When the eight-seeded Hawks faced the top-seeded Pacers last season in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the only talking point was the likelihood of an Indiana collapse after their lackluster play from late-January on. In fairness, this was the only conversation worth having about the series. The Hawks came in as an eight seed that finished the season six games under .500, so really what was there to talk about? Atlanta was just once again the classic eight seed in the East who made the playoffs simply because they play in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks gave the fragile Pacers all they could handle in the opening round as Indiana was forced to win Game 6 on the road and a Game 7 to save face and advance to the second round. Of course all of the attention was squarely focused on the bubble surrounding the Pacers and we all missed the beginning of a story which has now taken over the Eastern Conference.
It was during this series that Mike Budenholzer’s offense began to blossom. Some of this was thanks to a ridiculous three point shooting stretch from then unknown (and still largely unknown) Mike Scott, but the foundation for what was to come this season was being built in front of our eyes and we failed to properly understand what was happening.
Did anyone expect the Hawks to be leading the East as the calendar flipped to 2015 in a conference that was supposed to be dominated by LeBron’s Cavs and the Bulls? Did anyone expect this Atlanta team to win 22 of their last 24 games? Of course not, but when you think about just how effing crazy this NBA season has been so far, it makes perfect sense that the Hawks are not only the best team in the East record wise, but they have as good of a chance as any other team in the East to make the finals.
The combination of an insane Western Conference which features eight teams, who you could make a championship case for, the major early season problems for the Cavaliers and the ticking time bomb that is Derrick Rose has created a scenario in which 13 teams could reach the finals. It’s because of this scenario that you shouldn’t feel incredulous about the sentence I used to close the last paragraph with; there are quite a few reasons to believe in the Hawks as a legit threat in the East:
Budenholzer has found his eight man rotation thanks to the health of Al Horford
An often overlooked key for successful teams in the NBA is the ability to create a consistent rotation. This requires a blending of self-pride from the player and the belief of the head coach that he has his team figured out. Right now, Buds has connected with this group of players thanks to his principals on offense which is rooted in the triangle and a Spursian like ball movement system.
Last year, Budenholzer was forced to play what’s left of Elton Brand for 200 minutes with Jeff Teague-Kyle Korver-DeMarre Carroll-Paul Millsap. With all due respect to Brand, he wasn’t in a position to stay on the court for 40+ minutes a night, but Budenholzer didn’t have a choice. Between injuries and the lack of depth, the Hawks bench was a steaming pile of Gustavo Ayon, Dexter Pittman, bad Lou Williams and some guy named Cartier Martin.
Due to Al Horford’s good luck with health this season, the five man starting lineup of Teague-Korver-Carroll-Millsap-Horford has been able to blow away their minutes total from last season (476-390). It’s the second highest total by a five man group in the NBA, only the Clippers starting lineup has played more this season (694). Atlanta’s five man group would currently rank fourth offensively per 100 possessions (109.4), while their defense would be exactly in the middle of the league (15th in between Boston and Philly).
Bud’s starting lineup has paved the way for the Hawks East leading 29-8 record, his bench is no longer a heap of junk. Pero Antic, Mike Scott, Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Shelvin Mack and the guy I’m about to get to, have provided the Hawks with a solid secondary group of players who can step in and play big minutes if the matchup deems necessary. In the Hawks win on Sunday over the Wizards, Millsap only played 25 minutes and the combination of Antic and Scott played 37 minutes. The Hawks won by 31.
Dennis Schroder is showing signs of becoming a legitimate NBA point guard
The second year point guard from Germany has progressed nicely in the 36 games he’s appeared through the first two and a half months of the regular season. He’s taken over the back-up point guard reigns from Shelvin Mack and in doing so has opened some new doors for the Hawks offense. In the 81 minutes Schroder has logged in the place of Teague with the other four guys in Atlanta’s starting five, the group has an offensive rating of 116.1, which would easily lead the league. Sure, it’s a very small sample size, but it doesn’t take long to buy into the guy’s stock when you witness how he commands the floor.
