Going into the 2013-14 NBA season, the Atlanta Hawks look poised to remain exactly where they've spent the last few years: smack-dab in the middle of the Eastern Conference, doomed to make the playoffs before getting eliminated by one of the truly elite teams.
The phrase "upper-level mediocrity" just continues to apply.
But this year, there's some more upside on the roster.
With a bunch of new faces replacing Josh Smith, Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia, Ivan Johnson and all the other departed members of 2012-13's Hawks, this team could vault up even higher than normal in the standings. Especially if some of the young players—John Jenkins, Dennis Schröder, Mike Scott, Pero Antic, etc.—break out in a big way.
Things are pretty much decided at the top of the player power rankings, but everyone else is jockeying for position once we drop out of the top five. As a result, it's an order that will likely change throughout the year.
Al Horford starts the year off in the No. 1 spot (sorry, no spoiler alert needed there), but do you think he'll finish the 2013-14 campaign as the front-runner? We should be about 99 percent sure that he does, but it would be great news for the Hawks if Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague or even someone like Schröder could make it a legitimate competition.
Mike Scott doesn't have a guaranteed contract, but he's a breakout candidate.
15. Shelvin Mack, PG
The 6'3" point guard has looked solid during the preseason, but he's still fighting an uphill battle to make the active roster, especially since Danny Ferry likes rostering 14 players and keeping one spot open for future flexibility.
He's played in two of the team's first three games, averaging 5.0 points, 1.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists in limited action while shooting 3-of-6 from the field. Mack is a solid ball-handler when functioning in pick-and-roll settings, but he has to become more of a defensive presence.
Synergy Sports (subscription required) shows that in 20 games with the team during the 2012-13 season, the former Butler Bulldog allowed 0.89 points per possession, "good" for No. 256 among all qualified players.
14. Cartier Martin, SF
The newest addition to the Hawks roster, as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore, Cartier Martin will have a chance to make the regular-season roster simply because there aren't many intriguing options at small forward.
Beyond Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll, the Hawks are left either playing shooting guards or power forwards out of position unless they sign Martin (or someone lower in the rankings).
The former Washington Wizard is a "three-and-D" guy who just doesn't bring much else to the table. During his final season in the nation's capitol, he shot a career-high 39.7 percent from downtown.
13. Mike Scott, PF
If Mike Scott were working with a guaranteed contract, he would be checking in at No. 11, but c'est la vie.
The young power forward is a horrific defender who struggles bodying up against larger paint-bound players, but he has the makings of a nice offensive specialist. Scott is very much a stretch four with expanding range that extends beyond the three-point arc.
Through three preseason games, the Virginia product is averaging 11.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 0.3 assists per game while shooting 15-of-23 from the field. He's even dropped three of his five triples through the bottom of the net, and that's the best sign of all.
Jared Cunningham could work his way up these rankings.
12. Jared Cunningham, SG
Jared Cunningham spent only 26 minutes on the court during his rookie season with the Dallas Mavericks, and he should exceed that total rather dramatically with the Hawks. He won't play in the D-League as much, and the right knee tendonitis that kept him out is—fingers crossed—behind him.
The former Oregon State standout isn't a polished player, but he's an insane athlete capable of creating quite a few highlights whenever he receives playing time. He should become a solid transition threat and the recipient of more than a couple alley-oop lobs.
"Flight" has also displayed a more aesthetically pleasing three-point stroke during preseason action, and positive results will only help him work his way into the rotation.
11. Gustavo Ayon, PF
A strained rotator cuff might keep Gustavo Ayon out of the lineup when the regular season begins, and it also knocks him out of the top 10 and into the de facto honorable mentions.
But don't overlook the Mexican big man's ability to make a sizable impact for the Hawks during his first season with the team. He's always been a great per-minute player, especially because he devours rebounds like a kid in a candy store. Last year, Ayon recorded 13 boards per 36 minutes with the Milwaukee Bucks and 8.8 with the Orlando Magic.
Although he's by no means a glamorous player, he's an efficient big man who won't try doing more than he's capable of doing.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: N/A
Did you know that the Hawks signed the Macedonian version of Carlos Boozer over the offseason? It's a comparison that works both if we're discussing playing styles and if we're comparing the bald-head-and-perfect-beard looks.
Pero Antic is a veteran, checking in at 31 years old, but he's done all of his professional playing in Europe, and he'll be an elderly rookie in 2013-14. There will still be a major adjustment period for Antic as he gets used to the more physical style of play in the NBA.
So far, the big man has strayed as far as possible from the paint, seemingly afraid of the inevitable contact.
That will be both beneficial and detrimental if it continues.
On one hand, Atlanta needs for Antic to become a physical presence off the bench. He'll be tasked with a rotation spot, at least unless Mike Scott or Gustavo Ayon emerges as a more reliable option, and the Hawks need rebounding help in a big way.
