Heading into the 2016-17 NBA season, nobody really knew what to expect of the new-look Atlanta Hawks. Longtime starters Jeff Teague and Al Horford were gone, replaced by the youth of Dennis Schroder and unpredictability of Dwight Howard. Most experts expected the Hawks to show flashes of solid play throughout the year but ultimately be worse off than the previous two seasons. They were correct... for the most part. Nobody could have predicted just how peculiar this Hawks team turned out to be.
A Flying Start
Supporters of the front office’s offseason decision-making were ecstatic to see their Hawks bolt out to a 9-2 start to the season, including a big-time win against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers squad. Howard was fitting in well enough with the offense and providing some above average defense and rebounding along with it, while Schroder had bursts of scoring that proved he was ready for his new role.
The “anchorman” of the team, Paul Millsap, picked up right where he left off and continued to fly under the radar as one of the league’s star big men. The bench was contributing at levels nobody had predicted, with role players like Mike Muscala and Tim Hardaway Jr. ensuring production wouldn’t drop off too much when the starters sat down. Things as a whole were looking up for this team, and it was starting to look like they could hang around with the big boys at the top of the conference.
...And a Crash Landing
After the torrid start, the Hawks proceeded to lose 10 out of their next 11 games, several of which were against teams that were significant underdogs. Every time they would play well against a playoff-caliber team, they would follow it up with a lackluster defeat to a team sitting in the cellar of the standings. It didn’t make much sense at all, and it was a trend that continued throughout the rest of the season.
The rumor mill kicked into gear during the struggles, with the impending free agent Millsap placed onto the trading block along with many of his teammates. It was Atlanta’s best three-point shooter by far, however, who would get dealt before the deadline. Kyle Korver was moved to the Cavaliers in early January for Mike Dunleavy Jr. and a late first-round draft pick.
The move almost surely signaled a rebuild scenario where Millsap, Hardaway Jr., Howard, Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, and potentially more names would be moved for young players and draft assets. But as the trade deadline came and passed, a short winning spree discouraged GM Wes Wilcox from pulling the trigger, and he actually added forward Ersan Ilyasova instead.
The Hawks now end the season in a similar manner as how they started it- a weird one. They will be going into the playoffs as the fifth-seed in the East, which sets up a first-round matchup with the Washington Wizards.
What Does the Hawks' Future Hold?
The team’s ceiling seems fairly low, and there are more questions than answers heading into the offseason.
Will 32-year-old Paul Millsap sign a massive contract with the organization that pays him upwards of $30 million into his late 30’s? If not, will the team tear the whole thing down or chase another big-name free agent? What is to make of the recent signings, Bazemore and Howard, after inconsistent performances? The trajectory of the franchise may become more clear in the coming months, but it may very well become even cloudier.
Highlights of the Hawks' Season
-The Hawks have come away with some major wins against the league’s elite teams, such as sweeping the season-series against the Houston Rockets, defeating the San Antonio Spurs, the Toronto Raptors twice, the Boston Celtics twice, and the Cleveland Cavaliers three times. They also won a 4-OT thriller against the New York Knicks in one of the most exciting games of the year.
-Rookie first-round picks Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry showed flashes of their potential, especially down the stretch. Prince got more minutes out of the pair, and he showed why his combination of defense, shooting, driving, and size makes him such a useful player for the team moving forward.
-Millsap’s fourth straight All-Star selection in a row was thoroughly deserved, and he was a major reason why the Hawks won the number of games they did. When he was out with knee soreness, the winning percentage took a massive dip.
-Dennis Schroder was pivotal at times for Atlanta, and he averaged 18 points and over six assists on the campaign. He showed he was capable of stepping up after Teague’s departure, and his bargain contract likely means he will be around for several years to come.
-Tim Hardaway Jr. grew into a new role when Korver was traded, and he often shined. His three-point shooting pretty much single-handedly won the Hawks games against the Spurs and Cavaliers, and his future with the organization is a major decision to be made this offseason.
-The playoff streak continues, even if many experts and fans felt that it was best to start over with the roster construction. Consistency is often overlooked in a league where many people expect their teams to be competing for a championship every season. The Hawks pride themselves on putting together a solid roster year in and year out, and they achieved it once again in 2016-17.
Lowlights of the Season
-There were many inexcusable losses against teams that will be fighting for a chance to land the first overall pick in the draft this offseason. In order to solidify an even higher seed for the playoffs, the Hawks needed to take care of the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, and others.
-Kyle Korver was a sensational contributor to the organization for several years, and the trade that sent him to Cleveland affected the team in several ways. Most directly, he was the only consistent above average three-point shooter on the floor for Atlanta all season.
-Kent Bazemore was a breakout performer last season, and he got paid because of it. However, he was unable to follow it up in 2016-17, shooting significantly worse from the floor and looking lost at times. He too had flashes of good play, but head coach Mike Budenholzer was expecting more heading into the season.
If the Hawks can manage an upset in their first-round matchup with the Wizards then it makes to continue building this roster to a championship contending team for season's forward. If the first-round ends in a sweep, then there should be some changes going forward