Atlanta Hawks – 48-34
Key Additions: Dwight Howard -C(FA – 3 years, $70.5M), Malcolm Delaney -G(FA – 3 years, $8.1M), Taurean Prince -F(Draft – 1st Round Pick, #12 overall), DeAndre Bembry -F(Draft – 1st Round Pick, #21 overall), Jarrett Jack -G(FA – 1 year, $1.0M)
Departures: Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kirk Hinrich, Lamar Patterson
Over the past two seasons, the Hawks have had the second best defensive rating in the entire NBA, they won more games and had a better point differential then everyone in the East outside Cleveland and are also the only East team besides the Cavs to make it outside the first round in both seasons. However, with Cleveland being their chief rival, over the same two year span they are just 18th in the league in net-rating against the Cavs. Their pick-n-roll trapping, paint packing defense that seems so effective against the rest of the league, played right into the hands of LeBron’s drive and dish game. At this point, he has picked them apart to the tune of 11 consecutive losses. It became crystal clear that, despite all their achievements, the roster has reached its ceiling and wasn’t a championship contender. So, with Al Horford becoming a free agent on the wrong side of 30 this summer and Jeff Teague being up for an extension, the Atlanta front office decided it was time to retool. Those two are gone, replaced with Dwight Howard, who happens to be the last man to beat LeBron in an Eastern Conference playoff series, and Taurean Prince, whom the Hawks hope can develop into a “LeBron-stopper” of sorts. It was ironic when every analyst seemed amazed by the Cavs ridicilous three-point shooting during their series against Atlanta. Sure Atlanta defended the three well enough last season, but they have shown repeatedly since 2014 that they are terrified of LeBron doing damage in the paint against them and that they don’t have any one individual that can guard him effectively. As a whole, Budenholzer’s defensive philosophy has always favored giving up an open jumper here or there in favor of shutting the opponent out of the paint. Unfortunately for the Hawks, almost no individual player is able to do that against James and they were quickly forced to double and triple team him. That lead to considerable amounts of uncontested opportunities for the shooters that the Cavs surrounded LeBron with. Alas, this method is the base of the Cavs offense and probably the most effective approach within their system. In a theoretical vacuum, the Hawks weren’t THAT much worse than Cleveland, but in practice this was an obvious case of a terrible match-up for them. They never had a chance, which is why, in the long term, not signing Horford to a 5-year deal, which would pay him more than $30 million as a 35 year old, and trading Jeff Teague for youth were both good moves.
Generally, outside Danny Ferry’s racist rant, the Hawks front office has been one of the top groups in the league over the past two seasons. Their ability to fill the bench with quality reserves is almost second to none. Walter Tavares is secretly one of the best rim protectors in the league, if not much else. Mike Muscala is a legit 4th big comparable to, if not quite as good as, players like Kelly Olynyk or Meyers Leonard. Mike Scott is a spacey but talented player, who can stretch the floor and score in bunches. Malcolm Delaney is also an interesting signing, he is a guy who was excellent in Russia last year and actually has at least average NBA athletislcism at the guard position. With the NBA cap going up but the salaries of overseas players largely staying the same, I think adding some guys from across the ocean to fill the roster out becomes a legit market-value option. There is no way Delaney is that much worse then say DJ Augustin, yet Augustin will make almost three times as much this year. At the point guard position, the crunch for minutes isn’t as bad but most teams have at least one starting level point guard on their roster and the Hawks as an example, had two last year(not to mention Shelvin Mack.) Meanwhile, more then half the teams in the league are hunting to find the next good to great 3&D wing player. I’m not 100% in love with either Prince or Bembry but I think at least one of them should develop into a solid rotation contributor and with their size and positional versitlity that’s extremely valuable in the pace and space era. Just look at Harrison Barnes’ contract with Dallas this summer.
Howard at this stage is a downgrade from Horford, Millsap and Korver are likely to decline and I don’t think Schroder is quite as good as Teague was, at least not yet. Looking through the rosters in the Eastern Conference, they still have a good shot to make the playoffs but likely will be fighting to squeeze in one of the bottom spots. Horford’s defensive mobility, ability to spread the floor and his highly under appreciated passing will be sorely missed. Horford lead the league with 37 assists out of the post last year. His 39 assists from the elbow, were “just” 11th in the league but he only committed five elbow turnovers the entire season. Those numbers amount to a 7.8 assist to turnover ratio. Meanwhile, Dennis Schroder was a rollercoaster on the court last year and even if he makes the strides expected for a 23-year-old, he is still unlikely to reach the impact Teague had, especially on the offensive end. In his last 37 games last year, Teague averaged 17.2 points and 6.5 assists. After a relatively slow start, he was quietly one of the best point guards in a league that has an abundance of talent at that position. The Howard signing seems like a bridge meant to satisfy the ticket sales obsessed ownership, while the team quietly refocuses its efforts towards a rebuild. The front office has done a splendid job of recognizing that this team has hit a ceiling and that they’re better off focusing on allocating resources towards future assets. The win-loss record may suffer in the next few seasons for Atlanta but with some promising prospects and an astute front office and coaching staff, the future is still bright.