The Atlanta Hawks will surprise a lot of people by making a significant upward move in the Eastern Conference standings next season.
ESPN's Summer Forecast predicts the Hawks to rise just one spot to reach the No. 7 seed in the East, despite them being in the No. 3 slot last year before Al Horford tore his pectoral muscle. Bleacher Report's Tyler Conway even projects Atlanta to finish 10th in the conference, two slots behind its first-round playoff opponent, the Indiana Pacers.
The Hawks lost the series in seven games, but that was without Horford, while the Pacers still had Lance Stephenson and Paul George playing for them. Stephenson has departed to Charlotte to play for the Hornets, while George is likely out for the year, per Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk.
So yes, there is some pessimism surrounding the Hawks heading into next year.
But Atlanta's talented roster and coaching staff are ready to prove pundits wrong in 2014-15. The team is welcoming a host of newcomers who should make it better and boasts a young coaching staff with the potential to blossom.
What's a reasonable record and standing in the East for the Hawks this year? Let's find out.
How have the Hawks changed since last season?
For starters, Horford is back.
The return of the star center single-handedly makes the Hawks better than the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference they were last season. Atlanta was 16-13 with Horford in the lineup, which projects to a 45-win season. In last year's East, that would have given the Hawks the No. 5 seed.
But Horford coming back obviously isn't the only change from last year.
To begin the offseason, the Hawks picked Adreian Payne, Walter Tavares and Lamar Patterson in the 2014 NBA draft. According to Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (h/t CBSSports.com), Tavares is basically a lock to play in Spain for at least another year. Patterson will suit up for Turkish team Tofas Bursa next year, Kris Willis of Peachtree Hoops reports.
However, No. 15 overall pick Payne will play for the Hawks in 2014-15. Payne is a versatile, skilled power forward who adds depth to the big-man rotation. His body control and athleticism are reminiscent of a young Amar'e Stoudemire, as the below YouTube clip shows.
This depth could prove useful in case of another injury-riddled season for Horford. The Michigan State product will likely replace veterans Elton Brand and Gustavo Ayon on the depth chart, neither of whom has signed a contract yet.
The Hawks also acquired a couple of free-agent wings in Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore.
Sefolosha started every regular-season game he played at shooting guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder dating back to February 2009. He may not start for Atlanta, due to the presence of Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll at the 2 and 3 spots, respectively, but the 30-year-old can still bring defensive skill and hustle to the second unit.
Bazemore, who has averaged only 9.2 minutes per game in his NBA career, isn't quite as experienced as Sefolosha, but he is a versatile talent with natural scoring ability. In a best-case scenario, he could thrive as the team's sixth man, playing around 25 minutes per game. To get a better idea of Bazemore's game, watch his YouTube highlights from the Los Angeles Lakers' blowout win over the New York Knicks in March.
The two new wings should more than offset the loss of Louis Williams, a scoring sixth man who battled nagging injuries throughout his two-year tenure in Atlanta. Williams left the Hawks in a trade with the Toronto Raptors designed to clear cap space, as Peachtree Hoops noted.
Not all the Hawks' changes were roster changes, though.
2013-14 was Mike Budenholzer's first year as an NBA head coach, after 17 years as a San Antonio Spurs assistant to head coaching great Gregg Popovich. In year one as a head coach, Coach Bud started to ingrain the "Spurs-ian" principles of elaborate offensive sets, purposeful ball movement and team-first play in the Hawks.
The process is ongoing, but there were glimpses of real potential in 2013-14.
Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote the following about Budenholzer's first year calling the shots:
Groundwork has been laid. There is a system in place for the Hawks, one that has already created a tough-to-guard matchup nightmare. The ball moves more crisply and frequently than ever; Budenholzer's Hawks ranked first in assist percentage last year. The more you watched them play, the more you wondered what Budenholzer could do with a Hawks team at full strength.
Needless to say, you should expect the second-year head coach's concepts to sink in even more with the Hawks in 2014-15.
Overall, the Hawks didn't make big changes this summer, but the small changes they did make and the team's internal development will help the team improve.
How has the Eastern Conference changed since last season?
The Eastern Conference was downright awful in 2013-14. Of the five teams assumed to compete for conference supremacy (Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks), only two won more than 48 games. In the West, all 48 wins got you was pingpong balls in the lottery.
But don't expect the East to be quite as bad next year.
The Miami Heat will decline significantly without LeBron James, as will the Pacers sans George and Stephenson, but the improvement of other teams in the playoff hunt will easily make up for the decline of last year's top Eastern contenders.
Where do we look first for improvement?
The team LeBron left Miami for, of course. The Cleveland Cavaliers, with a Big Three of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (a confirmed addition to the team's roster, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports and via CBSSports.com's Zach Harper) will occupy one of the top two spots in the Eastern Conference.
Joining Cleveland in the Eastern elite will be the Chicago Bulls, led by their ridiculous frontcourt depth. Chicago's big-man rotation of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Euroleague import Nikola Mirotic is the best in the league, and it will keep the squad near the top of the Eastern Conference even if Derrick Rose injures himself again.
The Toronto Raptors, last year's No. 3 seed, ended the season 41-22 after trading malcontent forward Rudy Gay. And according to Bleacher Report's Bryan Toporek, the Raptors possess the third-best young talent in the league. Expect another solid season from the only squad north of the border.
After Toronto, the Charlotte Hornets will only get better from last year's promising season under rookie head coach Steve Clifford. Like the Raptors, Charlotte surged to end the 2013-14 season, winning 20 of its last 29 games. With the addition of the talented Stephenson and development of young talent, the Hornets could be in line for a top-four seed.
Now, here's where the Hawks come in.
Atlanta should be able to edge out other playoff hopefuls like the Washington Wizards, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks.
The Wizards are talented and young at the guard spots, but Paul Pierce may not be an adequate replacement at small forward for athletic defensive specialist Trevor Ariza, who left for the Houston Rockets.
The Heat, meanwhile, are a question mark. How many wins will essentially flipping James for Luol Deng be worth? There's no obvious answer, but it'll probably be enough of a difference for the Hawks to pass Miami. Issues at the point guard position also remain.
Brooklyn will get back star center Brook Lopez, but most of the remaining key players on the roster are on the wrong side of 30. Atlanta's younger core is a much safer bet to hold up over an 82-game season.
And the Knicks have 2012-13 scoring champion Carmelo Anthony, but Atlanta's trio of stars in Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Horford easily trumps any Big Three New York can put together.
In a best-case scenario, all the essential Hawks stay healthy and make huge strides in grasping Budenholzer's system. This could net Atlanta the No. 3 seed in the East and an appearance in the Conference Finals.
On the other end of the spectrum, another injury-filled season could disrupt the team's promising season and earn it a similar campaign to last year.
But I expect something in the middle.
There will be some injuries, but also continued growth from the players under Coach Budenholzer's system. Look for an improvement of nine wins and three places in the Eastern Conference standings.
Prediction: 47-35, No. 5 Seed in Eastern Conference
Note: All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise indicated.