Bob Rathbun: Hawks enter season with plenty of optimism, confidence

BY foxsports • October 24, 2014

FOXSportsSouth.com checks in with play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun to discuss the Atlanta Hawks heading into the 2014-15 season.

The 2014-15 season is about to get under way for the Hawks, so how does the team look heading into the campaign? What are some of its strengths and weaknesses?

I'm as excited about this Hawks team as I have been in years. I think they've got the depth and the talent and the system to really make a distinct run at the Southeast Division championship and I think make a pretty deep run in the playoffs. When an NBA team can return 12 out of 15 guys that are really good, you've got such an advantage, particularly early in the season. It should manifest itself right away.

If Al Horford were added to this team as a free agent this past offseason, I think we'd be saying this Hawks' roster enjoyed a great offseason. And that's basically what he is, because he went down 10 months ago and he's an All-Star. They're going to get a guy that averages 18 points, 10 rebounds and shoot around 58 percent and add him to the mix of a very potent offensive lineup to begin with: guards Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, forward Paul Millsap, who was an All-Star last year, DeMarre Carroll, The Junkyard Dog. I think they have a very deep bench, too.

This is a team that's going to go 10-deep. They've got a couple of great backup points guards in Shelvin Mack and Dennie Schroder. You've added two guys on the wing -- Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore -- to help where they were weak: defending on the wing. This team is very, very deep.

Following two season-ending injuries over the past two seasons, what do you expect out of Al Horford?

This system really fits his skill set, which thrives in pick-and-pop situations. He was just expanding his range to that corner 3-point shot, which for these bigs is so vital in coach Mike Budenholzer's offense, by Christmas time last year when got hurt. But I think once Horford shakes the rust off, he's going to be great.

With Teague in pick-and-roll situations, pick your poison. This could be lethal.

Over the Hawks' final three preseason games, they averaged more than 111 points. And I think a very big part of that is that Horford has been able to increase his playing time steadily throughout the preseason. He's ready to go. It's just a matter now of getting him back into game shape. I think he's going to have a big year.

What is the realistic goal for this team in the Eastern Conference standings?

I think the Hawks are set up to win the Southeast Division. I think they're a top-four team in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto. Those are the best four teams in the East heading into opening day.

Now, things will change. Some teams will be better than you thought, some teams will be worse than you thought. But I think returning so many players with a year under their belt in this system is a major advantage for the Hawks. The division is wide open. Obviously with LeBron James leaving Miami for Cleveland, that opens up our division for any one of the four teams. Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami and Washington each have the ability to win somewhere in the neighborhood of 45-50 games.

We'll see how it plays out during the season, but I think heading into the season the Hawks have advantages that the other three just don't have. I don't think Charlotte is nearly as deep as Atlanta. Miami is going to struggle when they don't have LeBron to bail them out -- now that team will be defended in such different way with LeBron being gone, they're going to be down a notch. And I'm not a big believer in Washington right now. People have overlooked the losses of Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker, two key pieces from last year's team that they don't really have adequate replacements for. Paul Pierce for Trevor Ariza is not an even trade. They've also got star guard Bradley Beal's injury to deal with to start the season.

That's why I'm so bullish on the Hawks. They're going to be right up there with the upper echelon in the East.

How will the newcomers -- Adreian Payne, Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha -- fit into the equation?

I grade the Hawks' offseason highly because I think Bazemore and Sefolosha -- and really Payne, though he's not going to get a lot of minutes early on -- will give them two guys that can defend on the wing, and that's something they really did not have last season. Carroll did all he could do, but he was just one player. Now, Atlanta boasts three guys that can fill that wing spot. They'll be able to defend opposing wings better than they have over the past few years.

Sefolosha is a lock-down defender and can shoot the 3. Bazemore isnt quite ready to go because of his offseason foot surgery, but he will be: he's athletic and can get on the glass. Payne, once he finds his niche and gets used to the speed of the pro game, will be helpful off the bench. He's another guy that can help rebound and shoot the basketball.

The NBA basketball community has a very hard time looking at the Atlanta Hawks with fresh eyes. All they see are the warts of 45 years of history in this town. they just don't take the time to see what we see, which is incredible improvement when healthy. Last year, when the Hawks took the Pacers to Game 7 in their opening playoff series, I don't think there was any doubt in anybody's mind that if they just had Al Horford that series would have been over long before Game 7. The Hawks beat Indiana five times in the regular season and playoffs without Horford last season. They knocked off Miami and Brooklyn without him while those teams were fighting for top seeds and playoff positioning.

Obviously, when you lose 14 out of 15, you're given up for dead. I understand that. But as they got everybody healthy, they were pretty good. They held the No. 3 spot in the East before everybody got hurt last year. I think they would have stayed there with a healthy Horford.

Last year second-year forward Mike Scott really burst onto the scene in key moments? Any thoughts on a potential breakout player in 2014-15?

John Jenkins. The third-year guard is healthy, he's got his swagger back and he's enjoyed a fantastic training camp. He's shot the ball like the John Jenkins of old. For two years he's been hurt. And coming off of back surgery, I was pleasantly surprised with how much progress he's made since summer camp. I think he's going to be a key contributor.

He's got his confidence. He's bouncing around and knows that if he falls he's not going to throw his back out. I look for Jenkins to have an outstanding season. I'm not sure what the minute allotment is going to be, but here's a guy that opened some eyes, opened the coaching staff's eyes, because they really haven't seen him healthy. When he did his best work for the Hawks it was under former coach Larry Drew. They're getting a chance the guy we saw a couple years ago, and I think he's going to have a banner campaign. He may do in the backcourt what Mike Scott did in the frontcourt last season.

With Jenkins once again looking healthy, it just adds to the excellent depth we've already talked about.

My question for the Hawks is: Can the sum of the parts be greater than the whole when it comes down to crunch time? They don't really have the go-to guy. Maybe Horford will be that. I don't know because we didn't see him there last year. But when it comes down to the final five minutes of a playoff game, who's going to take and make the big shot? Is it Jeff Teague? Is Paul Millsap? Somebody has to assume that role.

What's the general feeling heading into this season?

Here's the thing: We delivered playoff ratings that were the highest in the history of our network for the Hawks last season. Fans packed Philips Arena for the playoffs -- all Hawks fans, there were no Pacers fans. It gives me the feeling that this city, despite this summer with all the things the team went through with its front office shenanigans, is ready to explode around this basketball team if they can win and win big.

The Braves are struggling on the field. The Falcons season is going in reverse. I think the Hawks have a real opportunity to seize the Atlanta sports scene like they haven't been able to in recent years.



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