But at the same time, he's proven to be a good floor-spacer, showing off a Boozer-esque mid-range jumper. And if anything, his jump shot has better range than his doppelganger on the Chicago Bulls. Through three preseason games, Antic is shooting 3-of-9 from beyond the three-point arc, a number depressed by a 1-of-6 outing in his team debut.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 6.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks (with Utah Jazz)
Every year, Atlanta fans seem to fall in love with one energy guy on the roster. Last year, it was Ivan Johnson, who displayed no fear and won over everyone's hearts with his constant ability to give 100 percent.
In 2013-14, the most likely candidate to fill in Johnson's shoes is DeMarre Carroll, although he may very well end up starting at small forward at various points throughout the season.
Carroll is a solid transition scorer and a great energy/glue guy, but his primary asset will become his defensive ability. Although not a good enough shooter to qualify as a "three-and-D" guy, the 27-year-old Missouri product has the tools necessary to lock down quality perimeter scorers, and he doesn't show fear when tasked with slowing down superstars like LeBron James.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Utah Jazz allowed 108.6 points per 100 possessions when Carroll was on the bench last season. But when he played, that number plummeted to a much more respectable 102.9.
The Hawks will be hoping that their offseason acquisition has a similar impact in his new threads.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 6.1 points, 1.5 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.2 blocks
Now we take a rather large jump up.
Although DeMarre Carroll and John Jenkins sit adjacent to one another in the rankings, there's an imaginary chasm separating them. This Vanderbilt product is actually going to make a big impact for the Hawks, and he'll do so primarily from beyond the three-point arc.
Just as he could while with the Commodores, Jenkins can flat-out shoot the cover off the ball. To put it in perspective, the shooting guard hit 38.4 percent of his looks from downtown as a rookie and still had what he would have to consider an off year.
During summer league, Jenkins looked as though he's made serious strides. He's a more confident and competent defender, and he's able to create looks for himself rather than relying on screens and off-ball cuts to find cracks in the defense.
Unfortunately, low back spasms have kept him out of preseason action, keeping us in the dark about any subsequent improvement.
Until Lou Williams returns from his ACL injury, Jenkins will be the top scorer off the bench. So the pressure is on this second-year player to get off to a good start, especially from downtown.
Age: 87 34
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 7.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks (with Dallas Mavericks)
Elton Brand may seem ancient—I know, I thought he was 87 at first—but he's still got some productive years left in the tank. The No. 1 pick in the 1999 NBA draft is no longer in his prime, nor is he anywhere close to it.
And yet, he can still make a positive impact.
Now that Zaza Pachulia has left for the Milwaukee Bucks, much to the chagrin of yours truly, Brand will be the first big man off the bench. He'll end up playing minutes at both power forward and center, although the Atlanta frontcourt will be truly undersized when he and Paul Millsap are holding down the fort together.
Brand is no longer going to make much of a difference in the scoring column, but that's not why he's on the team.
He'll be a great rebounder and a defensive stopper whenever he's on the court. Nothing less and nothing more.
Brand averaged 10.1 rebounds per 36 minutes last year, and Synergy Sports (subscription required) shows that he allowed 0.87 points per possession last year with the Dallas Mavericks. That's by no means an elite number, but the 34-year-old did do quite well guarding opposing players in isolation and pick-and-roll scenarios.
Expect new head coach Mike Budenholzer to ask the defense to switch with quite a bit of frequency when Brand is on the court.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: N/A
The rookie sensation didn't take long to win over his hometown fans.
Not only did Dennis Schröder look so good during summer league action that every announcer seemed to drool over him, but he hit a game-winning shot in his second preseason game. A floater against the Charlotte Bobcats gave the Hawks an 87-85 victory and proved that he may well have ice water in his veins.
Through two games (he sat out against the New Orleans Pelicans), the German point guard is averaging 6.5 points, 1.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 0.5 steals per game on 6-of-21 shooting. His efficiency will be the focus of much attention throughout the season, as turnovers and missed shots look like they could be problematic.
But as for the rest of his game? Let's just say it's earning nothing but thumbs up.
Schröder simply looks like he belongs in the Association.
He plays with confidence and ahead-of-the-curve court vision on offense, and he's a pesky defender who brings an unmatched level of intensity to the less glamorous end of the court.
If he received enough minutes, the 20-year-old floor general would play a large part in the Rookie of the Year race, but that probably won't happen with Jeff Teague blocking his path to the starting lineup.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 10.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks
This Kyle Korver guy is pretty good at shooting the basketball.
In 2012-13, he made 45.7 percent of his attempts from beyond the three-point arc and took 5.6 attempts per game. Any guesses how many players in NBA history have topped 45 percent and five attempts per game over the course of a season while playing enough games to qualify for the three-point crown?
Korver and Stephen Curry both did so last season, and they're joined by Ray Allen (2011-12), Steve Novak (2011-12), Glen Rice (1996-97) and Dana Barros (1994-95).
