2014-15 IN REVIEW
1st in Southeast Division
1st in Eastern Conference
Coming into the 2014-15 NBA season, the overwhelming expectation among "experts" and fans was that Chicago and Cleveland would battle it out for the Eastern Conference crown. Everybody knew the Atlanta Hawks would have a good squad, but you had a difficult time finding many people who considered them legitimate contenders, whether Al Horford was healthy or not.
The general consensus was that Atlanta would be good, but not good enough to make the jump into elite territory. They were spearheaded by a quality starting five yet their anchor had an injury history, they didn't quite have that superstar level talent to call their go-to guy and their bench appeared thinner on paper than you would like for a team eyeing a deep playoff run.
It's funny, however, just how much of a difference it makes when the whole team buys in and operates as a selfless cohesive unit. What a concept.
Of course, you can't just "play team basketball" and expect to win in the NBA; you've got to have a group of guys maximize their individual capabilities. That's not to discredit the impact had coach Mike Budenholzer has had, turning the Hawks into a free-flowing offense predicated on getting everybody involved with constant body and ball movement. The point is, you knew what you were getting from the All-Star frontcourt tandem in Al Horford and Paul Millsap, but they needed the rest of the supporting cast to play some of the best ball of their careers, and to the majorities surprise, they did just that.
Swingman DeMarre Carroll especially put his career in a much better position, transforming his reputation from a scrappy role player to a two-way game changer and glue guy. Carroll not only routinely checked the best opposing player and consistently provided the "little things," he became an offensive threat by scoring a career high 12.6 points per game while shooting just about 40% from beyond the arc. Nobody expected Carroll to make as big of an impact as he did, and he was clearly one of the most important pieces to Atlanta's puzzle all season.
With more responsibility, second-year guard Dennis Schroeder took a leap and contributed over 10 points and four assists per game off the bench.
The Hawks didn't have an elite shot creating slasher on the wing, but they had Carroll and one of the best shooters the NBA has to offer in Kyle Korver. The sharpshooting sniper put together his best year as a pro, displaying the most complete game of his career while knocking down a jaw-dropping 49.2% of his three-point attempts. Korver was as deadly as ever with his feet set, but you saw him make more plays on the move both off the bounce and even in pick n' roll situations. This was not the same stand-still performer he was relegated to earlier in his career, particularly in Utah and Chicago, and he was awarded for his improvement by earning his first NBA All-Star appearance.
Korver joined teammates Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague to become just the third team since the new millennium to have four All-Stars in the same season. Since 2000, only the 2005-06 Pistons and our beloved 2010-11 Celtics have accomplished the same feat.
Carroll was the only Hawks starter left off the Eastern Conference All-Star roster, but he was still recognized when Atlanta's entire starting unit spread the wealth on January's Eastern Conference Player of the Month award. The Hawks dominated the competition, completing the first 17-0 month in league history.
Coach Budenholzer and the Hawks went on to win 60 games throughout the regular season, good for the first seed in the east and finishing with the second best overall record in the NBA, falling behind the 67-15 eventual champion Golden state Warriors.
After taking care of Brooklyn in six games during the first round of the playoffs, the Hawks matched up with a tough opponent in the Eastern Conference Semifinals when they squared off with Paul Pierce and the Washington Wizards, who had just come off a clean sweep by burying Toronto in four games. Washington threw the first punch and stole Game 1, but Atlanta caught a bit of a break when John Wall would be forced to sit out the next three games as he nursed a fractured left wrist and hand.
The Wizards never recovered from that, even though Wall toughed it out and suited up for games five and six, and would only accumulate one more victory for the remainder of the series. Atlanta went on to win four of the last five games of the series, closing it out in six as they earned a date with LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Based on Atlanta's success all season, you would have thought they were going to at least put up a fight. However, when LeBron is averaging 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists to go along with Cleveland's malicious +51 rebounding advantage over Atlanta for the series, there's not a whole lot you can do. Maybe it would have helped having Thabo Sefolosha active for the series, but Cleveland was on an absolute mission and they took care of business convincingly with a four-game sweep.
