ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks messed up their own timeline.
In just their second year under coach Mike Budenholzer, they stunningly emerged as one of the best teams in the NBA.
How do they top that?
“Last year was just a step,” guard Kyle Korver said. “It ended up being a lot bigger step than we thought it was going to be. But it was just a step. We weren’t there yet. We weren’t the champions.”
The Hawks set a franchise record by going 60-22, which included a 19-game winning streak and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Four players made the All-Star Game. Budenholzer was named coach of the year. The team-first approach was best epitomized when all five starters were named players of the month after going 17-0 in January.
Alas, the memorable season ended with a thud in the Eastern Conference final, where the Hawks were blown out in four straight games by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now, to go even further.
“We want to keep on making those steps,” Korver said. “We want to keep on getting better.”
There are plenty of reasons to believe this team won’t be one-and-done.
The Hawks moved to make up for their only major loss (DeMarre Carroll went to Toronto in free agency) by bringing in Tiago Splitter, Tim Hardaway Jr. and 7-foot-3 rookie Water “Edy” Tavares. A new ownership group has taken over, vowing to do whatever it takes to keep the momentum going. The city finally seems to have embraced a long-ignored franchise, setting an attendance record last season and looking toward the new year with unprecedented optimism.
HELP FOR HORFORD: At 6-10 and 245 pounds, Al Horford has always looked a bit out of place at center. After the Hawks struggled on the boards, especially in the sweep by the Cavaliers, Budenholzer decided to bulk up on the inside. Splitter (6-11) was acquired from San Antonio and Tavares signed on after spending last season in Europe. Those two, along with 6-11 Mike Muscala, who emerged as a valuable contributor in the playoffs, should allow Horford to spend more time at power forward, where his mid-range jumper and ability to run the floor can be put to better use.
ON POINT: Jeff Teague has developed into one of the NBA’s top point guards, making the All-Star Game for the first time. Playing behind him is 22-year-old Dennis Schroder, one of the NBA’s most improved players a year ago. To get them both enough playing time, Budenholzer will look for ways to get them on the court at the same time. While that creates some defensive liabilities, the duo showed during the playoffs they can create all kinds of chances offensively when they are paired together.
REPLACING DEMARRE: The Hawks didn’t have enough cap space to bring back their two major free agents, Carroll and Paul Millsap, who led the team in both scoring and rebounding. So Atlanta focused on re-signing Millsap, while Carroll took a four-year, $60-million deal with the Raptors. That leaves a hole at small forward that will be hard to fill. Defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha is the logical replacement, but he’s still coming back from a broken leg he sustained in April during an incident with New York City police. The Hawks may just go with a committee approach, sharing the job among Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Hardaway and possibly another newcomer, Justin Holiday.
BUD IN CHARGE: Former general manager Danny Ferry largely built the roster, but he parted with the organization after spending the entire season in limbo over racially charged comments. His protege, Budenholzer, is now fully in control of personnel matters as well as coaching the team. While his sideline skills are unquestioned, it will be interesting to see how Budenholzer juggles all his duties, especially if injuries or other unforeseen circumstances force the team to make major moves during the season.
HANDLING SUCCESS: This is an unusual position for the Hawks, who aren’t used to being the team others are gunning for. How they deal with this new role will go a long way toward determining if they remain one of the top teams in the East.