ATLANTA — The season didn’t end like they wanted.
Not even close.
But, despite the sting of a humiliating playoff defeat, the Atlanta Hawks seem closer than ever to winning a championship.
“We grew up faster than we thought,” forward DeMarre Carroll said, looking for the bright side after getting swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Hawks went farther than anyone expected this season. They won 60 games for the first time in franchise history and claimed top seed in the Eastern Conference. They set another team record by winning 19 in a row. They became the first team in NBA history to go 17-0 in a calendar month. They had four players selected for the All-Star Game, not to mention Mike Budenholzer earning coach of the year honors. They won two playoff series for the first time since moving to Atlanta in 1968 to reach the conference final.
That’s where Atlanta’s season came to a crashing halt. The Hawks were completely overwhelmed by James and the Cavaliers, who finished off the series with a 118-88 blowout in Game 4 Tuesday night.
“It’s clear that we have some work to do as a team,” center Al Horford said. “We will all learn from this process and I know it will make us a better team. We have a group that’s resilient. We have a group with a lot of high-character guys, guys that I’m willing to go to war with any day.”
The Hawks’ season was even more remarkable given what happened last summer.
Owner Bruce Levenson conceded writing an email that complained about the racial makeup of the fan base, forcing him to put the team up for sale. As it turned out, the email was discovered during an investigation of racially charged comments by general manager Danny Ferry during a conference call with the owners.
Ferry, the architect of the team’s turnaround, wound up taking a leave of absence that lasted all season. Early in the playoffs, the Hawks announced a deal to sell the team to a group led by Antony Ressler for $850 million. Ferry’s future will be determined by the new owners once they are approved by the NBA, which is expected to happen around mid-June.
Whether Ferry returns as GM or Ressler’s group decides to go a different route, the Hawks have some major decisions this summer. The first priority is finding room within the salary cap to re-sign free-agents-to-be Carroll and two-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap.
Both came to Atlanta in 2013 with bargain-rate deals (Millsap signed for two years at $19 million; Carroll got a two-year, $5 million contract). Both far exceeded expectations over the last two years and will surely get hefty raises, giving the Hawks a lot less flexibility within the cap.
“Looking at different options, looking at this team, looking at what we’ve built thus far, I’m weighing my options,” Millsap said. “But we’re family. This team is close, and it will play a lot into the decision.”
Carroll, who bounced around to four teams his first four years in the NBA and even did a stint in the D-League, really blossomed after coming to Atlanta. He lived up to his reputation as a high-energy, defensive-minded player, but also made huge improvement at the offensive end.
Carroll made it clear he wants to return to Atlanta if the price is right.
“Since we know how it feels to get here, it’ll be easy to get back here,” he said after the final game in Cleveland. “We hated ending it right here, but by the same token, man, the best is yet to come.”
The Hawks also will be monitoring the health of Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha, who will both be recovering from season-ending injuries.
If the Hawks decide not to reinstate Ferry, Budenholzer could wind up taking on an expanded role in player personnel matters, likely assisted by assistant GM Wes Wilcox — similar to the arrangement in San Antonio with Gregg Popovich, who was Budenholzer’s mentor.
The Atlanta coach would like to bulk up on the inside this offseason, especially after the Hawks were dominated on the boards by the Cavaliers. But Budenholzer seems committed to having a balanced lineup rather than one or two superstars. That system worked just fine during the regular season, but the lack of a go-to player was exposed by James’ dynamic performance in the conference final.
“This is a hell of a group,” Budenholzer said, “and to bring them back would be a huge priority.”