NBA Season Preview: Hawks revamp under Budenholzer
Change is in the air for the Atlanta Hawks.
With a string of six straight playoff appearances behind them, the Hawks embark on a new era this season with long-time San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer at the helm.
In general manager Danny Ferry's second season, the Hawks continue a metamorphosis, as the starting lineup should have at least two new starters, swingman DeMarre Carroll and forward Paul Millsap, who takes the spot of Atlanta native Josh Smith. Smith moved on after nine seasons with the Hawks having signed a free-agent contract with Detroit.
While Millsap ought to be able shoulder the load offensively formerly filled by Smith, the Hawks will have to find a way on defense to make up for the loss of one of the league's premier shot blockers and defenders. Another long-time Hawk who left via free agency is center Zaza Pachulia, who spent eight seasons in Atlanta.
With Pachulia gone, the Hawks went to something of a short-term fix in the middle, signing 14-year veteran Elton Brand. Ferry elected to allow draft picks Lucas Nogueira (first-rounder) and Mike Muscala (second-rounder) to continue to develop overseas. The Hawks also signed 6-foot-10 Gustavo Ayon to help out at the center position.
Through all of the change, one of the Hawks' foundational pillars will continue to be forward-center Al Horford, who enters his seventh season. Horford, 27, a former All-Star, is coming off career highs in points (17.4 per game) and rebounds (10.2), the first time he reached double digits in the latter category.
With Smith and his penchant for errant three-pointers gone, the Hawks hope to have a more efficient offense, which, in turn, could help Horford top the 20-point-per-game mark for the first time. The Hawks aided that effort by re-signing guard-forward Kyle Korver, one of the league's top three-point shooters. Korver shot 43.5 percent on three-pointers, good enough for top-10 in the league, and will continue to allow for better spacing to help the Hawks get more quality shots.
Point guard is always a critical position and with a revamped roster for the second straight season, it has become even more so for the Hawks. Teague, 25, enters his fifth season and has shown flashes of brilliance. Last season he set career highs with 14.6 points and 7.2 assists per game (his 579 assists ranked sixth in the league). Former Hawks coach Larry Drew, an ex-NBA point guard himself, continually challenged Teague to take ownership of the team, which had mixed results with Teague's laid-back personality. It will be interesting to see what affect Budenholzer will have on him.
Teague is coming off an offseason in which he was unsettled by the Hawks' decision to allow him to sign an offer sheet with Milwaukee and before deciding to match it. If Teague can take another step forward, he could evolve into the catalyst that pushes the Hawks over the 40-win mark.
Coming off an ACL injury, it's hard to know how effective he will be – or even when he will return. When Williams went down last season, although he came off the bench, he was the team's second-leading scorer. Having lost Smith, one of the team's top two scorers the last couple of seasons, the Hawks could use the dose of offense that Williams provides.
Williams also could provide a steadying, veteran voice to rookie guard Dennis Schröder and second-year shooting guard John Jenkins, the Hawks' 2012 first-round pick. The Hawks have not set a timetable for Williams to return so it's hard to know when they might get him on the court. It would stand to reason, however, that the Hawks should have him back, at least, around the start of the New Year.
With the Hawks having chosen Schröder in the first round, he very much represents the team's future. His mixture of youth (age 20) and lack of size (he might be one of the lightest players in the league) no doubt will mean that he has a substantial learning curve at the point guard position. However, he is in a position where he does not have to play a prominent role and so the Hawks can bring him along slowly.
In 120 minutes over five preseason games, he averaged 8.0 points and 3.4 assists. The Hawks need to get that kind of production out of Schröder – while also seeing glimpses of his potential to know that he is on the right track.
With Ferry embarking on a long-term rebuild, having hired a new coach and acquired numerous players on short-term contracts, the Hawks are not expected to compete for the Eastern Conference title. Nonetheless, if they can win 40 games, earn a playoff berth, compete and show that their young players could make a big impact someday, then it will be a successful season.
Among the biggest wildcards is Budenholzer, who has never been a head coach (outside of a lower-tier European league nearly 20 years ago when he was a recent college graduate). He is implementing a system in the style of the San Antonio Spurs, where both he and Ferry formed their ideas about how the game should be played. If Budenholzer can demonstrate that his system makes a better product than the sum of the Hawks' parts, fans can look forward to a positive future and know that they possess one of the league's bright, young coaching minds.