The 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks — The Season Story

Graham Chapple —  May 12, 2016

The Atlanta Hawks’ 2015-16 is now officially over, meaning the journey that they set out on — when training camp began — has ended, at least for another season. And when a journey ends, one gets reflective and casts an eye back to when the journey began and upon the journey itself, armed with the knowledge that they did not have when the journey started. So, let’s do exactly that today. Let’s cast an eye back on the 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks season.

The big story heading into the Hawks’ season was that DeMarre Carroll had left Atlanta for pastures new north of the border, to be a part of the Toronto Raptors. I don’t think there was any question that the Hawks wanted to keep DeMarre, but his breakout season and his great playoff run meant that he priced himself out of a return to Atlanta, who could not afford to keep both him and Paul Millsap, with the Hawks only reserving the Early Bird Rights as both had only been with the Hawks for two seasons.

The Hawks did not sign a wing to replace Carroll, knowing that either Thabo Sefolosha (once he recovered from his leg injury) and the developing Kent Bazemore would be more than capable to step up in his absence. However, as both of these guys were bench players while Carroll was at the club, the Hawks’ bench would take a hit from either Thabo or Bazemore — obviously — needing to leave the bench in order to step into the starting lineup. So, the Hawks traded for some wing depth on draft night, sending the 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft to acquire Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr., in a move that certainly raised eyebrows.

This wasn’t the only significant roster move they made that summer. They traded for Spurs center Tiago Splitter in exchange for a second round pick, as the Spurs needed a quick salary dump in order to sign LaMarcus Aldridge. Splitter would become the Hawks’ backup center, as Pero Antić had decided to return to Europe.

Despite coming off their best ever season — a 60 win regular season and trip to the Conference Finals — the Hawks were not coming into the season healthy. Both Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver were both rehabbing from season ending injuries, Sefolosha’s leg left was broken after a unjust scuffle with Manhattan police, while Korver suffered a severe ankle sprain in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland which required surgery. Korver would also undergo surgery on his right shooting elbow.

There was great expectation in the city of Atlanta for their Hawks and there was always going to be pressure to have a good follow up season to a season that saw the Hawks win 60 regular season games, claim the No. 1 seed in their conference, and make a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. While the fans would look back on that season with pride and happiness, the Hawks knew that they couldn’t rest on nor live in last year’s success, but instead look forward.

The beginning of the regular season finally arrived, and the Atlanta Hawks tipped off their season — at home — against the Detroit Pistons on October 27th. Although they lost that game, the Hawks started off the season pretty well, winning their next six games before entering a pattern of, pretty much, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss etc…

As the early stages of the season took shape, a pattern emerged: Tim Hardaway Jr. wasn’t getting any game time whatsoever. Even in blowouts, the end of the bench guys such as Justin Holiday, Shelvin Mack, Mike Muscala, and even Edy Tavares saw more playing time than Hardaway. Not only would you have expected Hardaway to play because the Hawks gave up a very decent pick to acquire him, but both Sefolosha and Korver were eased into the action, and rested in at least one night of back-to-back sleds. You would’ve thought Hardaway would play some time in their absence, but instead the 15th man signed to the roster, Lamar Patterson, was a regular part of the rotation — to begin the season — instead.

Hawks fans everywhere were confused as to why Hardaway wasn’t playing, as the Hawks had given up a very decent draft pick in a very good draft class to acquire him. That pick could’ve been used to add outside shooting in the form of Sam Dekker, could’ve been used to address their rebounding issues in the form of Bobby Portis, or could’ve been used to bolster their perimeter defense in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Fans began to question whether President of Basketball Operations, and Head Coach, Mike Budenholzer could hold down the two positions

As it turned out, however, there were a multitude of reasons was to why Hardaway wasn’t playing, including a wrist injury that caused Hardaway to lag behind in his conditioning and shooting, and — for lack of a better way to phrase it — he seemingly went through process of driving out the New York Knicks in him and their horrible “triangle” offense. But Coach Budenholzer maintained that Hardaway would eventually get his chance.

