What We Learned About Atlanta Hawks During Season's First Half

Dan Schultz@DSchultz89Contributor IJanuary 23, 2014

What We Learned About Atlanta Hawks During Season's First Half

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    Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

    We are now at the halfway point of the regular season, and the Atlanta Hawks remain one of the most intriguing teams in the NBA. For starters, outside of the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, and Brooklyn Nets, they appear to be the only other team out of the 15 in the Eastern Conference committed to winning this year.

    Stay competitive after losing Al Horford, the emergence of Paul Millsap, and the overall management by head coach Mike Budenholzer are just some of the many interesting storylines that have taken place over the course of this year for the Hawks.

    Here are five things we have learned about the Atlanta Hawks during the first 41 games of the regular season:

1. Even Without Big Al, They Can Still Compete

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    Dave Tulis/Associated Press

    They are 6-6 since Al Horford went down for the year, which is pretty encouraging considering that he is their best player and was primed to be an All-Star yet again. Usually, the loss of a star like this can be a heart-wrenching, season-turning blow. However, this past Monday on Martin Luther King Day, the Hawks were able to come away with a surprising 121-114 victory over the two-time defending champion Miami Heat

    Most analysts around the league have been saying it will either be the Heat or the Indiana Pacers that will win the East. However, Atlanta has remained the third seed for much of the season and it seems no one has been paying attention. Beating the Heat showed that this Hawks squad is definitely more competitive than many are giving them credit for.

    The loss of Horford meant Paul Millsap would bcome the new primary option on offense. Also, little-used role player Pero Antic would have to adjust quickly to starters’ minutes and improve on his rebounding.

    While both of these cases have seen inconsistencies, especially Antic's rebounding, 12 games is a small sample size and adjustments like these take time.

    As long as they keep hovering around a .500 record, they should be gold to be a high seed.

    *Stats source: NBA.com

2. Mike Budenholzer Is a Solid NBA Head Coach

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    This is not particularly surprising considering that Mike Budenholzer spent 17 years as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, winning four championships in the process.

    However, taking over a new team is never easy, especially one that has been stuck in neutral as a first or second round exit for the past few years like the Hawks. Add in the loss of long-time Hawk Josh Smith to the Detroit Pistons via free agency, and it was clear Budenholzer would have his hands full.

    So far, with a 22-19 record currently being good enough for the third seed in the Eastern Conference, Hawks fans have to be satisfied with the job Coach Bud has done. Since losing their best player in Al Horford for the year, the Hawks have hovered around a .500 record through 12 games. Three of those six wins since losing Horford were against the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers, all elite teams.

    Coach Bud’s system is very much like the one he helped run with the Spurs, a high-octane motion offense that primarily focuses on spacing and the pick-and-roll game. This system is why players like Kyle Korver have flourished by breaking the “most consecutive games with a three-point basket made” record, because many of his looks are wide-open shots created by a well-oiled offense.

    It is a realistic goal for Coach Bud and his squad to make reaching the Conference Finals their mission. Again, this Hawks team has already proven they can make the playoffs over the last few years.

    It will be a tall order with no Horford, but with Coach Bud already proving he can beat the top two teams in the East thanks to his system, it is still somewhat feasible.

    *Stats source: NBA.com

3. Paul Millsap Is Super Underrated

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    Todd Kirkland/Associated Press

    Think about it, who comes to mind when you think of Top Power Forwards in the league? Names like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, and Tim Duncan, right?

    While all of those players are well deserving of that status, Paul Millsap is making a strong case to be considered as a top player at his position this year.

    Currently, Millsap is the eighth most efficient power forward in the NBA, averaging 17.7 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game, and 2.9 assists per game. At 6’8” and 253 pounds, he is considered to be slightly undersized for his position.

    However, this does not stop him from banging in the post for inside looks or getting position for defensive rebounds. He is also sniping at a 38 percent rate from the three-point line, a forgotten aspect of his all-around game.

    Many thought Horford to be the lone All-Star from the Hawks, but Millsap being 33rd overall in efficiency is extremely impressive and definitely worthy of All-Star consideration. For a guy that is signed on to a two-year deal worth just $19 million, you think someone would have locked him up to a four- or five-year deal. Instead, he fell into Atlanta’s laps, and at the age of 28 he is rounding into the prime years of his NBA career, as evidenced by his strong season thus far.

    *Stats source: Realgm.com, NBA.com

4. Jeff Teague Is Not a Good Outside Shooter

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    In previous years he has been an average three-point threat, but this year Jeff Teague has really taken a step back, shooting only 26 percent from the perimeter.

    His game has shades of Tony Parker to it, notably his quickness and ability to get to the rim with breathless ease and either get the bucket or a foul, sometimes both.

    As noted before, Atlanta’s system is a lot like San Antonio’s. Perhaps the Hawks should encourage Teague to abandon three-pointers in favor of more mid-range shots and drives to the lane. When Tony Parker stopped shooting threes early in his career and focused on these specific parts of his game, his career really took off and he became an even more productive player than he already was.

    Teague should get the green-light to shoot from outside only when he is wide open or the shot clock is winding down. When roughly one out of four three-pointers is going in for over the length of 41 games as is the case with him, it might be a good idea to focus on being a more efficient shooter from inside the arc.

    There is no doubting that overall he is a very good player, but this is just one area of his game that might have to be shelved until the offseason when he can put more work in to it.

    *Stats source: NBA.com

5. Shelvin Mack Is a Legitimate NBA Player

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    Dave Tulis/Associated Press

    After bouncing around the league for a while, D-League stints and all, it appears Shelvin Mack has finally arrived.

    Everybody knew this kid could shoot after watching him play college ball at Butler University. This is the first season where Mack has received the trust from his coach and regular minutes in the rotation, and he has blossomed as a result.

    He is quietly averaging 7.6 points per game, 3.5 assists per game, and 2.1 rebounds per game in only 18.9 minutes per game off the bench. He is shooting a 44 percent from the field to go along with 38 percent shooting from outside.

    Quite simply, Mack has become the player the Hawks were hoping Louis Williams would be for them when they signed him in the summer of 2012. A capable combo guard who scores at a high percentage, plays good defense, and can play within the offense and get his teammates involved as well. Mack’s strong play has made Lou-Will all the more expendable.

    His 3.5 dimes a game off the pine is a huge reason why the Hawks are the No. 1 passing team in the league.

    If Mack keeps this up, he will be receiving quite a raise to go along with an increase in role in no time.

    *Stats source: NBA.com