The Atlanta Hawks took advantage of a weak Eastern Conference to sneak into the playoffs for the seventh straight season last year, but it also unfortunately extended another streak.
For the third year in a row, the Hawks were ousted in the first round, although they delivered the stumbling Indiana Pacers a few haymakers in the process.
In order to improve things, second-year head coach Mike Budenholzer will have, for the most part, the same roster.
Replacing the losses of Cartier Martin and Lou Williams, and the potential losses of Elton Brand (still a free agent), Gustavo Ayon (still a free agent), will be free-agent signings Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore, as well as rookies Adreian Payne, Lamar Patterson and Walter Tavares.
A healthy Al Horford, who missed the majority of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, should also help. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore, he's eyeing a return soon:
Al Horford continuing rehab in Italy with Basketball Without Borders. No contact yet, but says will be ready by training camp. #ATLHawks— Chris Vivlamore (@ajchawks) June 4, 2014
Still, an inability to make a major splash in free agency despite the necessary cap space to do so continued the franchise's all-too-common recent trend of being average: always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
As such, they face an uphill battle with teams throughout the East making improvements this summer.
You can find their entire 2014-15 schedule here.
They have the 10th-best odds in the East, behind the Cleveland Cavaliers (5-2), Chicago Bulls (11-2), Washington Wizards (33-1), Miami Heat (40-1), Indiana Pacers (40-1), New York Knicks (50-1), Toronto Raptors (50-1), Brooklyn Nets (66-1) and Charlotte Hornets (66-1).
When: November 15th at 7:30 PM
The Bulls aren't far behind, but the Cavs are the team to beat in the East. Adding the four-time MVP and best player on the planet tends to have that kind of effect.
In addition to, you know, being unstoppable, LeBron James makes everyone around him better, as Malik Rose rightly argued:
That's an intriguing thought especially when it comes to the Cavs, a team that already has a burgeoning star point guard in Kyrie Irving and will soon add double-double machine Kevin Love, per Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:
Sources: Cavs have agreement for Kevin Love, including long-term contract commitment. Wiggins, Bennett, pick to Minn. http://t.co/r2KmO5owwY— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) August 7, 2014
Throw in superb rebounder and defender Anderson Varejao, as well as Dion Waiters, whose efficiency should skyrocket with less defensive attention, and you won't find many better starting fives in basketball:
Depth may be a slight problem, but with Tristan Thompson, James Jones and Mike Miller, it's certainly not terrible.
All-in-all, Cleveland is going to be scary good.
This will be a key litmus for where the Hawks stand in what may prove to be a wide-open Eastern Conference.
When: November 1st at 7:30 PM
The Hawks don't really have a true rival. A case can be made for the Boston Celtics, but Brad Stevens' squad isn't expected to be a contender in the East this season.
A matchup with the Pacers, however, has the potential to be quite heated. Indiana eliminated the Hawks in seven games last year, winning the final two contests of the very physical series. Needless to say, these teams aren't exactly friends:
The Pacers faltered down the stretch last year, lost Lance Stephenson to free agency and will be without Paul George, who suffered a devastating injury over the summer, so many are expecting a bit of a step back. Still, they have a solid core and should still be plenty competitive in the East.
For several reasons, this is a game Atlanta fans should be circling on their calenders.
While free agency didn't go as expected for the Hawks, Budenholzer is encouraged about what he's building in Atlanta, via Vivlamore:
I love our players. I love our team. (The first year) was a really great experience. We all have a lot of room for improvement, a lot of room for growth, the coaches, the players, the entire organization. But I think we are building it with the right kinds of players, the right kind of people. I really think we are in a situation where we are just going to keep getting better and better.
Grantland's Zach Lowe is also intrigued by what's happening under Budenholzer, as he discussed when arguing why Atlanta would have been a good landing spot for LeBron:
The Hawks under Budenholzer and Danny Ferry are trying to build the Spurs East, only with more 3-point shooting. (Budenholzer is a shooting zealot, and was known as Matt Bonner’s strongest backer on the Spurs’ coaching staff.) They want high-IQ players who keep the machine moving, share the ball, and shoot from range. Ball-stoppers need not apply.
A quick look at the Hawks' 38-44 record combined with the lack of moves in free agency makes it easy to write them off. But it's easy to forget they went 16-13 with Horford, one of the best centers in the league when healthy, in the lineup.
Where will the Hawks finish in the East?
As long as he's healthy, the Hawks have an extremely strong quartet of Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague. Moreover, the depth may not be as much of a problem if Mike Scott and Dennis Schroder continue their anticipated development.
Throw in the added perimeter defense from Sefolosha, and there are a lot of things to like here.
The East will be improved this season, but so will the Hawks, who will once again crack the postseason.