“There are so many things that happen during a course of a season. It will happen.” — Coach Mike Budenholzer

It took until November 24th, in game number 16 of the season — which also happened to be Dikembe Mutumbo’s jersey retirement night — for Hardaway to make his regular season debut for the Hawks. He scored three points (on 1-of-3 shooting) in 12 minutes of action. The joy was short lived, however. Hardaway played three more games as a member of the regular rotation before being frozen out again.

Shortly after that came one of the Hawks’ best games of the season, a home thriller against the Oklahoma City Thunder –106-100 — on November 30th. The game also produced one of Jeff Teague’s best games of the season, as he brought home the victory with some clutch plays.

The Hawks rounded off their 2015 with a 9-5 December, which also included a six game winning streak. In their last game of 2015, the Hawks came up with one of their best road wins of the season, a 19 point comeback victory over the Houston Rockets, led by Al Horford’s 30 points that included five three-pointers — a new weapon in his arsenal in a season where he attempted and made more threes (88) than he had in his first eight years in the league (21). The Hawks also received 20+ point contributions from Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and Kent Bazemore, who was flourishing in his new role of starting small forward.

In that same game Kyle Korver went 0-of-11 from the field and 0-of-10 from behind the three-point line, exemplifying his recent — at that time — shooting, as Korver shot 29.6% from three in December. Later, Korver revealed he had changed his shot form but scrapped it in an effort to rediscover his touch.

“My challenge was is that I was trying to – and I don’t want to over-talk about it – I was trying to develop a different shot, kind of.”

“It went the wrong way on me. I can’t even explain the frustration and everything. So I have scratched that and I’m going back to what I’ve done the last few years.” — Kyle Korver

It was strange that Korver would change his motion, as he had a game this season before his struggle — against the Pelicans — where he hit all eight of his field goals. Many called for Korver to benched as he went through his shooting funk, but Coach Bud kept calling his number, and eventually the Kyle Korver Hawks fans know and love returned. From January 1st onward, Korver shot 42% from behind the arc.

Shortly after this, in a game against the New York Knicks, Tim Hardaway Jr. — after going on a number of D-League assignments — finally re-emerged as a part of the Hawks regular rotation. It took months of hard work, perseverance, and patience in a process Hardaway described as a “learning experience”.

“All caps on ‘learning experience.’ ” — Tim Hardaway Jr.

Unlike his last promotion to the regular rotation, Hardaway was here to stay this time, and he featured all 46 of the Hawks’ remaining games as a member of the regular rotation, averaging 6.8 points per game and shot 34.1% from behind the arc. Hardaway also received the opportunity to step into the starting lineup for a game in March — when Kent Bazemore was sidelined with a minor injury — and he responded with a team high 21 points in a game that illustrated his growth as an Atlanta Hawk.

But despite the return of Hardaway as a regular member of the rotation, the Hawks start 2016 with a bang and they went 6-9 for the month of January. Among those nine losses came two losses in a four game Western Conference road trip, with all four of those teams holding records below .500. On that trip, the Hawks picked up an impressive win against the Trail Blazers and the Nuggets, but lost against a dysfunctional Kings side, and lost the tanking Phoenix Suns — thanks to a contested, last second three from Archie Goodwin — in the only game Paul Millsap didn’t play this season.

As the Hawks’ loss total eclipsed that of the 60 win season last year (22) in January, the whispers of, perhaps, “blowing up” the Hawks grew louder as the trade deadline loomed. Some called for Jeff Teague — who often showed flashes of inconsistency — to be traded in order to give Dennis Schröder the keys to the starting point guard. Some called for Al Horford to be traded before he had the opportunity to reach the summer as an unrestricted free agent. There were even those out there who even called for Coach Mike Budenholzer to be fired. The month of January, and the first half of February, were very interesting for all of these reasons, as fans were clearly divided about their team…

It was always going to be unlikely that the Hawks would have four All-Star representatives as they did last year, but they still did pretty well, in that department, this year as Paul Millsap was selected to the All-Star reserves before Al Horford joined him as a replacement for Chris Bosh.

allstar6

(Photo cred: Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images)

This marked Millsap’s third All-Star appearance — the third in as many seasons as that he has spent in Atlanta — and Horford’s fourth appearance. The highlight of the game, between the two, was Al Horford’s long-bomb buzzer beating three.

