Paul Millsap.

The Atlanta Hawks: What do they need to overcome their playoff hurdle?

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The Atlanta Hawks’ season came to an end in familiar fashion for the second straight year on Sunday as they were once again swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Mike Budenholzer’s team had no answer for LeBron James and the Cavs, who put on a three-point shooting masterclass in the series to blow their opponents away.

The Hawks will now head into the offseason with question marks looming over what the future holds for the Georgia-based franchise.

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Key decisions will have to be taken to give the team the best chance to get over the hump in the playoffs.

Free agency

This summer’s free agency will be crucial for the Hawks, not only in terms of bringing players in but making sure key members of the current roster stay put. Big man Al Horford will be an unrestricted free agent and the organisation will be keen to keep their star player, who has been with them since he was drafted with the third overall pick in 2007.

He has spent nine years in Atlanta and he has been through a lot of ups and downs with the franchise in his time. In his post-game press conference, it was almost inevitable that Horford would receive a question about his future but the center wasn’t prepared to discuss that immediately following a loss.

“I’m not thinking about that,” Horford said Sunday, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We just had a tough loss. My main priority tomorrow is to meet with the team and the coaches one last time (for the season) and go from there and figure out how we can be a better group.”

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Two

Horford may not be ready to think about his plans for free agency but the Hawks certainly have to. The 29-year-old is sure to receive interest on the open market but the Hawks have the cap space to offer him a maximum five-year deal to remain in Atlanta.

Per USA Today, however, the four-time All-Star may have let the cat out of the bag and possibly given something away.  

“I’ve been here for a long time, I feel good being here,” he said. “I love coach (Mike Budenholzer). I love what we have going here.”

Read into that what you will.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks - Game Three

After nine years with one team, it’s more than likely that Horford will test the waters and entertain meetings with other franchises, but ultimately it won’t be a surprise if he decided to commit to Atlanta.

“He’s the glue guy, he’s the guy,” point guard Jeff Teague said. “I can’t imagine the Hawks not having Al Horford.”

Teague, himself, has been the topic of trade rumours throughout the year and that will only continue into the summer too.

Back-up point guard Dennis Schroder outplayed the All-Star in the Cavs series and played the entire fourth quarter in game four and put up 21 points.

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Two

The German also displayed his quality in game one when he posted 27 points on the road which may well give Atlanta the opportunity to use Teague as a trading asset.

Unlike Horford though, Teague wasn’t coy at all about where he sees his future when asked if he wants to stay in Atlanta after Sunday night’s game.

“Yeah, I’ve been here my whole career, why wouldn’t I?” Teague said.

The system

Coach Budenholzer was named as the coach of the year in the 2014/15 campaign as he led the franchise to 60 wins.

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Two

This season, however, that number came down to 48, which has led to questions about whether Budenholzer’s style is good enough to make them successful.

The answer to that question is yes. But the real question is can they do it without a superstar? That answer has to be no.

Coach Bud was under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs before becoming a head coach himself and has implemented that style in Atlanta, largely to good effect.

The Hawks are an unselfish basketball team and pride themselves on ball movement and teamwork. It is a system and a brand that has made the Spurs and now the Golden State Warriors so successful, but those teams have something that the Hawks lack; superstar players.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks - Game Three

It was evident against the Cavaliers in the last two years that LeBron James was the difference and the Hawks couldn’t counteract that with a go-to guy of their own down the stretch that could take the ball and make things happen.

This was evidenced in the closing moments of game four on Sunday as Schroder was handed the responsibility of making the game-winning play, something he failed to do as he simply has no experience of being in that situation.

Teamwork can only take you so far in the NBA, but ultimately it is a stars’ league. The Warriors may still be a great team without Steph Curry, but they may not be a championship winning team without him and the same goes for the Spurs with Kawhi Leonard. 

The Hawks, though, disregard all of this as nonsense and are determined to make it work in their own way and prove that it can be done without a superstar.

“I believe it. I believe it in my heart,” Al Horford said. “I believe that the way we play makes us successful. We just have to figure out how we can take that next step as a group.”

Teague added: “The way we play a great player would have to fit in. A lot of great players play with the ball and have iso situations. It’s just not the way we play basketball.”

Their approach and attitude are admirable but it will not translate into winning.

Atlanta was the second-best defensive team in the league behind the Spurs so their problems clearly don’t lie on that end of the floor.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Atlanta Hawks - Game Three

The organisation will have some big choices to make and having failed to beat the Cavs in their last 11 meetings in the regular season and the playoffs, they know the level they have to match.

“Obviously, it’s not enough with what we have,” Horford said. We’ll see what happens. I think there are a lot of decisions the team has to make.

“We can’t just rush through anything right now.”

Southeast Division
Eastern Conference
Al Horford
Atlanta Hawks
Jeff Teague

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