NBA season preview: Can Atlanta Hawks replicate last season’s success?

After a pedestrian 38-win season in Mike Budenholzer’s first year in Atlanta, the Hawks stunned the NBA last season by winning a franchise-record 60 games and finishing first in the Eastern Conference.

That success carried over to the postseason, as the Hawks reached the conference finals for the first time since the franchise moved to Atlanta. While the outcome in that series against the Cavaliers wasn’t optimal, the team easily outperformed expectations and set a mark for a unit returning a majority of the talent that was able to win 19 straight games a season ago.

One piece that won’t be returning is the Junkyard Dog, DeMarre Carroll. During most of the regular season, Carroll was the unsung hero of the Hawks’ starting lineup … the only starter that wasn’t voted into the All-Star Game. That status quickly changed, though, as he put together an impressive postseason run that suddenly made him a hot commodity on the free agent market. Big time playoff performances by contract-year players always produce a hefty payday, and that was no different for Carroll. A four-year, $60 million deal from the Raptors sent him packing, and it left the Hawks without their do-it-all small forward.

Replacing Carroll in the starting lineup looks to be up to Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha. Bazemore is similar to Carroll in some ways … he’s a lockdown perimeter defender who prides himself in making his impact without the ball in his hands. While Bazemore hasn’t shown the efficient 3-point shot that Carroll established in Atlanta, there have been signs of improvement, and Bazemore was able to show off some off the dribble scoring in the preseason. He won’t be alone in filling Carroll’s absence. Sefolosha will be returning to the Hawks after suffering a leg injury in a police altercation in New York City in April. Much like Bazemore, Sefolosha is known for being a lockdown perimeter defender. Once he was injured last season for the Hawks, the team’s defensive numbers declined dramatically.

Joining Carroll as Hawks’ departures are Pero Antic, Elton Brand, and John Jenkins.

The Hawks brought in three key players that figure to be a prominent part of the rotation off of the bench: Tiago Splitter, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Justin Holiday. While the reserves were thought to be a strong suit of the team in the regular season last year, the unit struggled heavily in the postseason. With the team looking to be even deeper, the Hawks are gearing up for another impressive regular season with a deep postseason run.

Player to watch

Coming off of two offseason surgeries, Kyle Korver will be an integral part of maintaining the Hawks’ success on offense. With Korver on the court, teams have to be 100 percent keyed in on chasing him around the floor through screens to prevent the sharpshooter from getting an open look from anywhere in the arena.

Korver was historically good in the first half last season, and he was rewarded for it with his first ever All-Star appearance. Those numbers tampered off in the second half and the playoffs, and so did the Hawks’ efficiency offensively. Korver shot 42 percent from the field and the 3-point line after the All-Star break, which is still considered good — especially from three –“ but before the break, Korver made an absurd 51 percent from the field and 52 percent from three.

When Korver was on the floor for the Hawks last season, the team’s eFG percentage was 56 percent, compared to 48 percent when he was off. The offensive rating dropped from 113.6 to 101.5 when Korver wasn’t on the floor. His plus-minus for last year ranked sixth in the NBA and comfortably first on the Hawks roster.

His importance to the team was magnified in the postseason when Korver went down with his injury in the conference finals and missed the remaining three games. The offense that was unstoppable in the regular season suddenly became stagnant and unimposing. Korver has since recovered from the injury and was active throughout the preseason. While his shot didn’t appear to be spot-on, it was encouraging for Hawks fans to see him active and healthy. As long as Korver can return to form and be one of the best shooters in the NBA, the Hawks’ offense should once again be the fluid juggernaut that we saw last season.

New face to know

While Splitter is the obvious candidate for the new player in a Hawks’ uniform to receive significant playing time and play a crucial role in maintain the team’s 2014-15 success, Hardaway may play a much bigger part for the Hawks than some expect. Though Hardaway had well-documented struggles on the defensive side of the court for the Knicks, he’s always been a talented shooter can hit from long range and can put the ball on the floor and create his own shot. The latter of that statement is something the Hawks haven’t had much of at the wing position.

If Hardaway can become a competent defender, his offensive ability should make him an extremely valuable piece off of the bench for Atlanta. The decision to forgo a first-round draft pick to acquire Hardaway was a very criticized move by the Hawks’ front office, and people will be expecting Hardaway to live up to that decision as a reliable scorer for the team in 2015-16.

Stats that matter

56.3: The Hawks’ true shooting percentage in 2014-15. Only the Clippers and Warriors had better marks. With Carroll being the team’s second best perimeter shooter last season, the Hawks will need to fill that void and see a shooting improvement from wings like Bazemore and Hardaway.

48.2: The rebound rate for the Hawks last season. Only the Knicks, 76ers, and Mavericks had worse rates in the NBA. The addition of Splitter should prove to have a huge impact on that number. While rebounding didn’t hurt the team much in the regular season, it showed to be a huge problem in the postseason.

100.7: Defense was the strength that wasn’t talked about enough with the Hawks last season, and that was showcased with the league’s seventh best defensive efficiency. It will remain to be seen how that number is impacted by the loss of Carroll.

Hawks will make playoffs if:

Nothing detrimental happens. It’s that simple. There just isn’t enough talent in the East for this Hawks’ roster to not make the postseason. With four returning All-Stars, Atlanta should once again be in contention for the top spot in the conference by the end of the year.

Hawks will miss playoffs if:

Something detrimental does happen. The only case to be made for the Hawks to miss out on the postseason is if a few injuries pile up and a few players have huge drop-offs from their performances last season. As we saw two years ago, Al Horford’s injury greatly impacted the Hawks, but the team was still able to sneak into the playoffs with a first-year head coach and brand new system. There’s too much talent and too good of a system in place for Atlanta to not be in the top eight in the weak Eastern Conference.

Prediction: 54-28, 2nd seed, Conference Finals