ATLANTA — Coming off a 60-win season and breaking out new uniforms adorned with a garish, lime-green trim, the Atlanta Hawks are suddenly a team that’s impossible to ignore.
Now, to come up with a worthy encore.
The NBA’s most surprising squad from a season ago opens training camp Tuesday knowing it faces greater expectations than ever before after its sudden rise to elite status.
It won’t be easy to top a franchise record for wins, the top seed in the East and a berth in the conference final, where the Hawks were blown out in four straight games by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I know the expectations are going to be high,” said All-Star forward Paul Millsap, who returned to the Hawks after testing free agency. “I know people are expecting us to get more than 60 wins, to go beyond the Eastern Conference finals.”
For Kyle Korver, the most rewarding aspect of last season was finally earning some recognition from Atlanta’s finicky sports fans, who had largely ignored the Hawks through much of their existence. The team began selling out games with regularity, and Korver actually got a question during Monday’s media day about what it meant to be voted the city’s most popular team in a recent poll.
“When I used to play against the Hawks, there wasn’t that feeling,” Korver said. “That was really cool to watch and be a part of.”
The Hawks return with largely the same roster but one big hole to fill: DeMarre Carroll, the team’s emotional leader and a star in the playoffs, left for a $60 million contract with the Toronto Raptors.
Thabo Sefolosha, coming back from a broken leg sustained during an arrest by New York City police in the final week of the regular season, is considered the favorite to start at small forward. But he will be pushed for playing time by Kent Bazemore and newcomers Tim Hardaway Jr. and Justin Holiday.
Atlanta also got a lot bigger, addressing perhaps its biggest weakness on the defensive boards. A deal to acquire 6-foot-11 Tiago Splitter from San Antonio and the signing of 7-3 prospect Walter “Edy” Tavares should prevent teams from totally dominating the Hawks on the inside.
It should also give coach Mike Budenholzer more flexibility, such as using 6-10 center Al Horford at power forward and freeing up point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder to play more often in the same backcourt, an arrangement that worked well in the playoffs.
The moves could also affect Millsap, a 6-8 power forward who often goes against much larger players. He could shift over occasionally to play at small forward if the Hawks decide to go with a big lineup.
“I think I’m capable of doing it,” Millsap said. “Now, it’s going to be up to Bud. How comfortable is he taking me out of my comfort zone?”
Sefolosha’s disputed arrest outside a New York nightclub — he has denied any wrongdoing, and will be back in court next week — cost the Hawks one of their top perimeter defenders in the playoffs, an absence that was really exposed by James in the conference final.
After a grueling rehab, Sefolosha was cleared to resume full workouts just last week, though Budenholzer plans on being overly cautious during training camp and the preseason. The coach will take the same tact with Korver, who underwent separate operations on his right ankle and right elbow, and backup guard Shelvin Mack, coming back from surgery to repair a separated right shoulder.
“We will be judicious in how much they do in camp,” said Budenholzer, the NBA’s coach of the year and now fully in charge of the franchise after the team cut ties with general manager Danny Ferry. “We’ll probably err on the side of caution and keep them out of some parts of practice.”
Budenholzer also indicated that he’s likely to keep a full 15-man roster, rather than leaving a spot open. Lamar Patterson and Terran Petteway, a pair of 6-foot-5 swingmen, are the leading candidates after strong showings in the NBA Summer League.
No matter who’s on the roster, things have certainly changed in Atlanta.
“The playoffs showed us where we need to get better,” Korver said. “Last year was just a step in the direction we want to head.”