When an NBA team finishes 38-44, the season is usually considered a failure. The team probably just missed out on a playoff spot—and didn't get a particularly good spot in the draft lottery, either.
Not the 2013-14 Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks, led by rookie head coach Mike Budenholzer, nabbed the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference despite a pectoral injury to star center Al Horford. In the first round of the playoffs, they took the No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers to seven games before bowing out.
How did the Hawks overachieve this season?
A big part of their success was due to the improvement of several players on the team. Three in particular stood out from the rest.
Last season, the Hawks were sorely missing a defender on the wing who could somewhat contain the dominant perimeter scorers of the NBA.
Enter DeMarre Carroll.
Coming over from the Utah Jazz via free agency last summer, the 27-year-old started all 73 games he suited up for this year, playing a career-high 32.1 minutes per game.
The expanded role fit Carroll well.
Carroll's biggest improvement came from his outside shooting. He knocked down 1.5 three-pointers per 36 minutes this year, more than double his previous career high.
But he did much more than shoot.
According to 82games.com, Carroll posted a 14.7 PER this season when playing at his primary position: small forward. Thanks to Carroll's stellar defense, his counterparts at that position could only muster up a 13.1 PER against him.
So, essentially, Carroll went from playing 16.8 minutes per game with the Jazz to becoming a starter for the Hawks who consistently outplayed his opponent.
It's not surprising that Hawks blogger Brad Rowland from Peachtree Hoops had the following to say about Carroll:
There is a reason that the Hawks finished 1-8 in games where Carroll was unavailable, and without him, the team was rudderless. ... He transitioned from a career bench player to a 32-minute per game starter without taking a hit in production, and DeMarre was incredible this year.
Shelvin Mack was another player who got the most minutes of his career this season. Like Carroll, Mack was a revelation for the Hawks in extended minutes.
The former Butler University standout put up numbers comparable to Portland Trail Blazers sixth man Mo Williams this year—a player whose combo guard tendencies mirror Mack's.
Basketball-Reference.com's Player Comparison Finder
The above table (created from Basketball-Reference.com's Player Comparison Finder) illustrates just how similar Mack's and Williams' statistics were per 36 minutes of playing time.
Keep in mind, Williams' talent got him to an NBA All-Star Game in 2009.
To properly capture how much Mack exceeded expectations this year, let's look at an article by Peachtree Hoops' Robby Kalland during Summer League last summer.
Kalland wrote that rookie Dennis Schroeder's productive Summer League appeared to have "solidified his place as the clear back-up point guard heading into training camp." He later called Mack "the third point guard on the roster."
By the end of the season, Schroeder logged 13.1 minutes per game. Mack averaged 20.4.
Mack may not have quite the ceiling that Schroeder does, but his huge improvement this season suggests that he might continue to be an important piece of the Hawks' roster.
Jeff Teague's statistics from this season don't look that great compared to last year. His scoring went up a couple of points (14.6 to 16.5), his assists went down a tick (7.2 to 6.7) and most of his peripheral stats remained steady.
But in the young point guard's case, much of the improvement happened during the season.
Teague had a great end to his regular season, averaging 18.8 points, 5.0 assists per game and just 2.0 turnovers over his final nine games. Better yet, he shot 52.7 percent from the field and never scored fewer than 10 points in a game.
He continued the momentum in the first round of the playoffs against the defensive-minded Pacers. Despite facing a host of very competent perimeter defenders in George Hill, Lance Stephenson and Paul George, Teague averaged 19.3 points per game in the series.
His performance prompted NBA analyst Chris Palmer, formerly of ESPN, to tweet the following during Game 7 of the Pacers-Hawks series:
Jeff Teague is a bad boy. NBA's Most Underrated.— Chris Palmer (@ChrisPalmerNBA) May 3, 2014
The 25-year-old Teague should only get better from here and could challenge for an All-Star spot next year in the East.
The 2013-14 season was just the tip of the iceberg for the Atlanta Hawks.
With the continued improvement of the Hawks' young players, such as Carroll, Mack and Teague, and the return of Al Horford from injury, the Hawks are in good shape to contend for a high playoff spot in the weaker Eastern Conference in 2014-15.
Andrew Shaw of Rant Sports is especially high on the Hawks:
Who knows; depending on what happens in the offseason, Atlanta might even be able to climb higher than the No. 3 seed. Horford’s return alone and the possible addition of another good player through free agency could make the Hawks a potential contender to the Heat’s recent reign of supremacy
Get pumped, Hawks fans. Your team's time is coming.
Note: All stats used are from Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise indicated.