The Atlanta Hawks have a lot of question marks going forward. Here are five things to look for as the season begins.
When the Atlanta Hawks hired Danny Ferry as general manager in the summer of 2012, one of the first things he impressed upon the organization was the importance of patience.
The Hawks promptly traded Joe Johnson for replacement-level flotsam to keep their payroll flexible and patiently waited for Josh Smith’s contract to expire to determine where their newfound wealth would be allocated.
With the exceptions of signing Paul Millsap to a two-year, $19 million deal and re-signing Jeff Teague for four years at $32 million, Ferry has yet to commit above midlevel exception money to any free agent. Patience has been the virtue he has preached, and while the Hawks now have as much cap flexibility as just about any team in the NBA, they’ve also managed to remain competitive on the court.
Entering the 2014-2015 season, Atlanta expects to continue the second-longest active postseason streak with what would be an eighth straight playoff appearance.
In terms of talented assets, roster cohesion and youth, things are looking pretty good in Atlanta on the court.
However, the summer off the court could only be described as tumultuous. Owner Bruce Levenson unexpectedly announced intentions to sell the team, which subsequently led to a leaked email he wrote in 2012 with undeniably racist sentiment. A bad situation compounded after an audio clip was released of Ferry reciting a disparaging and racist scouting report about Luol Deng, which Ferry insists he was merely reading off a page.
Ferry, who patiently assembled the blueprint foundation for a championship contender, now sits in exile on an indefinite leave of absence. No certainties surround his future, and while players and coaches on media day voiced support for their GM, there remains a fairly decent chance Ferry is dismissed before his vision for this roster is fully realized.
That said, Ferry’s vision is at least halfway home, and the Hawks will be fielding one of the deepest and strongest teams in the Eastern Conference this season. While the team’s sale may drag well into December or even 2015, the Hawks in their current state are a fascinating team.
Here are five things to watch heading into the season.
1. Al Horford’s return. Before Al Horford tore his pectoral last December, the Hawks had established themselves as the undisputed third best team in the East. While Horford has long been considered to be one of the biggest bargains for a star in the league ($12 million annually), he has had trouble staying healthy, rendering his affordable price tag moot. Over the past three seasons, Horford has missed 116 games in the regular season alone.
Still, he just turned 28 and was playing some of the best basketball of his career before the injury, averaging career highs in points, blocks and field goal percentage. With Horford and Paul Millsap, the Hawks field a legitimate claim to having the most versatile frontcourt in the NBA.
With talented big men flocking from the West to the East in the past two years (Kevin Love, Al Jefferson, Pau Gasol), Horford’s defensive presence will be needed more than ever. In a best-case scenario, it wouldn’t be unfathomable to hear Horford’s name in the early MVP discussions if the Hawks were to come out of the gate hot.
2. Mike Scott’s consistency. In January and February of last season, Scott looked like one of the NBA’s most dynamic offensive weapons. He shot 42 percent from deep over a 25-game stretch in which he averaged 13 points in only 22 minutes.
Then, for whatever reason, his confidence waned and he finished the season in a 12-for-64 funk from deep over the last two months.
Even with the bad finish, Scott’s per-36 minute scoring (18.6) actually was higher than Zach Randolph’s (18.3). He is a talented midrange shooter with a good feel around the hoop.
Scott has been especially impressive so far in the preseason, showing rediscovered confidence from the perimeter while looking noticeably quicker on the defensive end.
After receiving a three-year, $10 million deal this summer, Scott finally has the safety blanket of a guaranteed contract. If he plateaus because of his paycheck, he might slide in the rotation. If he stays motivated, on the other hand, he could become a Markieff Morris-type sixth man figure for the Hawks’ bench mob.
3. The backup point guard competition. Dennis Schroder underwhelmed in his rookie season and eventually lost his backup gig as Shelvin Mack matured into being one of the most dependable backup point guards in the league.
Now Schroder, just 21, is coming off a summer wher he took tremendous strides with the German National Team in the EuroBasket qualifying tournament, averaging 15.3 points and 5.3 assists. Schroder looks noticeably stronger and faster this preseason than he did a year ago, and the coaching staff feels really good about the strides he took this summer, both physically and mentally.
Mack is still no slouch. He ranked 10th in the league among qualified players with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.04. He also converted an assist on nearly 30 percent of the plays in which he was featured. His defense and rebounding are above average for backup points, and he came up clutch in the playoffs with whopping per-36 minute numbers of 17.4 points, 7.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds against the top-seeded Pacers. The Hawks gave Mack a guaranteed three-year contract this summer, meaning the team’s not quite ready to rely on Schroder in an immediate backup role.
If one of these two players goes on to secure the backup spot, don’t be surprised to hear the other’s name in trade rumors.
4. Perimeter defense. It’s been the biggest hole in Atlanta’s roster for the past two seasons, but after the trade of Lou Williams and the signings of 3-and-D specialists Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore, the Hawks have finally transitioned from a surplus of perimeter scorers into a balanced combination of offense and defense.
Last season, Millsap led Atlanta in steals with 1.74 per game. Sefolosha has averaged at least 1.7 steals per 36 minutes four times in his career, including the last two seasons in Oklahoma City. Bazemore also prides himself on defensive intensity and is coming off a second-half surge following his trade to the Lakers, where he racked up 31 steals in 25 games.
The Hawks lost an astounding 13 games last season by five points or less. With diligent defenders on the bench, they should be able to improve their performance in close games.
5. The ownership and management situation. The headline-grabbing, PR-boosting opportunity for the Hawks to bring a hometown hero to the forefront of the organization may be in the works. According to multiple sources, Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins is “extremely interested” in buying the Hawks and reportedly has aligned himself with a well-known wealthy businessman to make a bid for the team.
With no official bids made yet, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver in New York last month to outline and discuss potential suitors for the team. Reed is committed to keeping the Hawks in Atlanta and will have a guiding hand in the organization’s eventual sale.
In the meantime, we have to observe what happens next with Ferry. Coach Mike Budenholzer has said there is no timetable on Ferry’s leave of absence. Ferry hired Budenholzer last summer, and the two share overlapping philosophies on how to build a winner. Budenholzer has taken over Ferry’s responsibilities in the interim, so do not expect any rash transactions to come from the Hawks until the situation is resolved.
Jacob Eisenberg is a senior at Emory University in Atlanta and covers analytics within the NBA for Sheridan Hoops. Give him a follow on twitter @eisenberg43 and check out his website as well.