The All-Star honors were a nice way to halt the constant trade chatter that was occurring at that time, but that’s all they were: halted. Once All-Star festivities ended, the chatter began anew.

Just before the trade deadline, it was announced that Tiago Splitter would undergo hip surgery and would miss the remainder of the season. Splitter initially suffered the injury back in November, in a game against the Cavs, and struggled for fitness and form from that point on. He was largely unimpressive when he did play though. He never solved the Hawks’ rebounding issues as some expected — news flash, he has never been a high volume rebounder — and didn’t move the ball as well as he did in San Antonio. These are horrible combinations when you add to the fact that Splitter is a horrible offensive player. I wanted to punch someone every time he shot a ill-advised mid-range shot.

OK, to be fair, he probably wasn’t healthy for the majority of time that he did play — and there’s no doubt he played through injury — but he just looked so average even before that Cleveland game in November. We’ll have to see how he gets on next season.

The trade deadline eventually came and went, but the Hawks core remained intact. Both Jeff Teague and Al Horford remained, the only move that occurred was Atlanta’s third string point guard, Shelvin Mack, was traded to Utah while Justin Holiday was sent to Chicago. In return, the Hawks acquired Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich for a second stint in Atlanta.

According to ESPN.com’s Kevin Arnovitz (in a podcast with Zach Lowe), the Hawks moved Mack — who’s a solid point guard who just wasn’t seeing any time in Atlanta — basically as a favor to him to give him the game time he deserved. Mack was inserted straight away into the Jazz starting lineup and was a key part of their playoff push that ultimately fell short. Mack averaged 12 points, 5.3 assists, and 3.8 rebounds in 28 games for the Jazz.

However, it was confusing that the Hawks did not trade for a backup center, as it was announced before the deadline that Splitter was not returning this season. Their deadline deals, however, did create an extra roster spot — with Holiday and Mack leaving with only Kirk returning — and this would become important as buyout season would start almost as soon as the trade season ended.

Things didn’t start well after the All-Star break, as the Hawks lost their first three games, including a loss to the seriously short handed Miami Heat — who were without Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, or Hassan Whiteside — and a double overtime loss against the floundering Milwaukee Bucks, one of Atlanta’s five overtime losses this season, as the Hawks went 0-5 in overtime games this season.

During a five game road trip in the early stages of March, the Hawks used their free roster spot to add the recently waived Kris Humphries to their ranks, bought out after the Suns acquired him in the deal that sent Markieff Morris to Washington. Humphries was thrown into the fold immediately against the Lakers on March 4th, where he scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds in his Hawks debut. Humphries, in many ways, became the backup center the Hawks have needed ever since Pero Antić left, with Splitter adding essentially nothing on the court but his — albeit injured — physical body mass.

Around this time, the Hawks really established themselves as an elite defensive team. After the All-Star break, they led the NBA in defensive rating (at 96.8) and also led the NBA in opponent field goal percentage (41.5%) and three-point percentage (32%). They also ranked third in points allowed per game, allowing an average of just 98 points per game. For the season, the Hawks finished second in defensive rating at 98.8.

“I think the defense, for the last two or three games, I think we’re hanging our hat there.” CoachMike Budenholzer speaking after a victory against the Charlotte Hornets on February 28th

This new found identity in defense helped the Hawks become on the best teams in the league after the All-Star break and they would finish the season with a 17-7 (70.8%) record after February 22nd, the third best winning percentage in the league down the stretch.

As the playoffs loomed, the Hawks were locked in a four way race for home court advantage, and it came down to the final night of the regular season to decide playoff seeding. For the Hawks to claim the third seed, they needed only beat the already eliminated Washington Wizards in D.C., while relying on Boston to beat the Heat.

