In Mike Budenholzer’s first year as Hawks coach, he installed an offense based on passing, tempo, and spacing, very similar to the one he ran as the head assistant with the San Antonio Spurs. A lot was expected of this system, as Budenholzer had been Gregg Popovich’s right hand man for over a decade.
A catastrophe of injuries derailed what was expected to be a successful offensive display. Al Horford missed 53 games. His primary backup, Pero Antic, missed 21 games after Horford’s pectoral tear. Antic’s backup, Gustavo Ayon, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury not long after Antic’s injury. The most important sharpshooter in the league, Kyle Korver, missed 11 games, over which the Hawks amassed a record of one win and ten losses. DeMarre Carroll, the team’s most important defender on the wing, missed nine games after Horford’s injury, of which the Hawks lost eight.
If all of that was not bad enough, Paul Millsap — an All-Star of the 2013-14 season — also missed some time. Millsap’s absence was amplified by occurring during the stretch where Horford, Antic, and Ayon were also out.
Lou Williams missed the start of the season recovering from his ACL injury back in January of 2013 in Brooklyn and never seemed to regain his old form. John Jenkins, who showed some promise during his rookie season by hitting 38.4% of his 3-point attempts over 61 games, spent most of the season on the bench due to a debilitating back injury.
Because of all these injuries, 12 different players started at least six games for the Hawks over the 2013-14 season. This resulted in some odd lineups, such as the Korver-Carroll-Brand starting frontcourt, Carroll and Mike Scott being forced to spend time at center, and Cartier Martin getting multiple starts after being released by the Hawks, signed by the Bulls, released by the Bulls, and re-signed by the Hawks.
Despite all of this, the Hawks still made the playoffs thanks to a very generous Eastern Conference. In the playoffs, the mangled remains of the Hawks opening day roster managed to take the 1-seed Indiana Pacers to seven games, with the Hawks leading in the fourth quarter of Game 6 while leading the series 3-2.
The Hawks did not make that sought after “splash” in the offseason, but the team secured a lot of depth that would have been vital the previous year. The Hawks signed Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore, drafted Adreian Payne, and re-signed Mike Scott, Shelvin Mack, and Elton Brand. This added needed depth to the wing, even more shooting, and assured that the frontcourt would be loaded with capable bodies.
Horford, who averaged 20 points and nine rebounds per 36 minutes with a 59% true-shooting before his injury, makes his return as well.
All of this… and the team is predicted to get worse and fall to 10th in the East in the 2014-15 season?
As a whole, the Eastern Conference improved over the offseason. LeBron James and Kevin Love teamed up with Kyrie in Cleveland, Lance Stephenson and Paul Pierce each ditched their aging squads to join upstarts in Charlotte and Washington. Chicago gets Derrick Rose back and added Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott to improve a team finished fourth in the conference last year. The Toronto Raptors, who were great last season, kept their young core together and should be competing for the 3-seed again.
However, not everyone improved. The Pacers lost Stephenson and will be without Paul George (broken leg) for an unknown amount of time. Can that team really rely on Roy Hibbert and George Hill, both of whom looked miserable for the last three months of last season, and an aging David West to make the playoffs?
The Nets will get Brook Lopez back, but they also lost Paul Pierce and key cogs from last year in Shaun Livingston and — I can’t believe I’m saying this — Andray Blatche. What can we expect from new head coach Lionel Hollins? How much does Kevin Garnett really have to offer at this point in his career?
Miami lost LeBron. Josh McRoberts and Luol Deng are not bad players, but they are far from great players. Luol Deng hasn’t cracked the league average in true-shooting since 2011 and he really has not been close to it. Dwyane Wade will be 33 and his knees are an extreme question mark. This team has no point guard. How much are people expecting Chris Bosh to do?
The Knicks, who finished one game behind the Hawks last year, traded away Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler and received Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert in return. That is not a bad trade, but the Knicks still have Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire, and trading Felton and Chandler for Calderon and Dalembert does not help the defensive woes that plagued the Knicks last season. There is also no idea what to expect out of first-time head coach Derek Fisher.
Stan Van Gundy is a great coach, but Detroit’s personnel is still extremely awkward and will have to make major developments to jump in the playoff picture. Greg Monroe signing the qualifying offer complicates potential developments.
While the Eastern Conference did improve over the summer, most of the teams that will be involved in that playoff race have question marks that are as big or even bigger than those facing the Hawks. Al Horford’s health is a big question,, but why is it a bigger issue than Dwyane Wade’s health in Miami, Brook Lopez’s health in Brooklyn, or Derrick Rose’s health in Chicago? Chicago receives a lot of hype as the best team in the East thanks to Rose’s return, while the Hawks are thrown to the side due to Horford’s pectoral tears.
The Hawks finishing 10th in the East would require another disaster to happen injury wise, and Horford’s injury was not the only injury that resulted in the Hawks barely making the playoffs. Look back up at the first few paragraphs again. The Hawks experienced all of that, but still made the playoffs. Even in the absence of Horford, the Hawks did a lot to improve their team in the offseason via increased depth.
Without Horford, predicting the Hawks to finish 10th should raise eyebrows. With Horford, slotting the Hawks as the 10th best team in the East is absurd.