An entertaining first-round series earned the recently eliminated Atlanta Hawks a handful of labels: They were "pesky" and "spirited," "feisty" and "gutsy"—all nods to their fun style and competitive play.
But all those miss the point. Atlanta is beautifully positioned to make playoff trips for the foreseeable future, and if things go right, it won't be stumbling in as the No. 8 seed in a weak conference for long.
Yes, it's partly true that this year's Hawks were "plucky," or whatever backhanded adjective you'd like to use. But there's one descriptor we've been missing: ascendant.
These Hawks are on the rise.
Gotta Love Those Books
The Hawks have just $48.7 million committed to next year's salaries, and that figure drops to $30 million in 2015-16 before dipping all the way to just under $17 million in 2016-17. With the salary cap projected to hit $63.2 million this coming season, Atlanta is in terrific financial shape.
And that's not just because of the bottom-line figure that leaves them about $15 million to play with this summer. It's also because the Hawks simply aren't overpaying anybody on the roster right now.
Paul Millsap will make just $9.5 million next year. Jeff Teague will collect just $8 million in each of the next three seasons—not a bad deal for a guy who diced up the Indiana Pacers defense. And Al Horford, a legitimate star, is owed a reasonable $12 million per year through the 2015-16 season.
Better still, the Hawks have vitally useful role players like DeMarre Carroll ($2.4 million), Mike Scott (owed a qualifying offer of $1.1 million) and Pero Antic (on the hook for an nonguaranteed $1.2 million next year) locked up for next to nothing.
This is an intelligently constructed roster with a number of key players earning less than their market values, which bodes well for Atlanta's future for a couple of reasons. The most obvious is that the Hawks simply have more money left to spend on additions in the future. The second, which might be more important, is that it indicates the Hawks know how to find assets at bargain rates.
That's a vital skill for a franchise that, historically, has had terrible luck luring big-name free agents. Because Atlanta seems to understand how to secure players on the cheap, it can overpay marquee talent when necessary.
Returning and Emerging Stars
It's a little unfair to gloss over Millsap in the star discussion, but think of this section as a credit to the talent the Hawks have on hand rather than any slight toward the terrific combo forward.
Atlanta made an impressive run without its best player on the floor for the majority of the year. Horford's torn pectoral knocked him out on Dec. 26, after which the Hawks went 22-31 overall. They'd been 16-13 when he went down.
Horford's not just a nice addition to reintroduce into the lineup next year. He's a flat-out star, per Amin Elhassan of ESPN.com (subscription required):
Al Horford remains possibly the most underrated player in the league, and while two of his past three seasons have been decimated by injury, his more-than-reasonable salary of $12 million per year combined with his relatively young age (he's just 27) make him an ideal cornerstone for the franchise.
With a return to health for the best big man on the roster, Atlanta's other pieces fall nicely into place. Millsap can function in either forward spot, but would be particularly dangerous alongside Horford at the 4.
We know the Hawks want to keep their spacing intact (more on that in a moment), and using Millsap with Horford would provide a nice combination of toughness and shooting. Plus, Antic could fade into the background a bit more. He's something of a gimmick whose shooting bothers slower centers who don't want to venture 23 feet away from the bucket, but he leaves a lot to be desired in the reliability and defensive departments.
Horford's return will be vital, but so will the continued growth of Teague.
Since entering the league as the No. 19 pick in 2009, Teague has quietly improved in every season. His PER has been on a steadily upward trend, as has his scoring rate, per Basketball-Reference.com.
|Points per 36 Min.||PER|
Maybe he's a notch below the game's elite point guards, but with so much evidence suggesting he's capable of getting better, it's not crazy to assume he'll move up to the league's top tier next season. Having Horford back will certainly help, and we should only expect more comfort as Teague continues to get acclimated to Mike Budenholzer's system.
The Right Coach
Getting a Gregg Popovich disciple as a head coach doesn't necessarily guarantee success. In fact, the opposite has been largely true.
Jacque Vaughn, Monty Williams, Mike Brown and Brett Brown all fell off the Popovich tree—and other than Brown's years with LeBron James, none have won many games. Budenholzer seems to be the exception.
By tailoring style to personnel, Budehnolzer immediately proved he was willing to be flexible in his approach. That's something only the best (and most secure) coaches attempt. Often, hard-line coaches come into a new job with a preferred style or set of rules that they impose on whatever talent happens to be on hand.
That's how you get disasters like the one Mike D'Antoni wrought with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Coach Bud not only recognized the skills of his players in adopting a free-wheeling style; he also showed a willingness to embrace the direction NBA offenses are heading. We're only going to see more long-range attempts in the future, and Budenholzer already has his team jacking up plenty of triples.
That spacing allowed Teague to rank fifth in the league in drives per game, per SportVU data provided to NBA.com, and, in turn, created more kickout looks for his teammates.
There's a lot to like about the way Budehnolzer handled his first head-coaching gig. He should only improve as the roster adds talent and experience.
Just Getting Started
Atlanta owns the highest non-lottery pick in this year's draft and has cash to spend. Plus, it can expect to add promising big man Lucas Nogueira, the pick in the 2013 draft it stashed overseas. He could become a very useful rotation piece next year, as his length and athleticism pair nicely on the back line alongside Antic, Horford or Millsap.
All that flexibility and potential for growth has the Hawks feeling much different about this latest playoff defeat than they've felt in the past.
Not long ago, Atlanta made its routine postseason exits with a feeling of resignation. Big contracts and unsteady coaching left the Hawks somewhat trapped.
Now, Atlanta is free.
"Everyone knows what the vision is," Korver said after Atlanta's Game 7 loss, per Paul Newberry of The Associated Press (via the Macon Telegraph). "Not that it's been printed on the wall in the locker room or anything like that, but we know what kind of basketball is going to be played here and we know the kind of people they're going to bring in. They're very thoughtful in everything they've done."
At liberty to build out the roster and refine its current schemes, the Hawks should only improve in the coming seasons.
So go ahead and dismiss this year's Hawks as overachievers. Call them "pesky" if you want.
Just don't call their upcoming run a surprise. It's one we should all see coming.
Salary data courtesy of ShamSports.com.