Well, Korver will be looking to become the first player in the storied history of this sport to join the club twice. And he'll have to do so this season, as it appears highly likely that Curry will be doing so as well.
Nothing should change for the Ashton Kutcher lookalike in 2013-14. He'll still be a starter—either at small forward or, if the matchup calls for it, shooting guard—and he can still run around using screen after screen as he wears out defenders.
Korver's value stems from more than his shooting, though. He's an adequate defender and a heady distributor who never seems to mess up entry passes. But that three-point stroke is still by far his biggest asset.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks
No one knows when Lou Williams will return to action after he tore his ACL midway through the 2012-13 campaign. Last we heard, NBA.com's Sekou Smith reported that there was still no timetable for the talented 2-guard's comeback.
Well, the Hawks need Williams.
He's a veteran presence in the backcourt, and his scoring talents bring a new element to the squad. He's one of the few players who can consistently create his own looks while keeping his head up enough to find open teammates, and that's why he often had the ball in his hands as the shot clock (or game clock) ran down.
But what makes Lou Will valuable—and often gets overlooked—is his ability to minimize his turnovers in the process.
According to Basketball-Reference, the 26-year-old shooting guard posted a 13.0 turnover percentage over 39 games last year, and that was the worst mark he'd earned since 2008-09. Williams is just remarkably adept at maintaining control over the ball and passing it into the right spots.
That said, the Hawks will be thrilled when he records his first cough-up of the 2013-14 campaign. That'll mean he's actually playing.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 2.3 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks
Jeff Teague and Mike Budenholzer may not show it on national television, but there's a solid chance that they're star-crossed lovers just now getting a chance to make magic together.
Coach Bud learned under Gregg Popovich for centuries years, and now he'll be showing off what he can do during his first stint as a head coach. And if he learned anything from the complicated system that the San Antonio Spurs employed, he'll be helping Jeff Teague look like a poor man's version of Tony Parker.
Expect this Wake Forest product to run so many pick-and-roll sets that he euphorically counts screens instead of sheep as he drifts off to sleep following a tightly contested game. And he needs a bit of help here, so this is definitely a positive.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Teague scored 0.72 points per possession when functioning as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll. That ranked him only 120th among all qualified players, and he'll fare much better when he stops turning the ball over 18.5 percent of the time.
Given his explosiveness, improving jumper, solid passing chops and pesky defense, this is all Teague needs in order to threaten the elite class of point guards. He'll never be an All-Star, but he won't be that far off if Budenholzer milks everything possible out of him.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.0 blocks (with Utah Jazz)
Paul Millsap will be a wonderful breath of fresh air for Atlanta Hawks fans after they dealt with Josh Smith for so many years. No longer will Philips Arena go silent and then moan when a power forward pulls up for a mid-range jumper.
This 28-year-old little big man can actually make those looks.
Basketball-Reference reveals that Millsap made 42.4 percent of his shots from 16 to 23 feet during his final go-around with the Utah Jazz, and he checked in at 35.7 percent from 10 to 15 feet. For comparison's sake, Smoove hit 32.9 and 19.4 percent of his attempts from those respective areas.
But Millsap will also win over the crowd with his boundless reserves of energy.
He may be undersized for the 4, but his lanky arms and never-ending supply of hustle and enthusiasm more than make up for the inches that he gives up. Millsap is a glue guy, but he's also so much more than that thanks to his defensive ability and his knack for corralling any boards in his general vicinity.
And, of course, it'll be nice to see fewer shots clang off the rim. Through three preseason games, Millsap was shooting 13-of-24, and his range even extended back to the three-point arc.
A nice development indeed.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks
There shouldn't have ever been doubt that Al Horford would check in at No. 1. I even gave it away in the article's intro!
He's the only member of the Atlanta Hawks who can realistically make the All-Star squad, and he's the true centerpiece of this team now that Josh Smith has left for a fresh start with the Detroit Pistons. While Smoove was in town, Horford was still the best player but by a much narrower margin.
The former Gator can simply do everything that you look for on a basketball court, except he sometimes displays a bit of predictability when working with his back to the basket. He's been effective despite the lack of elite moves in his arsenal, but that's still not his primary strength on offense.
Horford is one of the rare centers through whom you can run an offense. Whether he catches the ball on the low block or the elbow, he can either score or pass the ball to the right man, and the high-low game should continue to thrive now that Paul Millsap replaces Smoove.
Defensively, the 27-year-old big man is one of the more underrated players in basketball.
He doesn't record glamor stats, but he makes his team better and thrives as an individual defender. Basketball-Reference shows that the Hawks allowed 0.6 fewer points per 100 possessions when Horford was on the court, and Synergy Sports (subscription required) reveals that he allowed only 0.84 points per possession while thriving whenever he guarded roll men.
Horford may not be a player who can win a championship as the No. 1 option, but he'll continue to assert himself as one of the 25 best players in the league throughout the 2013-14 campaign.