After the Hawks were swept in the Eastern Conference Finals, many people were skeptical about their 60-win season and number one seed. Were they a fluke? Was this just a one time thing? Demarre Carroll signed with Toronto Raptors, and suddenly everyone had written the Hawks off. Carroll was an integral part to Atlanta’s success, especially on the defensive side, but the critics who wrote of the Hawks off because of his departure clearly did not watch much of the team the past two seasons. This is a team brand of basketball and when one guy goes down, the next man steps up into one of the best run systems in the NBA. The system was a major reason Demarre Carroll became worth $15 million dollars a year. Skepticism only grew when the Hawks were run out of their own building in the opening game of the season by the Detroit Pistons. Charles Barkely flat out called the Hawks a fluke. However, the Atlanta went on to win their next seven games before falling to the Timberwolves in dramatic fashion two nights ago. The question now should be raised, are the Hawks better than last year?
The two things critics pointed to when arguing Atlanta would be significantly worse this season were that all of their players have had career years and the loss of Demarre Carroll will be too much to overcome. Well, both of those could not be further from the truth.
Jeff Teague is a point guard that has seen his numbers rise over the past four seasons and is coming off the first all-star game of his career. He is making a name for himself as possibly the best point guard in the Eastern Conference and is one of the most underrated overall players in the game. Teague is averaging 18.7 points and 6.6 assists over the first nine games, and while those numbers will likely drop a little, Teague is in for an even better year than he had last year.
Paul Millsap has become one of the best all-around power forwards in the game since coming to Atlanta. He is averaging 17.0 points and 8.7 rebounds this season, which is nearly identical numbers to his two previous seasons in a Hawks uniform. Millsap has certainly not seen a drop off in play this year and is well on his way to his third consecutive all-star appearance.
Kyle Korver is off to a “slow” start this season after his scorching campaign last year, but is still shooting over 50% from the field and 40% from behind the arc. He is also coming off a gruesome ankle injury suffered in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, so it is going to take him some time to get into the groove of things. Those numbers will continue to rise as the season progresses, but as most basketball fans know, the best thing Korver gives the Hawks is spacing because of his shooting ability, and I highly doubt teams will ever be willing to leave this man open.
Finally, Al Horford is actually coming off one of his worst statistical years in his career. In the 2012-2013 season Horford averaged 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds. Prior to being injured in the 2013-2014 season, Horford was on his way to a career year averaging 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds through 29 games. Horford’s numbers actually dipped last year to 15.2 points and 7.2 rebounds, and most of that can be attributed to the fact that he was returning from injury. He is now a year removed from that torn pectoral muscle and his play is showing it, as he is averaging 16.7 points and 8.0 rebounds through the first nine games of the season.
Demarre Carroll was a tough loss. He was the defensive anchor for this basketball team and possibly the best offensive option for the Hawks in the playoffs last year. However, Kent Bazemore has shown he is more than capable of filling that void. Bazemore is averaging 11.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in his 9 starts this year and has been spectacular on the defensive end. His current PER of 17.4 is well better than Demarre Carroll’s PER last season as a Hawk. It is no secret players benefit from Coach Budenholzer’s system and Carroll currently has a PER of 9.1 in Toronto. Bazemore’s numbers will likely come down as the season progresses, but there has not been much of a drop off between Bazemore and Carroll in the early going.
Atlanta also made some key additions in the offseason that added some much needed depth to the team. The Hawks were not a very deep team last year, and it spelled their doom in the playoffs. Tiago Splitter is miles better than Pero Antic, and his impact in the playoffs on the boards and on the defensive end will be immeasurable. Thabo Sefolosha returns from injury, and Atlanta fans have seen first hand how big of a difference he can make with his defensive tenacity. Sefolosha is one of the best defenders in the NBA and his absence in the playoffs was huge. Atlanta was 42-9 last season when he played. The additions of Justin Holliday and Lamar Patterson also help sure up the Hawks’ bench. They are both athletic wing defenders that can shoot the three well, and one of them will likely step up and play a big role for this team by the season’s end.
Having another 60 win season is going to be a lot to ask for, but there is no doubt this Atlanta team can challenge that mark. It took the Hawks 15 games to get their 8th win last season, and they are way ahead of schedule at 7-2, but this team is showing the same type of defensive tenacity and offensive fluidity that won them 60 games last year. However, there is no doubt in my mind this team is better of than last year for the playoffs. If Atlanta can stay healthy, they will be one of the best defensive teams in postseason and if the Hawks are shooting the ball well, they can easily challenge the Cavs for the Eastern Conference crown.