STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The 2012-13 season was the same old song for the Hawks, as they overachieved in the face of a serious injury to a pivotal player. Led by Al Horford, the Hawks surprised some – who expected last year to signal a rebuilding project – by securing a playoff spot and their sixth consecutive winning season. The team could not parlay this success into a postseason victory and once again failed to outperform the Heat, Bulls, Pacers and Knicks, bringing former head coach Larry Drew's tenure to a close.
New coach Mike Budenholzer must weather the loss of Josh Smith – now with the Detroit Pistons – and the setback to Louis Williams, who remains out indefinitely after undergoing surgery to repair the ACL he tore in January. Jeff Teague will be depended upon to stabilize the guard play. The Atlanta front office cleverly retooled its frontcourt by signing veterans Paul Millsap, Elton Brand and DeMarre Carroll while claiming Gustavo Ayon off waivers. They will be hard-pressed to duplicate their win total from last year, but should remain a contender in the East.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
Jeff Teague was retained over the summer to man the starting point guard position. He will bridge the gap to rookie Dennis Schroder, who is slated to serve as Teague's understudy. If things go according to plan, Schroder should see plenty of minutes early in the season in the absence of Louis Williams. In the long run, Atlanta is hoping it has found its point guards of the present and future.
The roster is constructed in such a way that it could be difficult to fill the shooting guard position. Stockpiling point guards such as Teague, Schroder and Shelvin Mack left the Hawks vulnerable at other spots. Williams' loss will force someone to play outside his game. John Jenkins stands to gain minutes as a second-year player splitting time with Jared Cunningham.
Atlanta became larger in the offseason by overhauling the frontcourt. Budenholzer will incorporate principles he learned during his tenure as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs. A defense-first mentality is something Budenholzer will preach to his team, hoping to make the most of several cap-friendly pieces the Hawks poached in free agency. DeMarre Carroll should be the first of the forwards off the bench in relief of Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap at the 4.
The Hawks say goodbye to supremely talented Josh Smith and welcome his antithesis in Millsap. A sturdy offensive player, Millsap does not have the size or athleticism to block shots on defense or rise above the rim to score points. Expectations are for him to play efficiently during the first season in which he is expected to garner close to 35 minutes at power forward. Like Millsap, Elton Brand is a rather unexciting pickup, but one the team hopes will quietly enable them to score more points than they did last year.
Fortunately for Atlanta, the Horford possesses all the desirable qualities of an NBA center today and will see his customary 35 minutes each night. Remaining minutes will likely go to Brand and Ayon, who averaged just under 15 minutes per game with both Milwaukee and Orlando last season.
Al Horford: Atlanta is headed into a new phase for the franchise, one that has seen the team use the Spurs' model of roster construction. Under this system, which Budenholzer helped orchestrate for the last 17 years as a Spurs' assistant, one frontcourt player stands as the main beneficiary. In San Antonio, that player was Tim Duncan. In Atlanta, it appears Horford will be the focal point. It is scary to imagine that his numbers could actually improve, given that he averaged 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game last season while shooting an impressive 54 percent from the field. Nonetheless, he will be expected to carry a heavier load than ever for the new-look Hawks.
Elton Brand: Successful professional franchises across American sports have long been able to uncover value with underappreciated talent. Consider Brand the Hawks' attempt to reinvigorate a past-his-prime Brand by penciling him into a rotation with other similar players. With so many talented players in the Atlanta frontcourt, it seems unlikely the 34-year old will be able to post hefty numbers, but he should provide a significant leadership role.
Gustavo Ayon: Ayon was claimed off waivers from the Milwaukee Bucks to eat minutes, but has seen those decline in each of his first two NBA seasons. The gargantuan is an interior presence, but surprisingly does not block many shots for someone his size.
Paul Millsap: The Hawks brought aboard a handful of talented forwards via free agency, none more productive than Millsap. At 28 years old, he has carved out a niche for himself in the league as a low-volume scorer. Though not an intimidating shot-blocker, his defense allows him to stay on the court between 30 and 35 minutes a game. Going from a crowded frontcourt as a member of the Utah Jazz to a fixture in Atlanta should allow him to further establish himself as a reliable option for points, rebounds and steals.
