2015-16 Record: 48-34 (T-1st in the Southeast Division; T-3rd in the Eastern Conference)
Key Additions: Dwight Howard, Jarrett Jack, Taurean Prince, Malcom Delaney
Key Departures: Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kurt Hinrich
Two seasons ago, the Atlanta Hawks won a franchise best 60 games and made the Eastern Conference finals. Much has changed since that season, yet the team remains competitive, and are an early favorite to win the Southeast division.
ESPN's summer forecast predicts the Hawks will finish 6th in the Eastern Conference with a record of 44-38. If this record holds true, the Charlotte Hornets would finish just one game behind the Hawks. While the records are debatable, Atlanta does appear, at least now, as the team fit to win the division. Like the Hornets, the Hawks have one of the better head coaches in the league in Mike Budenholzer, and how well the Hawks do this season could come down to how Budenholzer implements the team's new additions, but more importantly, how he handles the loss of two key players.
Two long-time starters -- Al Horford and Jeff Teague -- are gone, the former signing with the Boston Celtics, the latter traded to the Indiana Pacers in a three-team trade. Mitigating the loss of Horford, the Hawks signed Dwight Howard to a three-year, $70.5 million contract. With Teague, the team opted to go with Dennis Schroder, who has been the team's backup point guard for the past three seasons. Considering that Horford and Teague were two of the most important players on the team, the Hawks did fairly well, even if their intention was to keep Horford.
Both players are capable of producing as starters, but come with questions as well. In Howard's case, questions about productivity, durability, and fit come to mind, while with Schroder, it comes down to whether he is ready to be the full-time starter. Signs point to both players working out, but just how well each performs this season could determine whether the Hawks do end up as division champs. To learn more about the Hawks, I asked Kris Willis of Peachtree Hoops a few questions on the impact of losing Horford, how Howard and Schroder will fit as starters, and more:
How significant is the loss of Al Horrford?
Kris Willis: I think it is very significant. A lot of the value that Horford has brought the last few seasons goes beyond the numbers. He was the unquestioned leader in the locker room and was one of the team's most versatile defenders. I think the Hawks will still be a good defensive team this season but they will miss the versatility of Horford especially against opposing pick and rolls. Offensively he wasn't your traditional type of center but he was the perfect fit for the way Mike Budenholzer wanted to play.
Dwight Howard was signed essentially to replace Horford. How does he fit with the Hawks' roster, and what kind of season do you expect from him?
KW: That was the way it ended up working out but the Hawks initially wanted to pair Horford alongside Howard in the frontcourt. I was no fan of signing Howard initially because I questioned if he was a fit for the culture that Budenholzer has put in place in Atlanta. However, since agreeing to return home, he has been saying all of the right things and has in a lot of ways has the fan base excited.
There is no doubt that having Howard improves the team's rebounding all by himself. Defensively, he isn't as versatile as Horford but he is a good defender in his own right. Offensively is where I really question the fit. He hasn't been fond of playing in the pick and roll despite being a prototypical roll man in today's NBA. That is a staple of the Hawks' offense and the team needs him to buy in fully. Again he is saying all the right things but we might want to check back in January to see how this is going.
I think it is likely that Howard's individual offensive numbers will improve and that he will benefit from Atlanta's passing attack. However, it remains to be seen whether or not that makes the Hawks a better team.
Is Schroder ready to be the starting point guard? How is his game similar/different from Teague's? How will the Hawk's style of play be affected with him as the starter?
KW: The Dennis Schroder/Jeff Teague debate was a theme throughout last season. While they gave Atlanta a solid 1-2 punch at point guard, by the end of the season you could see that both needed to play and that a decision was probably going to be necessary. Schroder was the logical choice given his age and Teague's contract status. I am a big fan and I think he is ready to take another step forward but he needs to mature and prove that he can lead the team on a consistent basis.
Schroder and Teague and both pretty similar and I think that was what made them so effective for the Hawks the last couple of seasons. Both players biggest strength is their quickness and I think they are both kind of underrated as passers and playmakers. The biggest difference between them is that Teague is a much better shooter than Schroder at this point in their careers. That is a concern for next season although the Hawks seem to be confident that Dennis can improve from the outside.
Atlanta's style of play may change somewhat but I think that has a lot more to do with the addition of Howard and loss of Horford than it does with Schroder replacing Teague. The Hawks have closed a lot of games over the last two seasons with Schroder at point guard so he has been through it and understands what Mike Budenholzer is looking for from him.
How confident are you in Kyle Korver moving forward, and are you concerned about the lack of depth at the shooting guard position?
KW: I'm pretty confident that Korver will have somewhat of a bounce back season although I'm not expecting him to reach those superhuman numbers that he was at in 2015. Korver had what was described as a "down season" last year but when you look at the numbers, it was still a really good shooting season for most guards. The biggest thing going for Korver this season is that he had a full healthy offseason. He spent the summer before last season recovering from surgeries to his ankle and elbow and didn't get to train as he normally would.
As far as the shooting guard position goes, I'd like to see Kent Bazemore play there on a more regular basis and Tim Hardaway Jr showed me enough in the second half of the season that I am at least intrigued to see if he can take a step forward in his second year in Atlanta. DeAndre Bembrey may not figure into the picture this season but I liked what I saw from him during summer league and he may be a factor down the road.
I'm concerned about Atlanta's overall lack of shooting. The Hawks sunk to 18th in offensive rating last season which was the biggest factor in them going from 60 wins down to 48. Adding Howard makes shooting even more important in my opinion and the loss of Teague and Horford makes them even worse in that department. So in a lot of ways, a guy like Korver may be even more important to them this season.
How important is Kent Bazemore to the Hawks?
KW: This is a really great question because going into the offseason I didn't see much of a chance of Bazemore returning to Atlanta. I was for the Hawks chasing a guy like Nic Batum to give them a little more size at the small forward position. I'm afraid they overpaid for Bazemore a bit and I'm not completely sold that he can improve on what was a breakout season for him last year.
However, with that said, he is very important to this year's team in that he will likely be the starting small forward and will have to match up against opponent's most gifted wing scorers. He gives up some size to some of the bigger small forwards but Atlanta's defensive versatility last season was able to offset that.
The Hawks made it clear this summer that they see Bazemore as a building block for the future so him continuing to improve is critical going forward.
Finally, ESPN's summer forecasts predicts the Hawks will finish 6th in the East, with a record of 44-38 (which would also be good enough to win the Southeast division). Do you agree with their projection, or are you higher/lower?
KW: I wasn't really a fan of Atlanta's offseason but I'm really waiting until I can see them on the court some before nailing down a real prediction. I said 44 wins a week or so before the ESPN projection came out but I have been thinking that anywhere from 38 to 44 was possible. My feeling is that the Hawks have a ton of question marks but I think Mike Budenholzer is a really good coach in much the same way a lot of Charlotte fans probably feel about Steve Clifford.
Due to that, I just can't really see them missing the playoffs altogether barring a significant injury to one of their starters.
With that said, I don't feel like they are as good a team as last season and right now I think 44 wins and a 6th place finish sounds about right.