As the night unfolded, the Heat ended up blowing a 20+ lead against the Celtics, and were losing in their fourth quarter was the Hawks’ fourth was going on in Washington. The Hawks, I’m sure, were keeping tabs on the score of that game as they played the Wizards, who were without John Wall, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat in what should have been a very winnable game. With the Heat set to drop their final game against the Celtics, all the Hawks had to do to secure the third seed was beat those short handed Wizards. With the third seed would also secure the Hawks’ second consecutive division title.

However, a Hawks victory and a Charlotte victory in Orlando — which they were achieving — would mean that the Heat would fall to the sixth seed, meaning the Hawks would have to play the Heat in the first round. The Heat won the season series 3-1, and there are those out there — especially in the Heat camp — that believed the Hawks did not want to play the Heat in round one, and would rather a crack at the Celtics in a 4 vs. 5 matchup instead, as they were a more favorable matchup for the Hawks than the Heat, with the Hawks besting the Celtics 3-1 in the regular season.

And so, the Hawks proceeded to lose — whether by design or by lack of ability — against the Wizards and remained as the four seed — tied with Miami, Charlotte, and Boston with 48-34 records — setting up a first round series against the Celtics. What others failed to see — at least immediately — was that if the Hawks won this series, they would face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round in a matchup that the Hawks stood no realistic chance of winning. The Cavs were that one team the Hawks just simply couldn’t figure out, losers of their last seven meetings, including a sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals the season before.

And so, the Hawks and Celtics duked it out in the first round in a series that created many talking points, none bigger than the feud that Isaiah Thomas and Dennis Schröder became embroiled in. It began in Game 3 in Boston, over this:

Schröder immediately retaliated on the next defensive possession with a body check.

Thomas was not ejected in this game for making contact with his closed fist, and he went off for 43 points to bring Celtics within a game of the Hawks, trailing 1-2. He was not suspended for Game 4 while Schröder, on the other hand, became public enemy number one in Boston and was greeted with a circus of boos every time he touched the ball.

Paul Millsap had been struggling, offensively, for the first three games of this series, but exploded for 45 points in Game 4 in a loss, as the Celtics tied the series 2-2.

His 45 points represents a personal playoff high, and it was the most points scored by any Hawk in the playoffs since Dominque Wilkins in 1988, where he scored 47 points in a Game 7 loss against Larry Bird and the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

The Hawks, however, needed to deal with Isaiah Thomas, who was really becoming a thorn in their side after his scoring exploits carried the Celtics to Games 3 and 4. The Hawks had an adjustment waiting for him in Game 5: a defensive scheme of doubling off of the pick and roll and trapping him, forcing him to give up the ball. The strategy worked wonders as Thomas was limited to just seven points in Game 5, as the Hawks blew out the Celtics 110-83 to take a 3-2 series lead. Had Avery Bradley — who was ruled out for the series after suffering a hamstring injury in Game 1 — been healthy, it’s unclear as to whether this strategy would’ve been as successful.

The Hawks closed out the series in Game 6, in Boston, recording their first playoff success over the Celtics in their last nine attempts and set themselves up for a second round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was at about this time that people finally began to understand the significance of losing that final game of the regular season against the short handed Wizards, and how challenged the Hawks were going to be in this Cleveland series.

After a missing a decent chance to steal a game in Cleveland in Game 1, the Hawks came into Game 2 with a sense of optimism that they might be able to steal a game. Those hopes were extinguished very quickly, as the Cavs blew the Hawks out of the water with an NBA — regular season and playoffs — record of 25 made three-pointers as the Cavs won 123-98 in Game 2, leading by as many as 41 points.

In Game 3, Coach Bud made an adjustment, inserting Thabo Sefolosha in place of Kyle Korver. Korver had his best game of the series — after shooting just one shot in Game 1 and just seven attempts in Game 2 — scoring 18 points off of the bench. However, the Cavs had not cooled down from their Game 2 shooting clinic and hit another 21 threes, as they recovered from an eight point deficit in the fourth quarter — outscoring the Hawks 36-17 — to take Game 3 and, with it, a commanding 3-0 series lead.

In Game 4, the Hawks played the Cavs right until the final buzzer, near which a controversial — or not, depending how you look at it — goal tend call on a Paul Millsap block ultimately went against the Hawks, as they lost 100-99, suffering a second successive sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers.

