It is an all too familiar road for Hawks fans come playoff time: Win a series or two in 6 games, get swept by the Cavs, win a series or two in 6 games, get swept by the Cavs. Let’s start off by saying that, had Atlanta kept the same team as last year, an eerily similar result would probably be brewing for next year’s playoffs. Luckily (although a few people think otherwise), the Hawks made some moves this offseason that will give them a much better team to match up against Cleveland. Notably, the additions of Dwight Howard and Taurean Prince should play a huge role in a possible series against the Cavs in 2017. Here are three reasons why the new Atlanta Hawks have a much better chance at dethroning the defending Eastern Conference (and NBA) Champions:
1. Rebounding (The Obvious One)
For some reason, Tristan Thompson always seems to play like an All-NBA center against the Hawks. Thankfully, Atlanta’s management grew tired of giving the Cavs possession after possession, and realized that better rebounding was the first step in giving them a chance at beating the Cavs in a seven game series.
Cue Dwight Howard. The 6’11”, 265 pound athletic monster provides the Hawks with an immediate antidote against the seemingly unstoppable Thompson. Though many have scrutinized him for his overall decline over the past two seasons, Dwight Howard was still tied for third in the league in rebounding (11.8 RPG) in a “down year” for him. To keep it simple, the man dominates the glass. Even better, Howard out-rebounded Tristan Thompson in both of their head-to-head matchups this past season, which should be music to Hawks fans’ ears.
Atlanta also recently re-signed Kris Humphries, who played very well off the bench as a stretch 5 and scrappy rebounder. Although he did not play much, his limited minutes in the Cavs series showed his effectiveness on the glass, and Coach Bud should be willing to give him more minutes next season. Howard paired with Millsap, who is a phenomenal rebounder for a PF, gives the Hawks a frontcourt that can not only neutralize, but outperform Cleveland on the boards.
Although Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha have reputations as excellent perimeter defenders, LeBron James has a bit more in his repertoire than shooting. To be blunt about it, James pretty much got whatever he wanted when driving into the paint, posting up, or driving and kicking to a wide open J.R. or Kevin Love in the corner. Baze and Thabo are simply not big enough to guard the mutant LeBron James when he decides to take it to the hoop. Coach Bud did give Paul Millsap plenty of time with LeBron, but the 2nd Team All-Defensive power forward constantly found himself getting beat by LeBron’s elite explosiveness and footwork.
One of the ways the Hawks will try to solve this dilemma is with the addition of the 12th pick in the draft, Taurean Prince. Yes, I absolutely agree that it would be ridiculous to ask a rookie to guard the best player of this century, but Prince is another body to throw at James. By the end of last season, Miami’s Justice Winslow was constantly tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best wing, so by the end of next season, it wouldn’t be outlandish to think that Prince could see time against LeBron. His 6’8”, 220 lb frame makes him the best physical fit on the team to guard James, and the Hawks development staff has a history of generating some great defensive talent out of size and athleticism (see DeMarre Carroll). Having Prince on James for stints will give Millsap a break, while allowing Baze and Thabo to do what they do best on the perimeter against J.R. Smith.
Another form of physicality comes inside the paint via Dwight Howard. To be quite honest, while Al Horford is a great defender, I don’t think LeBron was very intimidated by Horford when charging at the rim. Howard, however, provides a much better interior presence, and will be more disruptive against LeBron’s go-to close range shots. Howard was 15th in blocks-per-game last year, and provides favorable size to help stop LeBron’s easy layups that he stung the Hawks with last year.
3. Dennis Schröder
While I won’t go into who is the better overall player, it cannot be debated that Schröder was much better than Teague was in Round 2 last year. For the statistics, an adjusted per-36 min was used to compare them so that their minutes would not skew the stats. In the four games against Cleveland, Jeff Teague averaged 16.1 ppg and 8.7 apg per 36 min, whereas Dennis Schröder averaged an astonishing 27.1 ppg and 8.4 apg per 36 min. While Teague will surely be missed, Schröder proved that he can be an extremely effective scorer against the now defending NBA champions. It should also be stated that Dennis did not have “inflated” stats by going against backup players, because he spent a good amount of his court time going head-to-head with Kyrie Irving, who was probably the best point guard of the playoffs. In fact, in games 1 and 4, Coach Bud went with Dennis over Jeff in the final minutes of both of those tight games, and the stats show why. Schröder had 27 points in G1 and 21 in G4, while Teague had 8 and 5 points in those two games, respectively. With Dennis finally getting starting minutes this year, we should see him put up some great numbers against the Cavs if we encounter them on the road to the finals in 2017.
While beating Cleveland in a 7 game series is a tough task for any team, being swept by them two years in a row is flat-out embarrassing. Though it is still way too early to make accurate predictions on how the new-look Atlanta Hawks would fare in a hypothetical playoff series that is over 82 games away, I would absolutely bet against them being swept again. With the improvements made this offseason, a possible 2017 matchup with the Cavs should be truly entertaining for everyone.