Choo-Choo! All-aboard! This is the sound of the Atlanta Hawks bandwagon about to leave the station. If you haven’t jumped on already and bought into this year’s team, it definitely is time to. Atlanta’s “other” team has emerged as the must see ticket in town. Atlanta is in uncharted territory. The Hawks are 26-8 and off to their best start in franchise history since moving to Atlanta from St. Louis and are showing no signs of slowing down.
The stars are seemingly aligned for Atlanta this year. They are playing in the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers have flopped, and the Hawks have managed to stay healthy. In Coach Mike Budenholzer’s first year at the helm last season, he took the plucky eighth-seeded Hawks without Al Horford and pushed the number one seed Indiana Pacers to the brink of elimination. Fast forward to this season and Bud has a healthy cast and a much improved bench. Horford may not be the 20 and 10 threat he was in years past, but he is settling in nicely as a third-option behind Paul Millsap and the steady Jeff Teague.
Before this year, Horford was relied upon to be “the man” for the offense and was expected to shoulder much of the load. This season, Coach Budenholzer has the Hawks clicking offensively while sharing the ball. Atlanta is currently ranked third in the NBA with 25.3 assists per game led by Teague’s 7.1. The offense has run smoothly and has managed to keep the turnovers down, with the Hawks boasting the fourth best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league. Kyle Korver is off to the league’s best shooting season in history and is attempting to become the first player ever to record a 50/50/90 shooting line; that is 50 percent from the field, 50 percent from the three-point line, and 90 percent from the foul line.
As great and unselfish as the Hawks have been offensively, Coach Budenholzer will be the first to tell you that it is Atlanta’s defense that has taken the next step into becoming elite. They currently rank fifth in the NBA allowing just 97.6 points per game. During their current stretch of winning 19 out of 21 games, they have allowed over 100 points just eight times. It has been a group effort with four players averaging over a steal a game led by Paul Millsap’s 1.88, which by far is the most by any power forward in the league and is tied for sixth in the NBA.
The main reason for Atlanta’s success is that its players are getting it done on both sides of the court; they are not one dimensional. Millsap is not only leading the team in steals, but he also is second in scoring with 17.2 per game, and averages a team high 8.1 rebounds to go along with 3.1 assists. Teague, who leads the Hawks with 17.4 points per game, also is a thief on defense picking up 1.77 steals per game. This trend continues down the roster. Al Horford is blocking nearly a shot and a half a game and DeMarre Carroll has blossomed into one of the NBA’s premier “3 & D” guys.
A rock solid starting five with players that get it done on both ends of the court is great, but the lack of a bench is something that often separates the pretenders from the contenders. A lot of Atlanta’s success has to be credited to the bench and the added pieces. Mike Scott emerged as one of the East’s best knock-down shooters off the bench last year. He exploded in the Indiana series and has continued his evolution from a post player into a dynamic 3-4 man shooting 38.5 percent from downtown. Scott along with stretch big man Pero Antic, cause matchup issues all over the floor for opponents’ big men who are not accustomed to guarding on the perimeter must step out to contest their three pointers. The newly added Thabo Sefolosha struggled early on to find his shot but has slowly begun to creep out of his slump. Thabo has added a toughness on the wing and an ability to guard other teams’ best scorers when needed. His playoff experience with the Thunder is also invaluable for the Hawks’ bench unit.
The biggest improvement Atlanta has seen has been from second year guard Dennis Schroder. The 17th overall pick in the 2013 draft got limited burn a year ago, but the heralded Rajon Rondo clone has begun to tear things up on the second unit. His scoring is up to 8.2 points per game after just 3.7 last season and has shot well from the floor at a 44.8 percent clip. Though he still plays under 18 minutes per game, the German-born Schroder is second on the team in assists with 3.2 a night. He has come up big late in games including this Monday when he scored all seven of his points in the fourth quarter in a 107-98 win over the Clippers.
Coach Bud has established a winning mindset and a culture change after a rocky offseason with the front office issues. The team has bought into playing with intensity on both ends and Hawks fans have reaped the benefits seeing their team hold first place in the Eastern Conference. It took fans and pundits a while to believe however. Atlanta opened up with a soft schedule and many questioned the merits of its victories. They soon crushed all doubt with their nine game win streak and current 19 of 21 stretch. They have gone 9-2 against Western Conference teams, which is the measuring stick for all Eastern teams.
The Highlight Factory has been a nightmare for opposing teams, as Atlanta has gone 14-3 at Philips Arena. The franchise is continuously trying to sell out games and get fans to appreciate the best team in the East. The Pac is back and it is finally time for Atlantans to embrace the team’s success and ride this train all the way into the postseason and possibly to their first division title since 1993-94.