In spite of a tumultuous summer within the organization, the Hawks look forward to unity in the locker room and on the court.
Before Bruce Levenson’s infamous email and Danny Ferry’s infamous scouting recital, the Atlanta Hawks were actually one of the quietest teams in the NBA this offseason.
General sentiment within the organization was – and remains – that the team will take an important leap forward as long as they remain healthy. After all, before center Al Horford tore his right pectoral – triggering a 22-31 finishing slide back to the eighth seed – the Hawks were the third best team in the East.
They owned a comfortable 3 1/2-game advantage on fourth place in the conference and had emerged as one of the league’s 10 most efficient teams for both points scored and points allowed per possession.
Fast-forward 10 months and it seems the basketball community is too clouded by the recent tumultuous ownership and management scandal to remember just how strong the Hawks were last season before their All-Star big man went down.
Entering 2014-2015, supremacy in the Eastern Conference is as open as it has been in years, and the Hawks are hoping to take full advantage. For as uncertain as the organization’s future stands off the court, this is actually the first training camp in recent memory in which the Hawks have retained all of their key contributors from the previous season.
While Cleveland, Chicago, Washington and Charlotte all stole headlines with sexy offseason transactions, Atlanta operated under the philosophy that less turnover would lead to more cohesion. Now, with impending changes coming to the organization on a macro level, the roster will rely on familiarity and unity to get past this trying time and put the focus back on the court.
“The good teams grow over time,” said sharpshooting wing Kyle Korver. “You can’t just keep taking out eight guys out and bringing in eight more with a new coach. The good teams I was on – I mean the really good ones – had spent years developing players and chemistry, and that’s at the heart of a lot of what we’re trying to do here.”
The Cavaliers and Bulls are consensus favorites in the East entering the season but have legitimate question marks regarding defense and health, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Hawks – with a rehabilitated Horford – return 12 of their 15 players from last season and hold higher aspirations than just another first-round playoff exit, their terminus in each of the last three years.
“I think the standard that we’re going to hold ourselves to is higher this year,” Korver said. “Last year we had question marks and a bunch of new faces with a new coaching staff and system. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. Now we know each others’ games and we’re hopefully going to keep getting better at our system.”
In terms of where the team should see immediate improvement, look no further than the defensive end. After Monday’s win over New Orleans in the preseason opener, Budenholzer – now also the GM as Ferry takes a leave of absence – said there were some positives on defense but already is looking for more consistency.
Before Ferry stepped away, he made defense a clear emphasis this offseason by signing “3 and D” guards Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore for the perimeter and drafting lengthy forward Adreian Payne for the interior.
Coming off a down season with Oklahoma City in which he was hampered by injuries, Sefolosha projects to assume a bigger role in Atlanta.
“[Sefolosha] is one of the top defensive players in the league,” said wing DeMarre Carroll, who may be giving away some of his minutes to the newcomers. “Hopefully he can come in and be that spark defensively who will help us get to the next level.”
Bazemore is better known by fans for his bench celebrations than for his on-court production. But former Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson was a big fan of his approach on defense, and Bazemore plans to carve out a niche in Atlanta with his attention to detail on that end.
“I’m a defender first,” said Bazemore. “I’m a defender at heart. My goal is to bring energy and help us get stops down the stretch.”
“I think I can make my claim by protecting the rim defensively,” Payne said. “I’m just going to do whatever I can to help the team. I think Paul [Millsap] and Al [Horford] are great role models and are really good players. I’m trying to learn as much as I can from them to get better at what I can do.”
By shooting 42 percent from deep in his senior season at Michigan State, Payne created a reputation as a stretch big man. Unlike most stretch fours, Payne gets equal pleasure from bruising on the inside as he does from knocking down big shots on the outside.
“He can definitely shoot the basketball,” acknowledged guard Jeff Teague. “But the beautiful thing about [Payne] is that he doesn’t mind getting into the paint and roughing it up a little bit.”
With All-Star Paul Millsap entering a contract year and with Korver coming off an eventful summer training with Team USA for the FIBA World Cup, there’s plenty of reason to feel optimistic about the Hawks on the court.
“We want to get to the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA Finals,” said Teague. “That’s what we believe we can do. I believe in Coach Bud. I feel like if we go out and play, we can compete with anybody. We showed that last year. We weren’t healthy for the whole year and we still came out and put a one-seed on the ropes like we did. We should have won that series. We know we can compete with anyone.”
In a wide-open Eastern Conference, Teague might very well be right.