The Hawks were manhandled in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that doesn't take away from the fact that they put together the most successful season the franchise has seen since Bob Pettit was active, and they weren't even in Atlanta at that point. For the first time in Hawks history, the 2014-15 squad reached the 60-win plateau in the regular season and it was the first time they had reached the Eastern Conference Finals since moving from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1968.
For the first time in years, Hawks fans finally had something to feel good about last season.
SUMMER OF 2015
Key Additions - Tiago Splitter, Tim Hardaway Jr.
Key Losses - DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antic
Atlanta suffered a tough loss this summer when DeMarre Carroll explored the free agent market and accepted a lucrative four-year, $60 million deal with the Toronto Raptors, forcing the Hawks to move on without one of their most important pieces and emotional leaders.
They did, however, tackle a glaring need and got bigger up front. San Antonio was looking to make some moves in order to make their play for LaMarcus Aldridge in early July, and the Hawks jumped on it when they sent a future second round draft pick and the rights to Georgios Printezis to the Spurs in exchange for Tiago Splitter.
Splitter fills a need and will not only produce at the center spot, he comes with championship experience and obviously has spent his entire NBA career under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan. His big body, winning experience, selfless mentality and basketball IQ will be much appreciated in Atlanta, especially considering the fact that Pero Antic signed a two-year deal with Fenerbahce of the Turkish Basketball League this summer.
On draft night, the Hawks used the 19th overall pick by drafting Notre Dame's Jerian Grant, sending him away in a trade that landed Tim Hardaway Jr. in Atlanta. Don't expect Hardaway Jr. to bring the same kind of defensive mentality that Carroll did, but the guy can really shoot the rock and he could make a difference on the offensive end, helping them maintain their spacing with another capable three-point bomber on the wing.
Veteran free agent swingman Jason Richardson had also agreed to play for Atlanta this coming season, but recently backed out and decided that it was time to walk away from the game in order to preserve his physical health going forward with his life.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Al Horford / Tiago Splitter / Walter Tavares
PF - Paul Millsap / Mike Scott / Mike Muscala
SF - Thabo Sefolosha / Lamar Patterson
SG - Kyle Korver / Tim Hardaway Jr. / Kent Bazemore
PG - Jeff Teague / Dennis Schroeder / Shelvin Mack
X-FACTOR - Al Horford's Health
Al Horford's health has been the biggest factor regarding Atlanta's success for years. The three-time NBA All-Star was healthy enough to be active for 76 games in 2014-15, a very refreshing number after missing 98 accumulated games throughout the previous three seasons.
Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and coach Budenholzer are incredibly important to Atlanta's success, but Horford is the anchor of this team. The big fella has an injury history that is especially haunted by a couple of torn pectoral muscles, and it's no secret that the Hawks have historically struggled without him in the lineup. If they want to come back and compete as one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, their leader has to stay healthy.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2015-16
As long as they stay relatively healthy, there is no reason to believe the Hawks won't return as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season. It certainly will not be an easy task to replicate last year's 60-22 record, especially without DeMarre Carroll setting the tone, but this is still a very dangerous squad.
Can they take the next step and compete for a championship as currently constructed? I still have my doubts, but a healthy Atlanta Hawks team is going to do a lot of damage in the east.
1st in Southeast Division
2nd in Eastern Conference
Additional Hawks Previews:
Al Horford does so many good things for the Atlanta Hawks that simply don't show up in the boxscore. He is the closest thing to an elite player that Atlanta has on its roster. Still there are several reasons to think that we may see a career year from Horford. First, he is entering the final year of his contract and will be in line for a huge payday next summer. He took the summer off from international competition to fully train focus on the upcoming season. He is also over a year removed from the pectoral injury that cut his 2014 season short. 2016 will be his third under Mike Budenholzer and he and his teammates should have a firm grasp of the offensive system. A comfortable Al Horford could be a really good Al Horford.
The common perception is that the Hawks have taken a step back on account of losing DeMarre Carroll and not convincingly solving their backcourt shot creation issues. (I am not a Tim Hardaway Jr. believer.) That said, they are coming from a very high perch and can afford to find their way through some issues this season.