Heading into the all-star break, the Hawks had a list of questions regarding the current state of the team. It was unclear whether the team’s nucleus would even still be intact after the trade deadline. Atlanta apparently had open ears on offers for all of their core players. A team with high hopes had shown nothing but mediocrity in the first half of the season. Coach Budenholzer, the acting President of Basketball Operations, stood up for this group by opting to stand pat at the deadline and keep this core group of guys together.
That sign of faith did not have an immediate impact. The Hawks lost their first three games coming out of the all-star break all of which where at home. However, one thing was becoming clear: the team defense was getting back to the level it was at last season. Atlanta lacks a true rim-protector, so they rely on their rotations and collective team defense to shut opposing teams down. Just like the Hawks offense was a spectacle to watch last season because of unselfishness and beautiful ball movement, their defense has become just as spectacular to watch this season because of their communication and rotations.
Since the three game skid, the Hawks have won 7 out of 9, with their two losses coming in tight road games against the Warriors and Raptors. Atlanta has only allowed one team to reach 100 points in regulation over that span and have held teams under 90 points an eye-popping six times. The Hawks defense has become the best unit in the NBA by a solid margin over the last month an a half and it could not have come at a better time.
The defense has been in sync, but the offense has still yet to reach the same level. Atlanta’s offense relies a lot on having an aggressive point guard. Jeff Teague was arguably the best player on the Hawks last year. He was aggressive in getting into the paint and either finishing or creating an open shot for his teammates. However, at times over Teague’s career he is known for being passive, especially in big situations. The ability is always there but sometimes it feels like Teague does not even believe in himself. Teague has seen a significant drop off in his numbers from last year and so has the Hawks offense as a whole. I am putting a lot of the Hawks offensive struggles on Teague’s shoulders. He has the talent to be one of the best point guards in the league. We all saw what he is capable of with his performance in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. There is a reason Coach Budenholzer has hesitated in giving the keys to the offense to the young German phenom, Dennis Schröder. It is because Teague has another level of play that has really yet to show us this season. He is the engine that runs the machine on offense and its time for him to step up or step back as the starting point guard of this team.
The Hawks are not going to finish with the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, but we found out last year that does not mean very much. What matters is how you perform in the playoffs. The Hawks hit their stride last year in the middle of the season, stringing together a historic 19-game win streak and shocking the NBA world. The team’s core is still intact and even getting a little extra help from and unexpected source. The Hawks signed Kris Humphries after he was waived by the Suns. In his six games with the Hawks, he is averaging 7.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Humphries has shown great ability to get after it on the boards and even spread the floor with a nice jump shot for a big guy. He has already been miles better than Tiago Splitter was when he was healthy, and while the sample size may be small, I expect it to continue. Tim Hardaway Jr. has also begun to make his mark as a Hawk after spending the majority of the first half of the season in the D-league. Atlanta may not have what it takes to get past the Cavs, but there is no reason this team cannot make the Eastern Conference Finals again this season.