The reaction around the league varied when the Hawks decided to ultimately let Al Horford walk in favor of Dwight Howard. Atlanta had already departed with starting point guard Jeff Teague and there was a clear changing of the guard in the organization. Many experts believed the Hawks would topple down the standings from last year, while others believed Dwight could improve the Hawks chances of winning a championship. After 31 games played, many people still probably do not know. The Hawks season has been a roller coaster ride of sorts, filled with highs and lows. The potential for this team down the road still may be there, but Atlanta has yet to find the consistency on both sides of the ball.
The Hawks started the season scorching hot, winning 9 of their first 11 games. The offense was not very explosive, but the defense was already looking like one of the best units in the league. The Hawks finished second in defensive efficiency last season, and the insertion of Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard into the starting lineup was only supposed to better the defense. Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher was buying in, as he placed the Hawks all the way at #1 on his power rankings list after the Hawks’ hot start.
However, the Hawks did not respond to well to their #1 ranking. They proceeded to lose 10 out of their next 11 contests. Many of these losses came to lesser teams and a lot of the games were not even close. It even looked like the Hawks just gave up in some games, something that is rarely seen from a Mike Budenholzer coached team. Several things could have contributed to this downfall: the Hawks were riddled with injuries, many losses came on the road out west, and this team had yet to really experience any adversity as a group. But regardless of the reasoning, it was clear the Hawks still had a ton of room to grow as a team.
Atlanta has since rebounded with some quality road wins against teams like Toronto and Oklahoma City, but have also come up with lackluster performances against teams like Orlando, Charlotte, and most recently Minnesota.
Over thirty games into the season, the question now becomes whether or not this is what we should expect from this new look Hawks team. Has Atlanta basketball simply taken a step back? There is certainly a grace period that should be given to any team with this kind of turnover in the starting lineup. The Lebron-led Miami Heat did not win a championship overnight. People panicked when Lebron James’ first 40 games as a Heat were not absolutely perfect, but in time the Heat got it together on their way to four straight NBA Finals appearances. However, the Hawks do not have Lebron James, Dwayne Wade or even Chris Bosh, and there is reason to believe these issues run much deeper in Atlanta.
The new additions to the starting lineup in Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard have been terrific. After a rocky start, Schroder has been putting up all-star numbers in the month of December. Dwight Howard has been nothing but a rebounding machine, turning the Hawks from one of the worst rebounding teams in the league to one of the best, all while anchoring the middle of the defense. Paul Millsap has continued to put up all-star numbers despite being nagged by injuries throughout the early part of the season.
The problem is outside of those three players, Atlanta has not been able to offer much offensively. Kent Bazemore has been an absolute bust so far in the first year of his contract. He is shooting 36% from the field and an abysmal 27% from behind the arc. There is reason to be hopeful Bazemore will break out of this slump, but the Hawks have to be beginning to regret the $70 million contract they gave him last offseason. Kyle Korver, while still providing a nice shot, has been moved to the bench for his lack of scoring ability. Thabo Sefalosha is also more of a defensive presence and does not bring much to the table offensively. The Hawks are missing scorers on the wings and a lack of three-point shooting overall.
Hawks fans can rely on the hope that this team will begin to gel and form an identity. Atlanta should be able to become a defensive juggernaut once again with guys like Howard, Millsap, Bazemore and Sefolosha. They should be one of the top teams in the NBA in defensive efficiency. The Hawks currently rank 8th in defensive efficiency at 103.3, which is well off the 98.8 mark the team posted last year. There is hope that once this team begins to gel that they can regain that dominant defensive identity. They certainly have the personal to dominate that side of the ball, but it has yet to click for them on a nightly basis.
Atlanta was one of the most intriguing teams heading into this NBA season. With a lot of changes and the introduction of the infamous Dwight Howard, many people around the NBA were interested to see how this team would preform. Through 31 games, Atlanta has not disappointed in displaying it’s fair share of ups and downs, but that is to be expected from a team with a lot of new faces. The Hawks still remain one of the deepest teams in the NBA with loads of room to improve, but their lack of shooters and overall scorers is a problem. Atlanta needs to get back to Coach Budenholzer’s defensive roots if they want to get back to their consistently winning ways.