Last year was the greatest year in Atlanta’s history. With Mike Budenholzer’s pass-friendly and Spurs-esque style, the Hawks dominated the Eastern Conference and won 60 games for the first time in franchise history, going 17-0 in January.
They reached the Eastern Conference Finals before their record season was brought to end by LeBron James. The 2014-15 campaign was going to be a difficult one to replicate as the Hawks soon found out.
The offseason was a tough one for fans. Undervalued star Paul Millsap re-signed but the ‘Junkyard Dog’ DeMarre Carroll left for Toronto and they could only watch as their team again traded away its draft pick, 15th pick Kelly Oubre Jr. for Tim Hardaway Jr. in a three-way deal with the Wizards and Knicks.
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Atlanta started the season with 14 straight games against opposition who finished the previous season under .500 but only managed to win nine of them.
They entered January having won 21 of 34 games but difficulties in that month and in February brought them close to falling below .500. In March, they found their groove. Their offence had not been able to replicate its fiery form from last year but now their defence blossomed into one of the NBA’s stingiest, leading them to a smoking hot month, going 12-4.
They finished the season with a record of 48-34, tied with the Heat, Hornets and Celtics and, with home-court advantage, Atlanta saw Boston off fairly comfortably in six games in the first round. Now, the question their fans are asking is ‘how far can the Hawks go’. With the Cavaliers awaiting them, the answer, however, is probably not much further.
The Hawks have a very solid roster. With Al Horford and Paul Millsap, Atlanta has two of the association’s most underrated big men and also two of the best. Their games are almost flawless. They can score, rebound, pass and defend, giving them a very rare and rounded skillset for their position.
Both players put up at least 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists and 1.5 blocks per game in the regular season. They are complete players and have a tremendous work rate.
Millsap was especially important as the Hawks’ defence became prevalent. His stat line of 17.1 points, nine rebounds and 3.3 assists was accompanied by almost unmatched defensive versatility with 1.7 blocks per game and 1.8 steals.
Those were enough to earn him fifth place in the defensive player of the year standings, although you might argue he should have been higher. The power forward is perhaps Atlanta’s vital piece and best player as game four suggested when he went off for 45 points and 13 rebounds to push Boston all the way.
At the point, Atlanta works with a very talented pair. Jeff Teague was an All-star in 2014-15 and Dennis Schroder is definitely a player on the rise. Although they were both wildly inconsistent at times, the duo offers a game-long threat with their speed, playmaking and scoring versatility. Indeed, they combined for averages of 26.7 points and 10.3 assists per game.
On the wing, the Hawks seemed to be at their weakest with Carroll gone. But then again, nobody expected Kent Bazemore. His infectious smile and humility were accompanied by 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game as he earnt himself a rather handsome pay rise this summer. Bazemore’s non-stop style was just what the Hawks needed to fill the void and Kent’s enthusiasm made every time he was on the floor a pleasure to watch.
The Hawks also had a great set of glue guys and bench depth on their roster. Kyle Korver had a disappointing season but is still among the best shooters in the league, averaging nearly 50% from three-point range in 2014-15. He also has tremendous stamina and is an underrated passer and defender.
Thabo Sefolosha put a difficult period behind him to return from a broken leg and become a massive contributor for Atlanta’s improving defence. Mike Scott also overcame controversy to become a solid bench player but it was some of Atlanta’s new players that made the difference.
Tiago Splitter was a valuable addition before his injury, as was Kris Humphries after he was signed with 21 games remaining, but it was the most criticised acquisition who impressed the most - Tim Hardaway Jr. He did not feature much early in the season as critics pointed out his inconsistency and lack of defensive effort. That soon changed. As the Hawk’s defence surged, so did Hardaway’s. It was a noticeable improvement for him and was invaluable for the team, as Horford himself told K.L. Chouinard for NBA.com:
"Defensively, he’s bringing it," Horford said of Hardaway. "And when he can play defence the way he has been playing it, it just makes us a better team.”
Chouinard adds that, with Horford, Hardaway, Thabo, Scott and Schroder on the court, the Hawks defensive rating was an astonishing 81 points allowed per 100 possessions. No other Hawks five put up numbers as good.
