What a year it was covering this year’s Atlanta Hawks team. The acquisition of Dwight Howard jump started the summer with a jolt of excitement. The Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy alum came aboard with hopes to bring a championship to his hometown.
Instead, he ended the season sitting on the bench as his teammates clawed back from a 19 point deficit, only to come up short in game 6 versus the Wizards. That wasn’t the first time this season he sat during a crucial run, and the first year of the Howard experiment can be deemed a failure.
“ It doesn’t matter about matchups, said Howard in his exit interview. “ I want to play. I don’t care who is out there. I want to give the best for my team and the city. That is why I came here. So it is upsetting when you want to get out there and play. You work hard for something and you watch it being taken from you, not the coach taking it — but Washington taking the opportunity of us moving to the next round.”
First-year starter Dennis Schroder took advantage of his opening round matchup against All-NBA point guard John Wall — as he did against several elite point guards throughout the year — validating that the organization made the right decision when they handed him the keys over Jeff Teague. Paul Millsap’s free agency talk dominated and overshadowed much of his big-time all-star performances, as if his game needed further neglect on the national stage. However, to the credit of head coach and team president Mike Budenholzer, it never seemed to become a distraction.
Whether it was Millsap’s free agency, Schroder and Howard’s argument in the third quarter versus the Warriors during a live possession or Schroder’s late arrival from All-Star break due visa issues — the team remained positive and focused.
In the last four seasons under Budenholzer none of his teams were more inconsistent, erratic and perplexing than this 2016–2017 ballclub. The hot 9–2 start occurred so early it now qualifies as a mirage. By the end of December they were a more realistic 16–16. At that time they had a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers (and would later win the season series 3–1), but suffered losses against the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns.
The month of January was very telling in terms of just how unsettled they were. Starting on the 13th until March 6th they never notched a winning streak more than two games. Win one, lose the next, win another, lose the next, identity crises at its finest.
Kent Bazemore expressed the same sentiment to me after asking him about the team’s issues following a 131–120 loss in December to the Orlando Magic that dropped their record to 12–13.
“This is a very deep team and we have a lot of guys who can play so it’s all about finding that rhythm as a unit”, Bazemore said. “We’ve had glimpses of both units doing well. The bench started off the season doing well, then the starters got going, so it’s a lot going on and not enough consistency. But we are not going to get it back all at once and we are still trying to figure out who we are.”
The lows were pretty damn low and can be summed up in a moment I personally witnessed covering the Brooklyn Nets routing on March 26th that handed the Hawks their seventh loss in a row. A fan casually strolled down from his seat into the credentialed media seating, nachos and soda in hand, and took a seat with the rest of us. Clearly he’d come to the conclusion at that time that the Hawks didn’t care, so why should he? Security never approached the gentleman or redirected him back to his original seating. He just sat there, apathetic, disinterested, scarfing down some nachos.
Their identity never seemed to take shape and why a large portion of the season Budenholzer experimented with several lineups during games looking for a spark on a team ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring. Millsap spent plenty time at the five, Bazemore took over point guard duties at times and even Kyle Korver played power forward occasionally. Compound that with a defense that poorly defended the three-point line in today’s NBA and well you’ve put yourself in a tough spot.
Those spots ranged from out of playoff contention momentarily midway through the season to losing 9 out of 11 games (with Millsap and Bazemore missing games due to injury) down the stretch that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy and having to wait until the 79th game to breath a sigh of relief.
Schroder struggled limiting turnovers, Howard hurt the defense by staying in the paint during pick-and-roll situations and Bazemore’s $70 million contract seemed to cause him to press. The list goes on and on, but nuzzled in it all were some of the most thrilling moments in Hawks history. The 26 point deficient at the start of the fourth quarter comeback victory versus Cleveland on April 9th, the overtime upset over the San Antonio Spurs and of course who can forget what took place on January 29th — the quadruple overtime victory over the New York Knicks — just the 11th time in NBA history.
The game lasted four hours as people stood by the exit doors with one foot in the arena one foot out not able to tear themselves away from what was taken place.
Rookie Taurean Prince and pending restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. also provided optimism and excitement throughout a treacherous seven months. Prince took advantage of Bazemore and Sefolosha’s injuries by showcasing his versatility and therefore cementing his spot in the starting lineup. Hardaway deserved Most Improved Player consideration after turning his 2015–2016 woes into a distant memory by becoming the team’s scoring spark they severely needed especially after Kyle Korver was dealt.
In the end this team surpassed many preseason predictions that slotted them for a low seeding at best. Another franchise-alternating free agency awaits them in the coming months, but as far as 2016–2017 went they were willing to fight no matter how steep the odds — despite being ill-equipped with the necessary firepower.
“This group was a fighting group,” said Paul Millsap after game 6 loss. “With the ups and downs we had, we found a way to fight and compete. We shut down a lot of naysayers. We had a lot of people that said we weren’t going to make the playoffs. We just ran into a team that was hot, the Wizards were hot. I like this team and the fight in this team.”