Last Season: 48-34, 4th seed in East
Off-season Gains: C Dwight Howard (free agent), PG Jarrett Jack (free agent), SF Taurean Prince (draft trade), SF DeAndre' Bembry (draft), PG Malcolm Delaney (rookie free agent)
Off-season Losses: C Al Horford (free agent/Boston), PG Jeff Teague (trade/Indiana), PG Kirk Hinrich (free agent), SG Lamar Patterson (waived/Sacramento)
Off-season Stock: Sell, my friends. Sell!
League Pass Team?: Good heavens, no.
There seems to be a bit of an Icarus theme to squads who challenge LeBron James' supremacy in the East. First it was the Pacers, who gave Miami earnest challenges as underdogs in 2012 and 2013 before fancying themselves as being ready to topple the King. They had a million game lead in the conference by the 2014 All-Star break, this bit of silliness, and down they tumbled shortly after that, completely losing their ability to score (Paul George's off-court drama being a notable exception), barely holding off a 38-win Hawks team in round one and suffering the humiliation of not just another sound playoff defeat to Miami but the embarrassment-by-association that came with Lance Stephenson's pitiful attempt to psyche out James that launched a thousand memes. George fractured his leg in international duty that off-season and somehow was still more mobile watching from the bench than the calcified Roy Hibbert.
So here came the Hawks to fill the void. Riding a healthy starting five and embracing coach Mike Budenholzer's all-for-one, one-for-all pass-heavy pyrotechnics, Atlanta took the league by storm through the first 50 games of the 2014-15 season, every bit the juggernaut as the Warriors were proving to be in the West. Then people started taking them seriously and it was all the Hawks could do to even make it to the conference finals, where they were summarily stomped by James' new/old team, the Cavaliers, even without Kevin Love and a limited Kyrie Irving.
Last year's 48 wins was more in line with Atlanta's talent level. They lost DeMarre Carroll in free agency, yes, but he was hurt all year for the Raptors anyway. The Hawks' five starters were all quite healthy, missing just 13 games combined, with more than half of the absences coming from their least vital component in Kent Bazemore. Important reserves Dennis Schroder, Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Scott also all played at least 75 games, with only backup center Tiago Splitter missing major time (I was shocked as you were).
The once-vaunted offense fell to 18th in efficiency, but surprisingly the defense improved, even without Sparkles, all the way to second at 98.8 points allowed-per-100 possessions, just behind the Spurs, allowing them to finish with the seventh-best net rating in the league. It all added up to a fourth-seed, a convincing first round conquest of the Celtics and then... well another stomping by James and Co.
And here we are, in year two of the free-fall. Horford, the primary reason for the defense's success, is off to Boston. Jeff Teague was shipped to the Pacers in a three-way draft deal that netted San Antonio's very own Taurean Prince, who's practically a Dodo in the modern game: a four-year collegian who nevertheless was still a lottery pick. His stats at Baylor and mock-drafts around the land suggest he shouldn't have been, but clearly the Hawks were looking for a three-and-D man in the Carroll mold. If Prince is the real deal, he'll allow Bazemore to slide back to his more suited role as a dynamic sixth-man while at the same time sparing Kyle Korver the chore of guarding the opponent's best wings.
But the wings matter little in the big picture because Atlanta's main story is the massive drop-off from Horford to Howard, whose defensive rating of 105.1 with the Rockets last season ranked below notable big-men DeMarcus Cousins, Zaza Pachulia, Kristaps Porzingis, Dewayne Dedmon, Pau Gasol, and oh yes, JaVale McGee.
The three-year, $70.5M contract the Hawks lavished on Howard would be the most baffling one of the summer if not for all the others just like it. Howard rebounds better than his predecessor, but that's about it as the considerably less explosive Horford blocks just as many shots these days. Dwight is also way more injury prone and that well-chronicled locker room cancer seems to follow wherever he goes.
If that wasn't enough change to digest, the team also decided to jettison Teague and hand the keys to Schroder, who seems to me the league-leader in "NBA player who'd rather be a soccer star." The German can get to the rim like few others but his play-making is still developing and he can be left alone outside of 15-feet with few consequences, befitting the "German Rondo," label stuck to him when he was drafted. With Teague gone, a black-hole in Howard and a pair of rookies on the wing --DeAndre' Bembry, the 21st pick, is a small-forward as well-- you start to wonder if Korver will ever get a meaningful open look again.
Speaking of awful passers, Jarrett Jack was signed to fill the backup point guard duties, and doesn't that just say it all? Splitter's return to health should help some --he'll likely need to play quite a bit given Howard's proclivity for missing games and dumb fouls-- but there isn't much inspiration to be found in ne'er-do-wells like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kris Humphries or offensive non-entities like Sefolosha and Mike Muscala.
It might be asking a lot for the Hawks to plummet from 48 wins to missing the playoffs completely, but with several East have-nots such as the Bucks, Knicks and Magic primed for improvement (and who knows, maybe the Bulls or Wizards will sneak in too) it's not that far-fetched of a notion. Really a 15-win campaign would be the best thing for this club, so they can draft a real co-star alongside Paul Millsap, who's going to spend a frustrated year wondering what the heck he did to deserve this fate. (The answer, of course, is nothing. Paul Millsap is awesome and there is no justice.) It won't get that bad for them, 37-45 seems more realistic, and that's just so in keeping with their franchise history.
My main two takeaways here: I'm wondering if the Raptors will be next in line to experience the Icarus thrill-ride and also feeling more optimistic that Bud may succeed Pop with the Spurs after all.