The Atlanta Hawks, at 29-8, are in first place in the Eastern Conference, much to the surprise of the NBA world.
Though Atlanta has made the playoffs for seven-straight seasons, they have long occupied the NBA’s least desirable position: a middling playoff contender, not good enough to make deep postseason runs, not bad enough to acquire a top draft pick.
Yet this season, the Hawks, winners of eight in a row and 22 of their last 24 games, have finally put it all together. Despite not having a franchise name or a single superstar, a series of smart draft picks, signings, and trades have made the Hawks the best team in the East.
1. Smart draft Picks (Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroeder)
The Hawks’ most recognisable name is Al Horford, who’s one of the most underrated big men in the NBA. He was drafted No. 3 overall in 2007. Now he’s the lone piece remaining from the Joe Johnson/Josh Smith days.
Horford has become the backbone of the Hawks’ defence and one of their most consistent offensive players. Though he doesn’t put up superstar numbers, he’s a career 14-point, nine-rebound a night big man who can post up and shoot from the midrange. Injuries have limited him the last two seasons, but when healthy, he’s one of the Hawks’ best players.
Point guard Jeff Teague was taken 19th overall in the 2009 draft and has improved every year. Teague’s averaging a career-high 17 points, 48% shooting, 7.2 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game this season. The Hawks ultimately made the right choice two summers ago when they decided to match a contract offer for Teague in free agency.
Dennis Schroeder, a German-born point guard who the Hawks drafted at No. 17 two years ago, is a candidate for Most Improved Player this season. Schroeder helps lead the Hawks’ bench unit with averages of eight points and three assists per game, and has been on the court in crunch time at times.
2. Cheap free agent signings (Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antic, Mike Budenholzer)
The Hawks quietly made one of the bigger free agent steals in recent years by giving power forward Paul Millsap a two-year, $US19 million deal in 2013. Millsap joins Horford in the Hawks’ frontcourt, adding another big body who can stretch the floor, post up, rebound, and make smart passes. This season he’s averaging 17 points, eight rebounds, and three assists per game.
In DeMarre Carroll, the Hawks brought in a strong defender on the wing to help build their fifth-ranked defence. Carroll signed a cheap two-year, $US5 million deal in 2013, reigniting his career after several listless seasons with Denver, Houston, and Utah. He’s averaged 11 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1,4 steals per game in two season with Atlanta.
Pero Antic, a burly seven-footer from Macedonia, was signed in 2013 after playing several seasons in eastern Europe. Though Antic doesn’t put up big numbers off the bench, he gives the Hawks a legitimate center to match up with bigger teams.
Much of the credit for Atlanta’s recent surge also has to go to head coach Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer was an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio for several years, and has brought the Spurs-style of fast, in-and-out, pass-happy offence to Atlanta. Budenholzer is an early candidate for Coach of the Year.
3. Trades for role players who fit (Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha)
The Hawks haven’t made any blockbuster trades, but they have done a good job of acquiring players that fit while not giving much up in return.
Kyle Korver was acquired from the Chicago Bulls in 2012 for a trade exception and some cash. Korver said he was disappointed to leave the Bulls, but has since become a pivotal player for the Hawks. He re-signed with Atlanta in 2013 for four years, $US24 million. He leads the team in on-court offensive rating, and is shooting an absurd 52% on six three-point attempts per game.
The Hawks also added another solid wing defender in Thabo Sefolosha this past summer. They got Sefolosha from the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for the draft rights to a European player. Sefolosha also doesn’t put up big numbers, but he’ll play a crucial role for Atlanta in the playoffs because of his defensive abilities.
4. Getting rid of overpaid stars (Joe Johnson, Josh Smith)
None of this would be possible if the Hawks hadn’t abandoned their highly paid core of Johnson and Smith.
The team let Smith leave for the Pistons in the summer of 2013, refusing to pay him the $US54 million that Detroit offered. Two years later that looks like a wise move. Detroit waived Smith in December, and now they’re on fire.
In 2012, the Hawks got rid of the Johnson and the $US90 million he had left on his wildly expensive contract. Since trading him to the Brooklyn Nets, they have stopped chasing star players and built a deep, complete team that’s better than the sum of its parts.
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