Hawks watch: Five keys to the coming season

With the Hawks’ 2013-14 season days away, here are five things to watch this season if the team is going to extend its streak of six consecutive playoff appearances.

How quickly the new systems are implemented

New coach Mike Budenholzer has had less than a month to install his systems on offense and defense, largely based on what was run in San Antonio. He promises a ball-movement offense and a simpler defense. The implementation of the systems was spotty during a 1-6 exhibition schedule. The losses came by an average of 12.5 points per game.

“There are a lot of things that are happening that are twisting the game or making the game do in another direction,” Budenholzer said after the loss the Pacers. “The trust in the system and the trust offensively and defensively, for us, we need it to go to another level. We need it to keep improving. Maybe during stretches of the game we don’t trust it like those teams who have been together for a long time.”

The Hawks cannot afford to take much more time in getting comfortable with the new systems. Last season a 20-10 start propelled the team to the postseason. It will become harder to implement and trust the new systems if losses mount early. Only seven of the Hawks’ first 18 games are against playoff teams from last season.

Effectiveness of outside shooting

The Hawks’ ball-movement offense will create shots — but will they be the right shots? Players will be freed for the open looks from 3-point range, including the big men who have shown a willingness to take them. Kyle Korver made 13 of his 34 3-point attempts in the exhibition season, and DeMarre Carroll made 7 of 14 long-range shots.

As a team in seven exhibitions, the Hawks made only 44 of 158 (.278) 3-pointers. Big man Pero Antic made 4 of 21 attempts.

The Hawks figure to get better in the category during the regular season. Jeff Teague and John Jenkins combined to go 1-for-16 in exhibition games.

Making up for the loss of Josh Smith

The Hawks let Smith, the leading scorer and all-around player, walk during the offseason. With Smith went his 17.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.8 blocks, 1.2 steals per and defensive ability. Paul Millsap was the Hawks’ prime free-agent target, and he will be responsible for replacing much of Smith’s production at power forward.

While Millsap has comparable numbers, he and other players will be counted on to fill the void.

The Hawks’ offense became stagnant at times last season as they tried to get Smith the ball in the low post. This season the Hawks will look to play through the post with Al Horford and Millsap, but quickly look to other options if that is not available.

The return of Lou Williams

The Hawks start the season without Williams, a proven veteran, as he continues the rehabilitation of a torn right ACL suffered in January. He averaged 14.1 points, 3.6 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 29 minutes last season before his injury. His production and presence will be a major boost when he is finally able to return.

There remains no timetable for Williams’ return. He has not been cleared for full five-on-five contact work. Once he reaches that final step in his rehabilitation, he should return to game action in about a month.

“What Lou has done in this league, a lot of people are aware of and have a ton of respect for,” Budenholzer said. “For me as a coach who now gets to have him on my team, it’s part of our big-picture equation about how this team fits together and how it functions.”

The Hawks have other injury concerns heading into the season. Forward/center Gustavo Ayon remains out with a right shoulder injury after he played just four exhibition minutes. Jenkins has battled a lower back injury that cost him five exhibition games. Millsap (sore left Achilles) and Horford (right hamstring strain) have been limited.

Development of young players

The Hawks have assembled a group of veteran players. It will be the maturation of their youngsters — particularly last year’s draft picks Jenkins and Mike Scott — that will be a key this season. Jenkins needs to take the next step in his development to be the first option off the bench at shooting guard. Scott has taken a big step in his development at power forward. He led all Hawks exhibition scorers with 84 points — 15 more than second-place Teague. Despite coming off the bench in six of the seven exhibition games, he led the team in scoring three times.

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