The Atlanta Hawks won 60 games in 2014-15, shocking the NBA into accepting its presence as a force to be respected. They were ultimately swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the team had successfully put itself on the map.
Though DeMarre Carroll left for a raise in Toronto, Kent Bazemore has nicely emerged as a 3-and-D replacement on the wings. Al Horford and Paul Millsap continue to excel, providing Atlanta with heady passing, efficient scoring and intelligent defense. While the Hawks are still one of the conference’s strongest teams, they have also taken a clear step back from a season ago.
Kyle Korver, an All-Star last season and key catalyst of the franchise’s emergence, has been mired in a season-long shooting slump — at least by his own lofty standards. A career 42.9 percent three-point shooter, Korver set a career-high and led the NBA by drilling 49.2 percent last season. Even as teams clamped down on the sharpshooter harder than anyone not named Curry, Korver still found a way to make just under half of his six three-point attempts a night.
This year, he’s knocked down just 37.3 percent, severely limiting the Hawks’ most potent offensive weapon. That’s barely above average, and Korver’s biggest strength in the past has been providing league-leading efficiency from deep on a healthy number of attempts. If Atlanta has a chance of getting back to its 2014-15 form, Korver regaining his own is a necessity.
Both Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder have struggled this year, complicating Atlanta’s increasingly present need of committing to a point guard of the future and amassing assets for the other. Teague is shooting just 42.2 percent this season, his lowest rate since becoming the Hawks’ starting point guard. He’s actually converted a career-high rate from distance, meaning Teague is really struggling to score inside the arc. From all non-three-point distances, Teague’s shooting percentage has suffered, including 52.2 percent within three feet after converting 61.9 percent last season and 60.6 the year before. He’s also averaging his lowest assist total — 5.5 — since 2011-12, even when adjusting for minutes.
There have been rumblings that Teague’s relationship with the team has been uneasy since former GM Danny Ferry casually approached the young point guard’s first foray into free agency. Close followers of the Hawks feel Teague has mailed in games this season in addition to taking his time recovering from minor injuries. With Teague’s contract coming up once again as the salary cap is set to explode, Atlanta may have to pull the trigger on a deal soon if it seems like Teague won’t re-sign with them. The problem is that he’s still Atlanta’s best point guard; are the Hawks really going to make a trade that hurts this season’s team?
Schröder has done little to establish himself as a player worthy of taking the reins in Atlanta for the foreseeable future. While the young German has strengths in dribble penetration, passing and frisky pick-pocketing, Schröder has had trouble scoring efficiently and maintaining a Hawksian (a close relation of Spursian) offensive flow.
Schröder’s public assertions that he should be a starting point guard highlight the guard’s confidence, but they also call into question his ability to be a true team leader in the Hawks’ organization. Atlanta has built a strong foundation populated by team-first players like Horford, Millsap, Bazemore and others. Even if Schröder proves capable talent-wise of handling the starting role, the Hawks still must feel comfortable electing him its starting floor general.
That’s a lot to ask of Mike Budenholzer, who recently sat Schröder two games in a row as a coach’s decision. Budenholzer and the rest of Atlanta’s front office will have some tough decisions to make on its point guard future as the trade deadline and a new salary cap era rapidly approach.
The salary cap, set to jump from $70 million now to a projected $89 in 2016-17, means Al Horford is eligible for a massive maximum contract this July. While Horford has played his entire career in Atlanta and is considered the consummate Hawk, he’ll have a big decision to make this offseason.
Horford has established himself as one of the league’s best teammates, a player whose presence brings winning things to a franchise. As the talented center continues to age, he may prioritize trying to win a championship while he’s still in his prime. Though Atlanta is clearly one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams, Horford would be right to question its ability to challenge Cleveland, Golden State and San Antonio down the line. The Hawks lack an emerging star, and pushing away Teague may serve to alienate Horford even more. While Horford has been around longer, he’s now played a long chunk of his career alongside Teague and may not be as comfortable with Schröder at the helm going forward.
Horford will certainly receive huge contract offers from multiple teams. While the Hawks would almost definitely be one of those teams, the new cap space will afford plenty of other franchises the opportunity to woo the market’s top center should he hesitate to re-sign. Should Atlanta see the writing on the wall that Horford plans to seriously test the waters of free agency, they face another tough decision in the wake of the trade deadline. If Horford leaves after the season, the Hawks are left with nothing in return for one of the franchise’s all-time best players. On the other hand, moving Horford midseason would be a major jolt to the organization and its fan base.
Combine Horford’s tricky situation with the uncomfortable decision brewing in the backcourt for Atlanta, and it’s easy to see how pivotal the next six months are for the team. If push comes to shove, Atlanta may decide to semi-blow it up and seek maximum returns for Teague, Horford and any other veteran they deem expendable. It’s plausible to imagine both a very similar 2016-17 Hawks team and a radically different one. The end of this season and the evolving locker room dynamics will determine the future of the organization.