The Budenholzer Era begins: Atlanta Hawks Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Jeff Teague, SG Lou Williams, SF Kyle Korver, PF Paul Millsap, C Al Horford
Key bench players: SG John Jenkins, PF Elton Brand, C Gustavo Ayon, PG Dennis Schroeder
Notable offseason additions: Millsap, Brand, Schroeder (17th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft)
Notable offseason subtractions: PF Josh Smith, PG Devin Harris, C Zaza Pachulia, PF Ivan Johnson
FACT OR FICTION: The Atlanta Hawks will rue the day that they allowed Josh Smith to leave via free agency. 
FICTION. The Atlanta Hawks accomplished a rare feat: letting an All-Star caliber player walk and re-setting their franchise trajectory, but at the same time not completely rebuilding from scratch.
With Josh Smith, the Hawks were a capped out team that would win somewhere between 43 and 53 games every season. The proof is in history: that’s what they’ve done for the past five seasons. At this point, it’s obvious what type of player Smoove is going to be: a freak athlete defender with a fantastic ability to finish at the rack and a slow, broken jump shot that’s unlikely to ever improve. Like Lamar Odom years ago, Smith is much better watched when you focus on what he is doing rather than what his immense talents suggests he should be doing. If he’s your second or third-best player, then your team should be in great shape. There’s no way he should be controlling a team’s offense or even counted on to pour in 20 points a night, but with his defensive prowess, there is a chance that he’ll dictate the pace of the game.

The problem with Atlanta the past several years is that the team was constructed–on the court and in the salary cap–with Smith as  it’s second best player behind Al Horford. For the Hawks to become an elite squad, Smith would have to harness his insane athleticism and improve his shooting and emerge not only as an All-Star, but a legitimate MVP candidate. That was never going to happen. Moreover, re-signing him would have prevented Atlanta from making any future moves, especially considering Jeff Teague’s offseason raise and the increasing salaries of their youngsters. In short: the Hawks would have hit their financial and basketball ceilings.

With Smith moving on to to the beautiful city of Detroit, the Hawks have now put themselves in the hands of three young guards and the steady hands of Horford. The team’s only incumbent All-Star is an All-NBA-type player who has more or less reached his ceiling. He’s not an offensive dominator, nor is he an All-Defense-caliber guy, but he’s a fantastic rebounder that could be the second best player on a championship team. That being said, the Hawks need the 25 year-old Teague, second year shooting guard John Jenkins or rookie point guard Dennis Schroeder to emerge from relative NBA anonymity. It might not be feasible that any of these players turn into a franchise cornerstone, but the Hawks need to know what type of player they’ll need to try and get in order to start competing with Miami, Indiana, New York and Brooklyn.

The guard with the best chance here might be the 17th overall pick Schroeder, perhaps just because he’s the unknown quantity. From what I’ve seen (if Summer League video clips are anything resembling a qualifier), he’s got a great handle, passing creativity and the requisite length and athleticism to be a great defender. His jump shot however is oddly reminiscent of Josh Smith’s–a long load up, a funky angle from the top of the shot and inaccurate as hell. Teague is a known quantity at this point–an accomplished three-point shooter, a solid passer and a steady on-floor general. Again, it’s not that Schroeder looks like he’ll be better than Teague–it’s just that with a big fat “zero” next to “NBA minutes played”, at least the possibility is there.

However, even as Smith’s departure appears to be the most impactful change made this summer, new coaching hire Mike Budenholzer will affect the team the most. Budenholzer makes his way to Atlanta via San Antonio, where he built his basketball pedigree as a 19 year assistant coach for Gregg Popovich. He’s mentioned that he’s going to bring a lot of what has made the Spurs successful to the Hawks, pointing specifically to Horford as the centerpiece of the operation. Unlike previous years, where Joe Johnson, Smith or even Teague would line up at 1-2-3 in field goal attempts, Al is going to be counted on as the lynchpin of this offense with his point guards pushing the pace and array of shooters at his disposal.

The requisite talent, even with a borderline All-Star leaving the squad, is there (after all, remember that there have been several seasons where Paul Millsap too was a borderline All-Star). Atlanta’s success here is severely dependent on whether or not the team can buy into Budenholzer’s philosophy and whether or not he can translate Coach Popovich’s system onto a team that doesn’t have three future Hall of Fame players.

Best case scenario: First and foremost, Budenholzer proves himself worthy of all the offseason hype surrounding his hire and that a Gregg Popovich-type team can thrive without Pop, Timmy, Parker or Manu. The team buys in and they look like Spurs-lite–half the calories, half the talent but more than half the wins. Teague and/or Schroeder emerges as a top-15 point guard, pushing the pace, dissecting defenses and getting the ball to Al Horford, who drops 20 ppg for the first time in his career. The Hawks win a surprising 53 games, good for the third seed in the East, only to be stopped by the Chicago Bulls in the second round. But the future looks bright.

Absolute apocalypse: Budenholzer isn’t Pop. He isn’t even last year’s coach Larry Drew. He’s an abject disaster. The Hawks employ a run and gun offense that requires a competent point guard and ample shooters. Meanwhile, Atlanta doesn’t look like a fit. Teague and Schroeder aren’t ready for the responsibilities and Lou Williams’ body (returning from a torn ACL) isn’t ready to respond to the challenge either. The Hawks win just 31 games and Budenholzer’s job is already on the line next April.

Expected outcome: 2nd in the Southeast Division, 6th in the Eastern Conference

Do you smell what MAMBINO is cooking? Check out the rest (so far) of our 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview series:

Southeast Division

Miami Heat


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