though his speed, driving ability, playmaking and simple impact is clear (19.5 points 7.8 assists per 36 minutes last season — both career-highs) and he should form a fun pick-and-roll connection with Howard, how Schroder handles himself and his efficiency in a larger role are something to keep an eye on.
The pick-and-roll connection leads us to Howard, who should be set for a turnaround year after the toughest spell of his career in L.A. and Houston. As a more integral part of the team in Atlanta and not having to deal with front office issues and the ball dominance of James Harden, Howard being happy is absolutely vital.
Say what you want about his character, be it that he’s unfairly criticized or that he’s soft and childish, but if he’s happy, motivated, and included in the offense, seeing a more energized Howard produce in those pick-and-rolls, play aggressively, and run the floor to both score and defend could turn things around for him.
Nevertheless, questions remain. Howard is past his prime at almost 31 years of age, and no matter how much strength, athleticism and ability he still has left in him, seeing him try to make jump shooting part of his game (sometimes it’s just too late and a player should embrace their strengths) or the Hawks running a lot of their offense through him is a major change.
Believe it or not, a fairly smooth jump shot is how Howard scored his first basket in Atlanta’s Philips Arena, banking the shot in off the glass as fans cheered for their new star.
He looked good in the Hawks’ last game against Cleveland, too, a 99-93 win, finishing with 26 points (11-of-15 shooting), eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks in just under 24 minutes. He played with force on some of his driving dunks and hooks from the post (albeit against camp invites and the end of the Cavs’ bench) and connected on several alley-oops with Schroder, rolling well to the basket and running the floor.
How this chemistry continues and how Schroder rises to the starter’s plate is something to watch closely as the Hawks advance.
The future of the Schroder-Dwight duo isn’t the only question mark surrounding the Hawks, though.
Can Kyle Korver (35) bounce back from a down year last season, benefiting from the interior attention Howard attracts and the strong screens he sets? Korver fell to single digit scoring (9.2 points per game) for the first time since joining the Hawks in 2012, and his three-point percentage fell by 9.4 from 2014-15 (a league-best 49.2 to 39.8).
Whether he can up his efficiency again and punish defenders as Howard works in the post and in the pick-and-roll is crucial to the Hawks offense, even more so after losing the three-point threat of Horford to help Paul Millsap spread the floor.
Then there’s Kent Bazemore, a young player in the opposite situation to Korver. The Baze broke out in 2015-16, averaging career-highs in points (11.6), rebounds (5.1), assists (2.3), steals (1.3), blocks (0.5) and field goal percentage (44.1). He’s an energetic two-way player, and the Hawks were right to bring him back, but will he reach another gear as a shot creator and playmaker to help this younger team advance?
There are two younger wings as well in rookies Taurean Prince, a prototypical 6’8″ small forward with small-ball four potential and immediate two-way ability, and DeAndre Bembry, one of the top passers from this year’s draft class, an athletic scorer, and just a consistent three-point shot away from being a fantastic two-way contributor. How will they be used and make an impact this season?
From Bazemore to the rookies, to Schroder, to big men like Mike Muscala and Edy Tavares, the Hawks have plenty of young talent to go alongside the new veteran face of Dwight Howard. How they come together, hopefully behind more strong performances like Howard’s against Cleveland, and what defines their play is still uncertain.
More so than just their stylistic identity, though, is the Hawks’ potential in the East. Shifting from Horford to Howard and changing out Teague for Schroder, the starting lineup has changed, but it’s hard to see anything more than a negative change for their chances as a contender.
Horford did so much for the team, and they haven’t taken a step forward. They aren’t guaranteed to be a top-4 team in the East now, and they certainly aren’t a top three team in comparison to the Cavs, Toronto Raptors or Horford and the Boston Celtics. Teams such as the Indiana Pacers certainly have a chance to overtake these new look Hawks.
For me, Howard having his best season in some time and the Hawks continuing as a top defensive team (they ranked second in defensive efficiency last season, and Millsap guarding in and out next to Howard forms quite the duo) with a new pick-and-roll tandem to make the offense click and help shooters seems like the foundation of this team.
Still, the loss of Horford’s perimeter play, passing, and more versatile defense will cause a great deal of adjustment.
The identity crisis comes down to such a change in the makeup of the roster and young players needing to step up in a new style, all of which adds a host of questions to what the Hawks will be.
The only thing we do know is that they won’t be getting any further in the playoffs.