Kyle Korver: After spending most of his career coming off the bench, Korver managed to earn 30 minutes per game last season. The reason for that lies in the numbers. He averaged 10.9 points and 2.6 3-pointers made last season, but his field goal percentage was the highest it's been since the 2009-10 campaign. A lethal shooter from outside, Korver is an offensive asset, period. He will once again be a starter for a team that should make opponents uncomfortable in the paint and from long-range.
DeMarre Carroll: Carroll has earned the reputation of defensive stopper. His hard-nosed play and ability to defend multiple positions makes him an invaluable commodity for Atlanta. He averaged 16.8 minutes as a teammate of Paul Millsap, both formerly of the Jazz last season. The two will again team up to provide contrasting styles. Carroll is not fantasy friendly in most leagues.
Pero Antic: Antic was a curious signing. A crowded frontcourt will likely have no room to accommodate minutes from a stretch-four who launches freely from long range.
Mike Scott: Praised by Al Horford for being the team's "most improved player" in the offseason, Scott could play his way into more minutes if he continues at the current pace. He made nearly half his shots from the floor and shot a decent percentage from the charity stripe in his debut season, so the former Virginia product should see more minutes.
Jeff Teague: The Hawks matched a four-year, $32 million offer sheet this summer to retain their starting point guard. It was a reasonable price for a relatively young player who recorded career highs in points and assists during the 2012-13 season. More importantly, it states the team's intentions to remain a contender in the east. Speculation was rampant that Teague would walk under the assumption Atlanta was in a rebuild. GM Danny Ferry quelled this notion in the offseason and will put the steering wheel back into Teague's capable hands.
Louis Williams: Williams played starter minutes as the Hawks' sixth man in 40 games before missing half the season with a knee injury. He is a dynamic scorer when on the court, but this season's largest question mark at present. If he misses another 40 games this season, it could open the door for younger players to embrace bigger roles earlier than expected.
Dennis Schroder: One of those young players is Schroder, who will be expected to do more than learn the point guard position from Jeff Teague his rookie season. One of the hottest names floating around summer league play, the German was taken with the 17th overall pick in the 2013 draft. He, along with fellow first rounder Archie Goodwin, should not be among the leading Rookie of the Year favorites, but could be a pleasant surprise this season.
Shelvin Mack: Mack is the slightly-older, steady answer to Schroder's high-ceiling foreign prospect. He won't wow anyone with his skill set, but seems to show just enough to continue to earn an NBA roster spot. Last year, he spent time with three different squads and produced solid numbers on the rare occasion when he saw the floor. An ever-evolving jumper will be the key to his success.
John Jenkins: The sweet-shooting Jenkins earned about 15 minutes of action per game last season. While on the floor, he shot better than 38 percent from beyond the arc, 84 percent from the stripe and made the most of his few opportunities to hoist shots. Primed to fill a much larger role in his second season as a pro, the former first rounder could see a jump to double figures in scoring.
Jared Cunningham: Like Jenkins – and every other guard on this roster – Cunningham is undersized to play the 2. That will not prevent him from playing meaningful minutes after spending time in the D-League a year ago. Cunningham will need a big season to secure a spot on the Hawks' roster headed into next offseason.
Dennis Schroder: Schroder is a wild card, a true sleeper entering 2013. He may continue his brilliant play from the Las Vegas Summer League and parlay that into considerable playing time, or he may fizzle under the pressure of playing in the NBA at 20. If any of his highlights from the offseason are any indication, Hawks fans could be in for a treat. Small, but electric, Schroder is a penetrator and more of a playmaker than incumbent Jeff Teague, who is a natural scorer. The injury to Louis Williams may be just the opportunity the rookie needs to make an impact early. If he does, do not expect him to be relegated to the bench once Williams returns.
Kyle Korver: A natural regression to the mean and a shifting culture in Atlanta are reasons why Korver may have difficulty duplicating his numbers from last season. He can likely be trusted to shoot better than 40 percent from long range, but not the absurd 46.1 percent he accomplished last season. With new coach Mike Budenholzer at the helm, more attention to defense will likely mean more DeMarre Carroll and less Korver.