Flashback to the trade deadline: The struggling Hawks were seemingly on the edge on whether to break this group apart or keep it together for one more playoff run. President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Mike Budenholzer elected to stick it out with this particular group in hopes that they would be able to regain their magic from the 2014-2015 season. The initial results did not look any better. The Hawks lost their first three games out of the trade deadline and continued to struggle offensively. However, Atlanta finished their last 23 games strong, going 17-6 over that span and developing a new identity in the process. The Hawks became the best defensive team in basketball and swore that this season would be different against the Cavaliers.
After dismantling the Celtics in six games, Atlanta got the rematch versus the Caviliers they have been salivating for since the end of last season. From the opening minutes in Game 1, Atlanta had an energy and a swagger that they did not posses last postseason. Jeff Teague was seen saying, “Not this time”, after nailing a three early in the first quarter of Game 1. The Hawks lost a hard fought game one in which they led with under 4 minutes remaining on the road. Cleveland did not play their best game and the result should have given the Hawks a lot of confidence moving forward.
But Cleveland did not play like that again, and the Hawks could not possibly be ready for what was in store for the rest of the series. The Cavs obliterated the Hawks in game 2 with pure marksmanship. They sunk a record 25 threes in the game, most of which were contested, on their way to a blowout victory. Any hope that things were going to be different than last year were quickly fading. Atlanta bounced back and played two very good games at home, but Cleveland behind its three-point shooting a three-headed monster in Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Lebron James were able to outlast the Hawks and once again send them home without a win.
Despite the series showing the same result (4-0) sweep, this one was a lot more competitive. Outside of Game 2’s record setting performance, the Hawks were leading late in the fourth quarter in three of the four games. They easily could have easily saw themselves tied in this series had they been able to close down the stretch. Both the Hawks brass and players believe that they are getting closer to dethroning the Cavs and going to the NBA Finals, and they both believe that keeping this core together is vital to them doing so.
Yes, it is tough to blow up a team that has won 108 regular season games over the last two seasons and been the second best team in the conference. This group has had a tremendous amount of success and is arguably the best Hawks team in franchise history. But the simple fact is, the East goes through Cleveland right now, and unless the Hawks can catch some lucky breaks where one of the Cavs superstars is injured, they are always going to come up short with their current roster. Changes need to be made and they should not be small ones.
Both Al Horford and Kent Bazemore are set to become free agents this offseason and both are due for significant raises. Horford could be in line for a max contract and the Hawks are the only team that could offer him a 5th season, and Bazemore is finally going to get his first big contract after he proved to be more than capable of starting in the league.
Horford is one of the best big men in the league, but he really is more of a power forward. In the four games against the Cavaliers, Horford only managed to grab 14 total rebounds, which is absolutely abysmal for a guy his size. Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love bullied him all series on the boards and it showed in the box score and on the scoreboard. If the Hawks want to compete with the Cavs, they have to get bigger up front and spending $20 million dollars a year on Al Horford would not do that. Horford is a great player and is one of the main reasons the Hawks are even in this situation, but Atlanta needs to put their feelings behind them and let him walk. The Hawks do not need another overpaid all-star heading into his 30s. They have already done that with Joe Johnson and were lucky enough to find a buyer for his contract in the Brooklyn Nets, but they should not play with fire twice. A move to re-sign Horford would all but set up the Hawks to be the Cavaliers stepping stone for the next five seasons.
Bazemore is another player set to get overpaid. The Raptors offered Demarre Carroll close to 15$ million a year after his breakout season with the Hawks, and while I do not expect Bazemore to receive that large of an offer, I would not be surprised if it is somewhere close. Bazemore was a pleasant surprise for the Hawks but there is certainly no reason to pay him the money he will be demanding. It was a very smart move to let Demarre Carroll walk, just ask the Toronto Raptors, and it would be smart if the Hawks opted not to re-sign Bazemore either.
Other than the obvious free agent decisions the Hawks have, I expect them to make at least one more move. Jeff Teague really struggled this season compared to last and saw his role decrease in the playoffs. Teague is entering the last year of his contract, and while that significantly diminishes his value, the Hawks should still move him before the start of next season. The move will help clear up cap space for more offseason aqquisitions and ultimately let Dennis Schroder become the starting point guard. Schröder looked like a real star at times in the playoffs, and his energy and competitiveness is just what a championship team needs. Schröder has superstar potential, and the time is now for him to take over the reigns as the starting point guard of this team.