Atlanta Hawks aspire to build upon past achievement

The Atlanta Hawks are off to a hot 8-3 start and hope to recreate last season’s success, when they placed ranked first in the Eastern Conference in the regular season. In the playoffs last season, the team advanced to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history before losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in four games.

The Hawks continue their quest for a championship under the leadership of head coach Mike Budenholzer, who began with the Hawks in 2013 after coaching under legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich for 19 years. Budenholzer’s “team first” mentality is a significant reason for the Hawks’s franchise 60-win 2014-2015 season.  The Hawks ended last season with six players averaging double digit scoring and four players selected to the All-Star game: Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford.  In addition, the entire Hawks starting lineup was named Eastern Conference players of the week, a month in which the Hawks went undefeated. Budenholzer was also named NBA Coach of the Year.

This season, the Hawks prepped for another championship run starting with training camp at the University of Georgia. The squad then went 4-3 in the preseason before losing their home-opener to the Detroit Pistons on Oct. 27.

“I’m not going to point to one thing,” said Millsap after the game. “We screwed up a lot of things. Rebounding we have to get better at. Offensively, we have to get better. There is a lot of time. … It always sucks when you lose. We have to take our losses as learning tools to try to get back to an elite level.”

After that loss, the Hawks increased their offensive and defensive efficiencies to go on a seven game winning streak. The team is currently second in the Eastern Conference in standings and ranked third in the league in the latest ESPN Power Rankings.

A crucial part of the Hawk’s early success is a result of the return of defensive specialist Thabo Sefelosha, who was injured in an altercation with the New York City police outside of a Manhattan nightclub in April 2015.  During the incident, the police were investigating the stabbing of another NBA player Chris Copeland of the Milwaukee Bucks when they claimed Sefolosha hindered their investigation.  Sefolosha was then arrested and charged with several misdemeanors related to the incident.  Sefolosha insists claims to have been merely giving money to a panhandler when the police accosted him and initiated a scuffle that resulted in a season ending fractured tibia for Sefolosha.

“I’m not really sure about the Thabo incident but from what I know, the NYC police made a mistake and it cost the Hawks a few games,” said senior basketball player Tyler Barry. “Thabo and the organization are upset obviously and have a right to take action.”

Sefolosha was vindicated on Oct. 9 when a Manhattan jury deliberated for about an hour and found him not guilty of any charges, including obstruction, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.  Sefolosha is now expected to file civil suit against the NYPD for unlawful arrest and racial insensitivity as a result of the incident.  Sefolosha is now fully recovered and has already seen playing time for the Hawks this season.

In addition, the Hawks are benefitting from the return of sharp-shooter Kyle Korver, who was injured during the playoffs against the Cavaliers last season.

Korver had his best game so far in the season against the New Orleans Pelicans on Nov. 6.  He scored 22 points in the game with a perfect eight for eight in shooting including putting in four three-pointers.  In that game Korver initiated the Hawks fourth quarter come back by sinking his fourth three-pointer of the night, shifting the momentum to the Hawks who quickly took the lead and never looked back.  After the game, Hawks center Horford credited Korver for providing the leadership needed to win the game.

“Kyle just told us, ‘hey, we’ve worked really hard in this game. We have to stay strong and finish the game out,'” said Horford.

Along with Horford, the Hawks feature Paul Millsap, a two-time All-Star, to complement Horford in the frontcourt.  During the Pelicans game, power forward Paul Millsap also stepped up his game and contributed significantly to the Hawks’s win. Millsap finished the game with a double-double, recording 22 points and 12 rebounds.

“He’s an exceptional finisher and an undersized big man,” said junior Jack Patton.  “He’s in the top 10 in the league in steals and consistently puts in 15 to 16 points a night.  Millsap provides veteran leadership and a tireless work ethic, nicely counterbalanced by the play of Tiago Splitter and Al Horford, representing a major part of the highest scoring front court in the NBA.”   

Millsap was acquired from the Utah Jazz in 2013 and just recently signed a three-year contract extension with the Hawks.

During the offseason, the Hawks acquired shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. from the New York Knicks for their second-round draft pick and center Tiago Splitter from the Spurs to bolster their depth. Budenholzer hopes that the 6’11” Splitter will help offensive rebounding, an aspect in which the Hawks finished dead last in the league last season. Moreover, Splitter brings experience from his role in the Spurs 2014 NBA championship team.

“Watching him over the past few years with San Antonio, he’s been on championship teams,” said Millsap. “He knows how to win games. He knows how to contribute to a team, a winning team. We know what he brings to the table.”

Another player off to a strong start is 6’2” point guard Teague.  Teague currently leads the Hawks in scoring with an average 19.1 points per game. Teague was drafted out of Wake Forest University by the Hawks in the 2009 NBA draft and returns to the Hawks for his seventh season.

“I think the Hawks have really started out the season strong with their point guard Jeff Teague’s lead,” said senior Logan Devereaux. “He has been very consistent so far and hopefully he can keep it up and help the Hawks have a successful season.”

Complementing Teague in the background, combo guard Dennis Schroder is a young player who the Hawks could develop into a future all-star. At only 21 years old, Schroder’s speed and agility adds a level of overall athleticism to the Hawks as he approaches the basket with ease. Schroder hails from Germany where he started his career playing for the Phantoms Braunschweig.  Although Schroder had a relatively disappointing rookie season with the Hawks, he improved in every statistical category last year and contributed greatly to the Hawks playoff run. This season, Budenholzer is giving Schroder a larger role in the Hawks’s offense as the sixth man.

Despite the team’s talented players and impressive finish last season, skeptics believe that the Hawks’ success was a fluke last year and that the Hawks lack a true superstar to carry the squad to a championship.

“I just don’t think that the Hawks can repeat what they did last year,” said sophomore Will Schramm. “Now that the league is aware of the team’s success last year, they won’t be able to use that element of surprise anymore this season.”

Meanwhile, Hawks fans anticipate the team to finish stronger than last year because of their off-season acquisitions.

“They know how to win so last year’s success sets an expectation for the fans and in the locker room,” said Barry. “Offseason additions in Thiago Splitter and Tim Hardaway Jr. will help a lot. Splitter brings a true post to back up Horford and Hardaway will stretch the floor and be a good scoring option in the second unit with Dennis Schroder.”

With the team’s strong start, the Hawks are revving up fans who are “true to Atlanta,” the Hawks’ slogan for the season.

“I truly think that the Hawks have what it takes to win a championship,” said sophomore Thomas DeWalt. “The fan base is 100 percent behind the Hawks each and every game.”

For a city that hasn’t won a professional sports title in 20 years, it’s time to get the ball bouncing.