The newish Hawks open the playoffs against Boston on Saturday and regardless of your expectations for the postseason, this much is certain: They have been a team in the mix with a solid foundation and lacking humiliating moments in consecutive seasons.
As an Atlanta pro sports franchise, this qualifies as a novelty.
The newish Hawks didn’t win as many games in this regular season (48-34) as last (60-22) and the byproduct of that is they likely would face Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs if they get past the Celtics, which isn’t a given.
But the playoffs this season seem far more of a measuring stick for the future than last year was. There wasn’t a reason to change much after last season. The only major decision the Hawks faced in the summer was whether to bankrupt themselves and try to re-sign both Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll in free agency. (They passed and let Carroll go.)
The decisions after these playoffs will be more difficult, because there’s a greater likelihood that they’re going to impact the existing core of a roster that has gone 108-56 in the last two years. Among the decisions: to re-sign or deal (in a sign-and-trade) impending free agent Al Horford; to keep or trade point guard Jeff Teague (whose contract will have a year left); to determine what they have in Dennis Schroeder.
These newish Hawks have been a fun team to watch. But barring an NBA title run, they’ll be at the point in this franchise makeover where the front office must determine what it will take to get to the next level.
Between film sessions Thursday, Hawks president and coach Mike Budenholzer acknowledged the impending decisions but understandably downplayed them, given the timing.
“Every team has decisions to make in the summer and we’re no different,” he said. “But I’m not so focused on that right now as I am Boston. I probably don’t want to say a lot about because I want our minds to be all together for the playoffs. I know I’m the coach and the ultimate decision-maker, but right now I’m in coach mode.”
The Hawks went through their share of hiccups this season. They often lacked the offensive flow and edge they played with a year ago. Carroll was missed. Kyle Korver struggled to get open and make shots. Tiago Splitter was ineffective, then was shelved with an injury. Tim Hardaway Jr. took a while to get acclimated in the system. But they looked strong down the stretch, going 17-7, even with the last two road losses to Cleveland and Washington.
The Cavaliers and Toronto (against whom the Hawks went 1-6 combined) are the favorites in the Eastern Conference. (Odds site Bovada lists Cleveland as a 5-13 favorite to win the East; Toronto at 5-1; the Hawks, Boston and Miami at 14-1.) But it’s an underwhelming field. The Cavaliers have a rookie coach (Tyronn Lue) who has coached a half-season and the Raptors have one playoff series win in 20 years.
“I think we’re in a good place,” Budenholzer said. “My gut says we’re a good team. We have a core group of players, whether you combine the last two years or just look at this year, that has shown themselves to be very competitive. So I don’t think you can assume a playoff result would lead us to a significant change one way or the other.”
The Hawks had opportunities to make a major deal at the trade deadline involving Teague or Horford, but it was a long shot that they actually would do so and Budenholzer correctly opted out. Why rip up a core during a season, unless a team is kissing off the playoffs? There was no tangible motivation.
“The center business seems like it’s always been a narrative for us, but we like our bigs,” Budenholzer said, referencing Horford.
Unlike past playoffs against Boston, this isn’t a series when the Hawks are undermanned. They should win and advance, only to run into LeBron James in Round Two. But Budenholzer isn’t letting his mind go there right now.
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