As I continue our Southeast Division Preview it brings us to the Atlanta Hawks. This is where everything gets tricky because in his first year Mike Budenholzer took the Atlanta Hawks to their 7th straight playoff appearance in the Eastern Conference, with a one game lead over the New York Knicks, all the while without their best player for most of the year in Al Horford.
Overview: The Hawks have plenty reasons to be optimistic after pushing the Pacers to the brink in their opening round playoff series. Obviously the biggest reason is because they get Al Horford back from injury, but the emergence as Jeff Teague as a legitimate potential All-Star will really keep this team ticking. Paul Millsap is coming off of the best year of his career, and basketball fans all over can’t help but fall in love with the effort and heart of former journeyman DeMarre Carroll. Budenholzer had this team fighting and scraping to get in the playoffs, and while they got in by the skin of their teeth, I can’t find a reason to have this team regress and break their streak of making the playoffs. I’m a big fan of frontcourt powerhouses, which is why I’m a Toronto skeptic, and when I look at Atlanta’s frontcourt my mouth waters with the potential of this squad making some noise in the East.
Guards: Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha, Dennis Schroder, and Shelvin Mack.
With all of the Hawks frontcourt power, their backcourt is severally lacking in talent. With Gary Harris still on the board the Hawks passed on adding guard depth and went with the best player available in Payne, but it left them with one injury away from seriously derailing their 2014-2015 season.
With that said, injuries are impossible to predict so I didn’t take it into consideration. Jeff Teague is a budding star in the league averaging 16.5 PPG and 7APG last season. More importantly, he torched the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, constantly tearing David West and Roy Hibbert up with quick penetrations to the basket. He consistently puts pressure on defenses with that same penetration, and has shown the ability to dish the ball back out to the Hawks’ shooters.
The only real knock, which keeps him from being an elite PG, are his turnovers. In fact, he was one of the leaders in turnovers for PGs in the league. With another year in Budenholzer’s system, expect Teague to become more comfortable and cut down on those mistakes.
Kyle Korver does one thing, but at an elite level; Three point shooting. The former 3PT Contest Champion surprised no one by leading the league in 3PT % at an amazing 47.2% last year, on top of making history with his streak of consecutive games with a 3-pointer. Defensively he never leaves his man, and is constantly aware of what’s going on around him.
Many people have watched Thabo Sefolosha over the years, in the playoffs with the Thunder. A lot of those same people scratched their heads while watching Sefolosha get the starting nod over James Harden during his tenure there. The only reason Scott Brooks started Sefolosha so much is because he is a world class wing defender. The Hawks acquired Sefolosha in a sign-and-trade with the Thunder and is under contract for 3 years/12 million. Dennis Schroder ran the Hawks offense in the Summer League and had a magnificent tournament, but that remains to be seen during the regular season. In his second year, he looks to try and garner some of the minutes Lou Williams left available. Thankfully the Hawks signed RFA Shelvin Mack to a 3 year deal, because Mack provided a very solid 20 minutes a game last year, and developed into one of the better backup PGs in the league.
Forwards: Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott, Adreian Payne (Rookie), Kent Bazemore
The inside game is the bread and butter of this squad, and last year it was PF Paul Millsap that drove this team to the playoffs. The lone 2013 All-Star, Millsap had a career year averaging 18PPG, 8.5RPG, to go along with 3 assists per contest. He even pulled in his first triple-double on March 18th, 2014. While undersized as a big man, Millsap is the real deal, able to score from anywhere on the court and a decent percentage from behind the line. He also brings high energy and a very capable rebounder in the paint. The fact that he’s a free agent after this year has swirled him in trade rumors, but as of now he’s still adding his talents to this Hawks roster.
Another potential free agent, DeMarre Carroll is a player all basketball fans can come to love. After bouncing around to multiple teams for most of his career, Carroll found a home in Atlanta and Budenholzer’s squad. He posted career highs in about every statistical category there is, scoring more points in the 2013-2014 season than his previous 8 seasons combines. His heart and determination added an unexpected asset to the Hawks starting 5 and added a legitimate threat to combine with Korver’s ability on the outside.
A cult favorite in Atlanta, Mike Scott recently resigned and put an end to the rumors that he would be leaving for Russia. Averaging around 10 points and 4 rebounds a game, Scott brought some quality minutes and effort off a decimated bench for Atlanta last year. Adreian Payne, the rookie out of Michigan State brings great size and mid-range shot to the Hawks, and his drafting may ease the pain if Atlanta isn’t able to bring Millsap back. While he has great promise his ability to provide extensive minutes and defensive prowess was questioned coming up to the draft. The Hawks brought in Kent Bazemore as a 3PT threat from the Lakers last year. He chipped in around 13PPG for the Lakers, but at 6’5 he may see most of his minutes at the SG spot.
Centers: Al Horford, Pero Antic, Mike Muscala, and Walter Tavares (Rookie)
The emergence of Teague, effort of Carroll, expertise of Korver, and the ability of Millsap all culminates into one of the best Centers in the league in Al Horford. The two-time All-Star suffered a torn pectoral 29 games into the season, and spent the offseason rehabbing in Italy. Before his second injury-plagued season in three years, the Hawks were 16-13 and went 22-31 the rest of the way. It’s hard to make up for the 19PPG, 8RPG, and 3APG Horford was adding for Atlanta before going down. He should be ready for training camp, and if he can stay healthy, along with the other key pieces for Atlanta, it’s hard to see them regressing in the upcoming season. Pero Antic was a 31 year old rookie after playing overseas for his whole career. He really fit into the Hawks’ offense after Horford went down, but a bum ankle reduced his effectiveness towards the end of the season. He has great size, is a decent defender and is a great insurance policy in case Horford has any set backs. Mike Muscala, a rookie last year, chipped in about 10 minutes a game, and really didn’t have much effectiveness. He’s raw, but put on a pretty impressive Vegas League showcase. Unfortunately, Walter Tavares won’t see the court in the NBA this season, and will hone his skills overseas in Spain.
The Atlanta Hawks are really on an upswing this season and the return of Al Horford will play massive dividends. Their ceiling seems to be a 5 seed in the East, but it is extremely hard to predict with all the shuffling and ineptitude of teams vying for those 8 playoff spots. The Hawks have always been a personal thorn in my side for the
Bobcats Hornets over the years. It’s not hard to convince yourself that there are 3 potential All-Stars on this squad, but it’s also not hard to see anyone making it this year either. Adreian Payne really could turn a lot of heads this year, and make a really solid impact as a rookie. The Southeast Division brings some of the best big men in the game in Horford, Vucevic, Gortat, Jefferson, and Bosh. Overall their lack of depth in the frontcourt forces me to tamper my expectations, although let’s be serious, the Hawks almost always find a way to make it into the playoffs.
Projected Finish: 4th in the Southeast, 7 seed in the playoffs.
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