The Hawks were again a side that was team-first - that is their strength. They were again a pass-first offence looking for the best shots on every possession, but they were worryingly inconsistent.
Good teams find a way to win, though, and the Hawks did just that. Later in the season, Atlanta grew into a terrific defensive team by working intensely as a unit. The players are noticing the difference and think highly of it, as Korver told Ian Thomsen of NBA.com: “I think we're a better team than last year, I really do. Our identity is more on the defensive end this year."
It is a style inspired by head coach Budenholzer’s time with the Spurs and, let’s face it, Popovich is not a bad coach to style yourself on - he might just be the best. When the offence stalled for the Hawks, their defence kicked in and kept winning games for them.
By March, Atlanta was third in steals, with 9.3 per game, and second in opponent field-goal percentage, at .433. The Hawks’ individuals and depth combine to make an outstanding team defensively and coaches around the NBA have noticed, highlighting the strength of the Hawk’s playstyle
Via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pacers coach Frank Vogel said: “They look a lot like San Antonio, for obvious reasons. They just play extremely hard. Their intensity and tenacity and in-your-face-idness is tremendous.
"They work extremely hard and are tied together in a good scheme. This particular team has really good individual defenders. Millsap with his hands, Teague with his hands, Bazemore does a great job, Korver’s intelligence, he gets knocked for his mobility but he’s actually a really, really good defender. Horford is strong in there. They’ve got good defensive talent and are obviously really well coached.”
How far can they go?
This is a difficult question to answer. Against any team not named Cleveland in the east, a Hawks fan might be fairly confident of winning. Of the eight teams that made the playoffs, few are almost certain to better them over seven games.
Charlotte, Indiana and Detroit all made the playoffs but all fell 3-1 to the Hawks in the regular season. The Heat and Raptors, however, inflicted season series defeats upon Atlanta by the same margin. Still, Atlanta have the defensive ruggedness to thrive in the postseason.
Of all of the other teams left, the Heat, Hornets, Pacers and Raptors, none of them would be anywhere near as certain to defeat the Hawks as the Cavaliers. The Heat and Raptors may have gotten the better of Atlanta in the regular season but the playoffs are a completely different matter and it would not be all that surprising to see the Hawks’ new relentless defensive schemes lead them to victories over both, especially the Heat.
Of course, even with a different matchup in the semis, Atlanta would likely fall to the Cavaliers in the Conference finals, but this is a team that has the potential to surprise people in the playoffs and, should the stars align for them, who knows just how far they could go. One thing is for sure, this wildcard potential wouldn’t exist without their new playoff-friendly style.
Still, despite all of that, Cleveland is not the team to meet and most have already pencilled the Cavaliers in as the Eastern Conference champions. It was the Cavaliers who swept the Hawks in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals and they repeated the feat in this year’s three-game regular season series.
Whether Atlanta is playing with a free-flowing offence or a stingy defence, Cleveland is a bad matchup for them and the Cavs seem to have no trouble in pushing Budenholzer’s team aside. What makes things worse is that last year’s sweep was with only LeBron, who has been in every NBA finals since 2011, playing out of their ‘big three’.
King James was single-handedly able to drag his home-team past the Hawks without a single slip. This year, they will also have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to deal with. Even the most optimistic of Hawks fan would have a hard time suggesting the team will defeat Cleveland.
LeBron and co. are not invincible though and they definitely do have weaknesses. Their stars struggle for chemistry. Their depth is marred by inconsistent players like J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov and you just get the feeling that something still isn’t quite right.
Budenholzer’s team could surprise the top seed with some peak performances from their best players but, despite those vulnerabilities, it would still be just that: a surprise. No team in the east can match up well with the Cavaliers.
Even with the uncertainty of a change of coaches mid-way through the campaign and a ‘big three’ that still doesn’t completely click on the floor, the Cavs were fairly comfortable in topping the conference and sweeping the Pistons in the first round.
Would it be a surprise to see them complete another sweep against the Hawks? Not totally but yeah… Atlanta’s new intense style better prepares them for tough matchups and while the Cavaliers should win the series, the Hawks may well snatch a couple of games.