The Atlanta Hawks surprised everyone when they cruised to the number-one seed in the eastern conference with a 60-win season, but even though they just had the best season in franchise history, my gut tells me this is as good as it gets for this group.
NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer has been winning virtually his whole career. He started out as a video coordinator with the San Antonio Spurs organization in 1994 before being promoted to Assistant Coach under Gregg Popovich in 1996 and was part in the league’s most winningest franchise since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. When Budenholzer got the job to coach this Hawks group in 2013, he brought the same mentality from San Antonio and more importantly, the same offensive style.
Their Spurs-lite offensive showing this season resulted in four all-star representatives in the east and some impressive numbers across the board:
- +5.4 point differential (4th in NBA)
- 46.6% field goals (4th in NBA)
- 38% three-point field goals (2nd in NBA)
- 818 three-point field goals made (5th in NBA)
- 25.7 assists per game (2nd in NBA)
As you can see, they ranked on the top-five in virtually every major offensive category. And the most impressive number to me this season? 22-8 record against the western conference, including wins against the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets (2x), Los Angeles Clippers (2x), Portland Trail Blazers (2x), Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks (2x), New Orleans Pelicans and the Oklahoma City Thunder (with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka).
But towards the end of the regular season the Hawks lost their flow a little bit. Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver missed a few games down the stretch and they ended the year with a 7-8 record over the final fifteen games. They struggled to beat the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards before getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA playoffs.
While a somewhat small struggle at the end of the regular season that still turned into an eastern conference final run should be no reason to panic heading into next year, there are a couple of things that concern me going into the 2015-16 season.
Reason number one: free agency.
Although he didn’t get any votes for Executive of the Year due to his indefinite leave of absence, Danny Ferry did an outstanding job constructing this roster. Here’s who the Hawks currently have on their salary cap next season via HoopsHype:
- Al Horford – $12 million
- Jeff Teague – $8 million
- Kyle Korver – $5.7 million
- Thabo Sefolosha – $4 million
- Mike Scott – $3.3 million
- Shelvin Mack – $2.4 million
- Kent Bazemore – $2 million
- Dennis Schroder – $1.7 million
- Austin Daye – $1.1 million (team option)
- Mike Muscala – $947 thousand (team option)
While that list of players comes to just a total of $39.2 million on the salary cap, approximately $28 million below the expected $67.1 million NBA teams should have to spend next season, the two glaring omissions from that list are the players featured above – Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll.
Part of the reason this Hawks team was able to construct the deep roster they had was because of extremely cap-friendly salaries given to Millsap and Carroll, who combined to make a whopping $12 million in 2015. Both players will be coveted in free agency and command significantly higher contracts next year.
The big question is of course, what should Atlanta do? Brian Windhorst of ESPN tweeted this after the Hawks were eliminated:
Paul Millsap on his upcoming free agency: “This team is family, this team is close and that will play into the decision.”
— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) May 27, 2015
That certainly seems promising for Atlanta, but watching this team throughout the playoffs and particularly in the conference final, they were extremely overmatched on the glass. As good as Horford and Millsap are, both are power forwards and one is stuck playing center. They have similar style games offensively except for Millsap’s ability to step out a little bit further and knock down the three. So while Millsap has been exceptional, and at times, Atlanta’s best player, letting him go in exchange for a true center and sliding Horford to the ‘four’ position may not be the worst move in the world.
Marc Gasol is clearly the prized possession in this free agency class, if the Hawks were able to land him that could be a franchise-changing move, but not one I’d get my hopes up for.
The player I can see as a really nice fit for this team is DeAndre Jordan. His athleticism, defensive presence and domination on the glass would be huge for this team. The biggest issue with Jordan could be price tag. Paying $20 million per year for his services is too high for my liking but that’s what it may cost to get him to leave Los Angeles.
Carroll is one of my personal favorites and although the consensus is that he’s made himself a lot more money thanks to his performance in the playoffs, I still feel like he can be retained at a considerable number. I don’t know if I see Carroll commanding more than what Lance Stephenson got last off-season when he signed with Charlotte for three-years, $27 million, so if Atlanta can ink him to something similar it’s a no-brainer.
The other bonus the Hawks have heading into the off-season is the fifteenth pick in the NBA draft thanks to the Joe Johnson trade with the Brooklyn Nets and their right to swap first-round picks this season.
Size is a big need for this team, both in the starting lineup and off their bench. Bobby Portis of Arkansas would be a nice get for this team. A six-foot-eleven forward with some offensive skill is a big upgrade from Pero Antic, Mike Scott and Elton Brand. Portis could very easily go in the lottery but he might be someone sitting there for Atlanta in the middle of the first round.
I also like Montrezl Harrell of Louisville as a secondary option if Portis is off the board. Sort of like a bigger Kenneth Faried, Harrell is someone that would bring toughness and be relentless on the glass. Something this Hawks team could really use.
Reason number two: the conference is getting better.
If there was ever a time for the Hawks to reach the finals it was now. Only two other teams in the east won 50 games. Kevin Love was out and Kyrie Irving only played two games in this series, both at less than 100 percent. And they still got swept. Largely due to LeBron James of course, but this was their golden opportunity.
Whether or not Love returns to Cleveland next season I think it’s pretty obvious that they’ll win more than 53 games. Likely be closer to 60 and claim first in the east.
The Indiana Pacers will be significantly better with a presumably healthy Paul George. The Boston Celtics could be considerably better, especially if they add a big piece this off-season via free agency or trade, or both. We all know they have the assets to pull off a big deal, thanks to the Brooklyn Nets.
The Wizards could very easily take a bigger step next season and become a 50-win team. The Milwaukee Bucks won 41 games with a very young team and without Jabari Parker for most of the season, there’s no reason to believe they can’t improve next year.
Heck even the New York Knicks should be much better with a healthy Carmelo Anthony, the number four pick in the draft and about $30 million in cap space to make a splash.
Atlanta was a very entertaining team to watch and getting the nicknames of “Spurs East” and “Spurs Lite” were somewhat warranted, thanks to Budenholzer, but the fact is the Hawks had a few really big holes. One is size as previously mentioned, and the other is star-level talent.
We can cite the ball movement offense all we want with the Spurs, but they have an all-time great in Tim Duncan, one of the top point guards in the game when healthy in Tony Parker and arguably the best one-one-one defender in the league with Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs have high-level talent and the Hawks have very good talent. There is a considerable difference between the two.
Great coaching can help get a team like Atlanta to this point, especially in a down year for the conference. But you need to at least one player who can lift a team in a series and that’s something they don’t have.
Unless they’re able to make a big splash to bring in that guy, next year’s results aren’t going to be any better. Fans may have to wait a little longer.
Featured image courtesy: AJC.com