60 Wins. Four All-Stars, including an All-Star Head Coach. A perfect 17-0 month of January and also a franchise record 19-straight wins. The franchise’s first conference finals appearance. The late-season injuries. The nightclub. The what-ifs. These are all things that Hawks fans will never forget. The franchise’s best season ever since moving to Atlanta was highlighted by many great accomplishments, but was marred by injuries and mishaps down the stretch.
To fully wrap one’s head around what the Hawks did this season, you must look at where they began. Atlanta was a plucky bunch in Coach Budenholzer’s first season a year ago, compiling a record of 38-44 without Al Horford for the majority of the season after he injured his pectoral muscle. Even with the sub-.500 record, the Hawks earned the eighth-seed in the watered down Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to do much against the experienced top-seeded Indiana Pacers, but after a 101-93 win in Game 1, Atlanta fans began to believe.
The Hawks held a 3-2 series lead with a chance to pull the upset and close out the Pacers in Game 6 at Philips Arena, but the Pacers fended off Atlanta twice and advanced to the next round. Something happened in that playoff series. The Hawks found themselves going chest-to-chest with one of the toughest teams in the league without backing down. It was the beginning of a culture change.
The Worms Turns
As the 2014-15 season approached, a healthy Al Horford would be returning to the fold. Additions of Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha may have seemed insignificant, but as the season unfolded, for better and for worse, these two acquisitions loomed large in the subsequent success and failures of the Hawks. The season kicked off with rapper T.I. performing concerts pregame, at halftime and postgame, but the Hawks ended up losing 109-102 to the Toronto Raptors. A win over the Pacers and narrow losses to the Spurs and Hornets got Atlanta off to a rocky 1-3 start, which definitely would not surprise anybody in the NBA considering the team won just 38 games a year ago.
Then something happened. Atlanta won six of their next nine games and began to find their footing on the season. On Friday November 8, the Hawks beat the Pelicans 100-91. From that day until February 2, Atlanta ripped off a hellacious 33-2 record including 19-straight wins. By that time, the Hawks transformed from a 7-6 team to a 40-8 team. Times were good and the slogan “True To Atlanta” became a rallying cry for those to that supported the team. Philips Arena became the hottest ticket in town and sellouts became the norm. The team was clicking on all cylinders and Bud Ball was born with the unselfish play of the Hawks earning them the nickname of “Spurs East”.
Atlanta continued its strong play but came back down to earth after the All-Star break and recorded a humanly 17-11 record. On February 10, rookie and 15th pick in the 2014 draft Adreian Payne was traded to Minnesota for a future first round pick. The big man did not see much playing time and rumor has it had a falling out with the coaching staff. Already slim on big men, Atlanta felt it was the right move to make.
War of Attrition
Injuries began to pile up late in the season. Thabo Sefolosha was entrusted to be their top wing defender and split duties with DeMarre Carroll, but a strained right calf held him out for months. Both Mike Scott and Dennis Schroder sprained their toes and had to sit out a few games. Paul Millsap hurt his shoulder in the final week of the season and later it was Al Horford injuring his finger. And of course in the playoffs, the season ending injury to Kyle Korver and bone bruise and turf toe Carroll sustained. Injuries however are a part of the game. You can’t look to injuries as the main reason why things went south in the playoffs. The biggest blow was the early morning arrests of Pero Antic and Sefolosha outside a nightclub in New York. Pero missed a few games, but Sefolosha was done for the season after the altercation with the cops resulted in his fibula being broken.
The loss of Sefolosha piled with all the other injuries to the Hawks left the team thin in the playoffs. Atlanta’s lack of size hurt them as the Cavaliers out-rebounded them in every game. The Hawks entered the playoffs with a literal and figurative limp that they were never able to solve. Uninspiring performances against the Nets and Wizards were just enough to get by, but once they faced a Cleveland team—who also was battling injuries—Atlanta did not have enough bullets left in the chamber.
Atlanta has a strong team-oriented core in the weak Eastern Conference, but decisions will need to be made on how to improve the team. Both DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap are unrestricted free agents. With the way Carroll was playing before injury, it seemed like the Junkyard Dog was in-line for a major pay raise. Luckily for him, he suffered just a bone bruise and not ACL damage, insuring he will get a hefty raise.
Millsap was up and down during the postseason but was Atlanta’s most reliable player during the regular season. It may be tough to re-sign both but it will be on the team’s ledger as a top priority.
The most glaring need is a big man who can rebound and defend. 7-foot-3 Walter Tavares plays overseas, but was selected by the Hawks last year. He is incredibly raw but if he could turn into what the Utah Jazz have with Rudy Gobert, coach Bud would be ecstatic. Atlanta is able to swap draft picks with the Nets after the 2012 Joe Johnson trade. They now select 15th instead of 29th. It will be imperative for them to hit on the pick after deciding Payne wasn’t the right man a year ago.