Every season since 2007-08, the team has qualified for the Eastern Conference playoffs, only to get bounced in the first or second round. Without any superstars on the team, the Hawks haven't been serious contenders or bad enough to land a high draft pick.
But with a solid long-term plan, Atlanta's fortunes could soon change. The Hawks have the roster pieces, coaching and management to make an upward move in the Eastern Conference standings as early as next season.
So how will they do it? Let's take a look at three important steps the Hawks can take to jump into contention in the next few years.
Round Out the Roster With Inside Muscle
The Hawks' offseason moves are rapidly coming to a close.
After Mike Scott's re-signing on Friday, Atlanta has 14 players under contract for 2014-15, assuming Mike Muscala stays with the team, according to Peachtree Hoops' Kris Willis. The maximum number of players allowed on the roster during the season is 15.
The Hawks don't have to sign anyone else before the season, but they probably should. The team's big-man rotation seems to be missing an element of toughness and rim protection. Atlanta ranked No. 25 and No. 27 in shot-blocking and rebounding differential last season, respectively, per ESPN.
Considering there aren't many quality big men still on the market, the Hawks probably won't sign a franchise-changer before the season starts, but there are still a few guys out there who could help the team.
Ekpe Udoh is one name that stands out. The 27-year-old Udoh is a former No. 6 overall draft pick of the Golden State Warriors and, to be frank, has been a bust. His offensive skills are extremely lacking, and he isn't a great rebounder, two huge factors in a disappointing career.
But boy, can he block shots.
Udoh's career average of 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes is nothing to sneeze at. He even topped Houston Rockets star center Dwight Howard in blocks per 36 minutes last year. Udoh could be a very cheap signing for the Hawks, if the team's management sees the fit.
The Hawks could instead re-sign either Elton Brand or Gustavo Ayon. Both players were solid, yet unspectacular, last season for Atlanta. Other big-man options remain in free agency, but they may not offer quite the upside that the Hawks would want out of a roster spot.
Build Around Horford, Millsap and Teague
Big Threes are all the rage right now in the NBA.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have led the Spurs to four championships together. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in Miami from 2010 to 2014 to win a couple of titles for the Heat. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder have yet to reach the NBA mountaintop, but their team is a perennial championship contender.
In this area, Atlanta is set, with Al Horford (when he's healthy), Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague.
Two-time All-Star Horford averaged 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season, but a torn pectoral muscle ended his season in December. Millsap made his first All-Star appearance in 2014 after adding a three-point shot to his offensive arsenal. Rising star Teague is one of the league's best young point guards and a legitimate candidate to play in the 2015 All-Star Game.
In fact, the Hawks threesome looks pretty good statistically when compared with the three aforementioned elite trios.
|Combined Statistical Production of Big Threes in 2013-14|
|Statistics compiled from Sports-Reference.com|
The Hawks' main concern for future offseasons should be to keep their Big Three intact and sign good role players to support Horford, Millsap and Teague. One of the implications of this plan could mean getting rid of players who don't fit with the team.
For example, third-string point guard Dennis Schroeder is only 20 years old and has potential to be one of the better starting floor generals in the league. However, with Teague on the roster, his growth is being stunted. The Hawks may be wise to trade him for a more established role player in the next year.
As long as the Hawks don't mess with the Big Three for the next few years, they should be on the right track.
Continue Working Toward Becoming 'Spurs East'
OK, folks, it's trivia time: Which team led the NBA in assists per game last season?
Your first guess is probably the Spurs, and you would be right. Their surgical offensive precision and crisp passes netted them a fantastic average of 25.2 assists per game in 2013-14.
But there was another team that was actually No. 1 in assists for most of the season, before settling for a No. 2 finish, with 24.9 assists per game.
That team was the Hawks.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer, a Spurs assistant coach for 17 years, implemented many of the same offensive plays the Spurs use with the Hawks. The Hawks' execution of the Spurs' plays in 2013-14 was not always flawless, as this YouTube video shows.
However, when Atlanta properly ran the plays, it got really good shots. With more reps, the motion offense should only get better and more efficient.
In addition to modeling their offense after the Spurs, the Hawks need to take a Spurs-like approach to acquiring good role players to support their Big Three. But before getting into that, we need to answer a question.
What makes a good role player?
A good role player first needs to realize he isn't a superstar. He also must possess a certain skill that he has honed to near-perfection and uses to serve the team, first and foremost. So, basically, the Spurs roster aside from the Big Three.
The Hawks have already made strides toward this approach.
For example, Kyle Korver is a world-class sniper from three-point range. His shooting ability forces defenders to stay close to him on the perimeter, which opens up the interior for teammates to penetrate. Zach Lowe of Grantland cogently outlines Korver's impact on the Atlanta offense in this article.
Thabo Sefolosha, meanwhile, knows he is primarily a defensive player. He won't hurt the team playing isolation ball or taking contested three-point shots. Sefolosha picks his spots on offense, knowing his energy is better spent on the defensive end, where he is more skilled.
Then there's rookie Adreian Payne, who is a perfect example of a high-character potential role player.
Yes, Payne is an athletic 4 who can stroke it from the perimeter. But he's also a team player with a selfless heart of gold. If you haven't heard about his journey with "Princess Lacey," you must watch the following YouTube video.
Since the Hawks already have a good Big Three, they need to continue stockpiling high-character role players—guys who won't complain about playing time or get in trouble with the law.
It may be a bit too soon to look toward the 2015 free-agency class, but there are guys who fit the mold of a strong role player for the Hawks. Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Corey Brewer of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Robin Lopez of the Portland Trail Blazers all come to mind as good options to pursue.
If the Hawks continue to look to their big brothers in the Western Conference for inspiration, they will quickly rise up the standings.
The Hawks have a nice future ahead of them.
2014-15 might be a bit too soon to be thinking about a deep playoff run, but the following season could be a different story, especially with a strong offseason next summer. As long as team management, led by general manager Danny Ferry, continues to build around the Big Three with good role players, the Hawks should be a contender for several years.
And who knows, maybe their success will even make them worthy of the "Spurs East" nickname in the next couple of years.
Note: All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise indicated.
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