Jacob Eisenberg explains why the Hawks are succeeding and why they have yet to receive any national recognition…
When interviewed back on October 1, Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague said he was most looking forward to using his team’s speed to create easy opportunities for transition baskets.
“Speed kills,” said Teague. “And our team has a lot of speed.”
Fast-forward three months, and it is apparent that Teague’s prediction was spot on.Atlanta’s speed has been deadly on both defense and offense. The Hawks rank among the league’s top teams in turnovers forced, assists and fast-break points.
But nationally, nobody much cares.
Why is that when it comes to the Hawks?
To many, Atlanta’s success has been the biggest surprise of the Eastern Conference’s first semester. After the team traded away Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams over the summer in moves that will save the organization nearly $80 million over the next four seasons, analysts expected a serious drop-off. After all, Johnson was an All-Star and go-to scorer while Williams had finally found his niche in Atlanta as a dynamic wing defender.
Thirty-three games into the 2012-2013 season, however, it is apparent that the Hawks are every bit as good – if not better – than they were last season.
How have the Hawks managed to avoid the slide in the standings?
For starters, Al Horford has recovered from a torn pectoral muscle that limited him to just 11 games last season. At full health since the start of training camp, Horford has been playing the best ball of his career and is leading the team in rebounds (9.8). Averaging a career high in points (15.9), Horford has also embraced a bigger role in the offense in Johnson’s absence.
Moreover, Horford’s veteran presence in the locker room has been integral in uniting a roster composed of mostly new faces.
Atlanta’s success, however, has been the result of more than just one player’s health.
Much of the credit for Atlanta’s strong play can be attributed to general manager Danny Ferry’s thrifty dealing last summer.
Entering the organization with Horford and Josh Smith on the roster, Ferry knew he wanted to use his big men’s speed and passing abilities to the team’s advantage.
To increase the team’s offensive tempo, Ferry sought to complement Horford, Smith, and Teague with several scorers who could also facilitate the offense. On July 3, Ferry traded for a former All-Star in Devin Harris. One week later, Ferry signed Sixth Man Award runner-up Lou Williams to a three-year deal. With Harris and Williams, Ferry brought in two guards who were both capable of filling the scoring and distribution void that Johnson’s departure created.
The plan has exceeded expectations: between Teague, Williams and Harris, the Hawks average nearly 13 assists a night from the point guard position. More importantly, when the postseason comes, the Hawks will now have three guards with past playoff experience at their disposal as primary ballhandlers.
To enhance his up-tempo vision, Ferry acquired a plethora of 3-point specialists to help space the floor. By selecting John Jenkins in the first round of the draft and acquiring Anthony Morrow in the Johnson trade, Ferry added two of the best shooters in the league within his first week on the job. For good measure, Ferry went on to trade for one of the best shooters in NBA history, Kyle Korver, just 10 days later.
The Hawks’ high-octane attack ranks fourth in the league, averaging 23.3 assists a night. Shooting has been equally impressive.
Thanks to Korver, Jenkins and the surprising resurgence of DeShawn Stevenson’s jump shot (don’t look now, but he’s shooting 40 percent from deep), the Hawks rank seventh in the NBA at 37.7 percent from the arc.
Another pleasant surprise this season has been the play of Teague. Selected 19th overall in 2009, Teague’s career had been riddled by poor shot selection and unreliable decision-making. Now in his fourth season, Teague has finally figured out how to balance his scoring and facilitating.
With career-high averages in points (12.8), assists (6.5), rebounds (2.4) and 3-point percentage (.370), Teague has successfully transformed himself from an inconsistent sparkplug off the bench to a composed floor general.
Entering the season, most analysts agreed that the Hawks’ offense would be successful from the get-go. Where many anticipated the Hawks to struggle was with their lack of size on the defensive end. Surprisingly, however, the defense has been the team’s backbone in the early season.
Ranking among the NBA’s top six teams in both opponents’ points per game and turnovers forced per game, Atlanta has been able to use its speed to pressure opponents into making mistakes. Perhaps most impressively, the Hawks have held opponents under 50 percent from the field in 29 of 32 games.
All of Atlanta’s success has translated into the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
As for why the Hawks have yet to receive the league-wide recognition that their record should warrant, there are three things to consider:
First, the Hawks have yet to prove themselves against the league’s best competition. Only three teams have faced easier schedules than the Hawks thus far. Before they can be discussed as a real contender in East, Atlanta will need to beat the league’s top teams on a more consistent basis.
We should have a much clearer sense of the Hawks’ legitimacy by the end of January as they are scheduled to play the Spurs, Celtics and Knicks in the coming weeks.
Second, beyond their easy schedule, the Hawks’ lack of recognition can also be attributed to the organization’s recent postseason futility. Fans have seen the Hawks reach the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, but the conference finals have eluded them.
Until the Hawks prove they can beat the league’s top teams consistently, they will continue to fly under the national radar.
Finally, Atlanta’s lack of recognition can also be attributed to their absence from national coverage. Atlanta has appeared on national television only once thus far.
The team is slotted for no more than three national appearances for the rest of the season.
Regardless of the lack of recognition, there is no denying the Hawks are one of the East’s best teams. With a roster built for speed and fast-paced basketball, only time will tell if the Hawks can maintain their pace throughout the season. At any rate, this team is certainly worth keeping an eye on.
Originally published on Sheridanhoops.com on 01/09/13.