For the Hawks, there was almost a sense of “What the heck just happened?” as their season lay in smokey ruins, destroyed in the fire that the Cavaliers behind the three-point line. The Cavaliers averaged 19 made three-pointers a game on 50% shooting, and their 77 made threes over a four game series are the most in NBA history by far. While this aspect of their game against the Hawks is new, one constant remains: rebounding.

The Cavs averaged 13.5 offensive rebounds per game — out-rebounding the Hawks 55-28 in Game 3 — and averaged 14.3 second chance points per game. For the Hawks, a second consecutive sweep leaves a bitter taste in their mouths.

“We wanted to beat this team so bad. It left a bad taste in our mouth last year. This year, we thought we had them figured out and they do something completely different than they did last year. That’s the frustrating thing about it.” — Paul Millsap

There are those out there, including myself, who instantly knew — as soon as that final buzzer sounded and the four seed secured in Washington on April 13th — the Hawks’ season was ending in round two against the Cavs. Considering how badly the Raptors-Heat series is currently going, the Hawks would’ve stood an excellent chance against either of those teams. How did they lose as badly as they did to that Wizards on that final night? Were they simply unable to stop Marcus Thornton and Ramon Sessions, or did they really throw that game as to not face Miami in round one? I, personally, believe in the latter. Thinking about that game, I remember how sloppy the Hawks were with the ball and how they left a lot of shots right at the rim, shots they normally make. Was avoiding a first round series against the Heat THAT catastrophic as to settle for a future second round series against the Cavaliers?

Although the Hawks’ season ended on a sour note, it was a fun season and a fun journey. We saw the “fire Coach Bud crowd” briefly emerge, pro-Schröder and Teague groups — each rooting against the other, arguing over who is the better point guard — emerge, and we saw the amazing Hawks defense shine through for all to see. We also got to hear and see Hawks organist Sir Foster bringing the business every single home game, he is just amazing. The Hawks should totally hang a Sir Foster Hawks t-shirt from the rafters when he’s finished in Atlanta, for real. Watching the Hawks Twitter-sphere erupt when Tim Hardaway Jr. finally made his first regular appearance was fantastic too. We were also blessed with an amazing Paul Millsap season, watching him go to work every night was fantastic. The occasional glimpse of 7’3 behemoth Edy Taveres was also fun, as brief as his appearances were.

We also had that one night in Detroit where Jeff Teague got left behind by the team bus where we left with this picture of him holding a pizza box sideways.

teaguebus

This event led to Teague actually signing pizza boxes. (By the way, that may be the biggest smile Teague cracked all season)

teaguepizza

(Photo cred: Zach Wolfe)

Mike Scott was so concerned that Teague may get left behind again, that he went looking for him after a win against the Bulls just a few days later.

Scott eventually found Jeff.

We also had the #BazeGaze break out this season, just as Kent Bazemore himself had a breakout season averaging 11.6 points per game and 35.7% shooting from behind the arc.

bazegaze

(That may be the second biggest smile Teague cracked all season)

The #BazeGaze became, almost, an event for Hawks fans after the All-Star break.

We also got treated to this wonderful mess of a sequence in a game against the Phoenix Suns back in January.

I’m sure there’s other fun things I have left out, but those were some of the things that made the Hawks season so fun. And, with that, I guess that’s the story of the 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks. There were certainly lows, but so many more highs.

All the best to Coach Kenny Atkinson, who leaves Atlanta to take on the role of Head Coach of the Brooklyn Nets.

Heading into the summer, Jeff Teague’s future remains a hot topic of discussion, while Al Horford and Kent Bazemore will both hit unrestricted free agency in a summer where chaos is sure to ensue, due to the spike in the salary cap. Will we see both Bazemore and Horford back in Atlanta next season? Both want to return, but finances — particularly in the case of Bazemore — may dictate otherwise…

But that’s for another time, and that’s for next season’s story. For now, let’s close the book on the 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks. It’s been a fun ride, thanks for memories. Until next season…

Graham Chapple

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