Season Preview: Healthy Horford, Hawks aim to keep playoff streak alive

With Al Horford (15) back in the lineup, the Hawks will go for their first division title since 1994.

Brett Davis/Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

We only saw a small sample size of Al Horford and Paul Millsap together last season before Horford suffered a season-ending torn right pectoral on Dec. 26. But that span of 29 games showed an impressive baseline for what to expect from the All-Stars with Horford healthy again.

When Horford went down, Atlanta just one of two teams to have two players in the league’s top 15 in PER among forward/centers, with Horford 10th (22.0) and Millsap 15th (19.8). Only the Mavericks, with Dirk Nowitzki, (sixth at 23.6) and Brandan Wright (seventh at 23.5) were better.

The difference between Dallas and Atlanta as a whole, though, is the ability to play behind the perimeter. While Nowitzki remains one of the game’s best three-point shooters (.398 percent) to Millsap’s .358 and Horford at .345 over his career, Wright has attempted eight threes in six years.

Basically, Horford was already supplying the kind of floor-stretching shooting that Mike Budenholzer’s ball-movement system promotes before the coach’s arrival and Millsap thrived in it, becoming a first-time All-Star.

A full season with Horford and Millsap in this scheme should move the duo to the forefront of the NBA’s conversations of top frontcourts.

Budenholzer has put an emphasis on D, saying as the Hawks opened camp "If we want to get to where we want to be, we are going to have to be better defensively. As a group, we want to have a defensive identity."

That wasn’t necessarily the case a year ago, as the Hawks were 14th in points allowed (101.5), the worst of any Eastern Conference playoff team, allowed opponents to shoot 51.0 percent from the field (19th) and were 18th in defensive rebounds (31.3).

Next Up: Hawks at Raptors

The real problem is that when added to its own offensive effort (101 ppg, 15th in NBA), Atlanta was minus-0.5. Basically, and improved defensive effort can pay off in the win column should the Hawks be able to show even a marginal improvement.

The biggest offseason acquisitions, Sefolosha and Bazemore, are known for their defense, with Sefolosha a former All-Defensive Second Team member (2010) and can take pressure off DeMarre Carroll on the wing. While Horford isn’t a dominant defensive player, his return will give the Hawks a presence inside on opponents’ bigs, something they had to mask last year with a mix of Ayon, Pero Antic and Mike Muscala.

Atlanta is riding a streak of seven straight postseason appearances, the best in the Eastern Conference, and with the departure of LeBron James to Cleveland, the prospects of pushing that playoff run to eight consecutive seasons as Southeast Division champs seem a bit more realistic.

Granted, the Hornets have beefed up, adding Lance Stephenson and Al Jefferson is among the league’s most underrated talents. But it remains to be seen if the potential Stephenson showed with the Paces was the max of his abilities or just the beginning. Either way, he has a three-year, $27 million contract to live up to.

While the Heat still have Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and added Luol Deng and some depth in the form of Danny Granger and Shabazz Napier, they’ve lost that fear factor they possessed with the best player in the game on their roster.

The Wizards could surprise, but they have to make up for the departure of Trevor Ariza and bringing in an aging Paul Pierce is not the answer on their side of the floor.

About the only certainty in the Southeast is the Magic aren’t going to win it, and with that wide-open feel, a Hawks team that still made the playoffs last season sans Horford and now returns the superstar could see that be the tipping point and bring Atlanta its first division crown since 1994.