ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: Until Al Horford went down in December, the Hawks looked like the only Eastern Conference team not named the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers that wasn’t a complete joke. Even after Horford underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn right pectoral muscle, they were able to make the playoffs and give the top-seeded Pacers a serious scare in the first round. A lot of that credit goes to the offensive scheme installed by first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer. Newcomers Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll thrived in Bud’s spacing-heavy system alongside Kyle Korver, and even the toughest defense in the league found it a nightmare to figure out.

Signature highlight from last season: Korver, who has been one of the deadliest long-range shooters in the NBA for a decade, broke Dana Barros’ long-standing record of 89 consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer. Korver’s streak didn’t end until it reached 127.

Key player changes: The Hawks mostly filled in around the edges, leaving their core as-is but swapping out some role players. They drafted power forward Adreian Payne and signed former Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha to bolster their perimeter defense. Backup point guard Lou Williams was traded to the Raptors, replaced by Kent Bazemore.

Much more pressing, of course, was the scandal that broke last month. Majority owner Bruce Levenson copped to sending a racially insensitive email about fans attending Hawks games, and agreed to sell his stake in the team. Then, details of even more racially insensitive remarks made by GM Danny Ferry about free-agent forward Luol Deng during a scouting meeting surfaced, kicking off a firestorm that resulted in Ferry taking an indefinite leave of absence.

Keys to the Hawks’ season:

How much of a distraction will the off-the-court mess be to players? The Hawks enter the season with Budenholzer overseeing basketball operations during Ferry’s leave, and ownership in limbo. Even though the roster and coach are relatively stable, situations like this can weigh on teams — just look at the Clippers in the weeks immediately following this spring’s Donald Sterling revelations. They’re going to have to answer questions about it, and at some point a new ownership group will come into play. That’s a lot of uncertainty, but hopefully the players and Budenholzer will be able to tune out the drama and focus on basketball.

Will Horford stay healthy? The Hawks’ 39-43 record last season doesn’t look great on its own, but they played much of the year without their two-time All-Star center. When Horford went down on December 26, the Hawks were 16-13. Over the rest of the season, they went 23-30. Horford has had two season-ending injuries over the last three years, but he’s been largely durable throughout his career and he’s only 28. Budenholzer implemented the five-out lineup after his injury, and although it took some time to get it in place, it was extremely effective by the time the playoffs came around. Horford isn’t an outside shooter, but he’s a skilled defender who gives the Hawks the kind of weapon on both sides of the ball they didn’t have without him.

Is Jeff Teague the long-term answer at point guard? The Hawks let Teague test restricted free agency last summer. He ultimately signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Bucks, which Atlanta immediately matched. He had a solid year, but there’s been nothing to indicate the Hawks view him as a foundational piece, or that they wouldn’t be open to trading him. They’re very high on second-year point guard Dennis Schröder, who didn’t play much in his rookie season but should get more opportunities this year. There’s a chance he could take some of Teague’s minutes if he blossoms and make the five-year veteran expendable.

Why you should watch: The Hawks have one of the prettiest offenses in the NBA, a ball-movement-heavy machine adapted from Budenholzer’s time with the Spurs. They’ll hit a ton of three-pointers, and a healthy Horford is extremely fun to watch.

Prediction: 48-34. Provided Horford stays healthy, the Hawks are in a position to compete for home-court advantage in the playoffs. Horford’s return and the addition of Sefolosha will strengthen Atlanta’s defense, while their offensive scheme remains extremely tough for opposing defenses to figure out.