The comparisons to Rajon Rondo are easy to make. Schroder has a similar body frame and an equally similar way of snaking his way to the basket, but a major difference between the two is the willingness to drive to the lane. Rondo has logged 415 more minutes than Schroder has this season, but “German Rondo” (yes this is a real nickname that was given to him around the 2013 NBA Draft) has just six less drives to the tin than the real Rondo (242-236).
One thing to note about German Rondo, he draws a lot of contact. During my viewings of the Hawks recent games, Schroder could have easily shot around four-to-six more free throws per game than he was given. At one point Dominique Wilkins, the Hawks color commentator, said something along the lines of Schroder hasn’t been around long enough to get those calls. If he keeps showing flashes like this, he’ll start heading to the line more frequently, where he can actually make free throws unlike the real Rondo.
Offense isn’t the only key
While the Hawks find themselves in the top 10 in just about every offensive statistic there is, it’s been their defense over the last 24 games (especially their last five) that has really stuck out.
Atlanta is very active with getting hands on the ball in their half-court defensive set. Sometimes they gamble too much and it results in an open look, but the majority of the time their activity can frustrate opposing offenses into either making a bad decision which results in a turnover, or just flat out ripping the ball away and starting a fast break. In their last 24 games, the Hawks have forced 15 teams to turn the ball over higher than their average per game. Atlanta has won the turnover battle in 18 of their last 24 games.
The last stat is a huge deal because the Hawks are currently seventh in the league in points off of turnovers. During the Hawks victory over the Wizards this past Sunday, Atlanta’s lead ballooned when the defense was doing its best to frustrate John Wall, who has his second highest turnover output of the season (eight), and the rest of the Wiz. Washington inched their way back into the game as Atlanta began to get sloppy on the defensive end, but after a few blocks and turnovers which resulted in an eight point swing for the Hawks. By that point the game was well in hand.
So the real question is how sustainable is this level of play for Atlanta because at some point in the near future they’re going to go on a losing streak. That’s just the nature of the beast that is the NBA, but there are some real reasons to be ecstatic about the Hawks. The offense is totally legit thanks to the combination of Bud’s system and the guys he has at his disposal (now would be a good time to mention Kyle Korver who is having a RIDICULOUSLY good season so far). Their defense can be quite feisty and causes havoc for stretches of games. The trio of Millsap-Horford-Teague is playing well enough to counteract the fact that the Hawks do not have the superstar a team typically needs to make noise in the playoffs.
The potential problems for Atlanta lie in their half-court offense, which at times slows down too much and relies on threes way too much. There have been countless possessions over the last few games where it would have benefitted the offense to pound the rock inside and work from the inside out, but instead the ball works its way around the perimeter without going inside and an unnecessary three is taken. Those are the types of possessions which could doom them in crunch time come late-April and early-May when the NBA becomes much more of a half-court game.
This offseason will also be very intriguing for the Hawks as Millsap’s steal of a contract comes to an end as well as DeMarre Carroll’s. Pero Antic’s ridiculously cheap contract also wraps up after this season. As of right now the Hawks have just $41.2 million tied up next season, which is over $20 million under the current salary cap of $63 million. With the expected jump in the cap due to the new television deals, the Hawks are in a position where they can offer Millsap a much bigger contract than he received last time around and still have well more than enough to throw a max offer at a small forward upgrade. Kawhi Leonard anybody?
But enough with the what ifs and future projections, this is a celebration of a team that wasn’t supposed to be at the top of anything at any point during this season. This is a team that is 6-1 against the eight teams who would currently compete in the Western Conference playoffs. This is an Atlanta Hawks team that has grown up tremendously over the last eight months and has put themselves in a position where they can legitimately make a run at the title.
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(Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Pro Basketball Reference and ESPN)